‘My road trips from Lagos to London’
Chief Newton Jibunoh, at various times Managing Director and Chairman of Costain (West Africa) PLC, can easily afford first class air tickets, he has made three road trips to/from London and is preparing for the fourth. In this engaging interview with Contributing Editor AGATHA LAWRENCE, Jibunoh speaks on his background, his love for adventure, his rise to the top as a businessman and technocrat, among other issues.
What motivated you to cross the desert on two occasions with cars?
Looking for adventure! We were brought up in different ways. The ’60s was the era of voyages to the moon, and the conquest of space, every young man especially students wanted to be part of that adventurous age.
Just like that?
Yes, we were brought up differently, and one is looking for challenges and I could hardly go on for a few years without subjecting myself to family adventure even when I was a little boy. I went fishing and went hunting with hunters. I believe people are born with it. I know, I am one of those born with adventure.
If we take a look into your family lineage in the 15th and 16th centuries, did such happen during their life time?
There were great farmers and hunters in my family and kindred. I grew up becoming a part of uncles and elders who told stories about the great oceans, great rivers and great forests where they explored. It was like a moonlight tale. We as little boys sat and listened to them. They told us stories of how they came back from their hunting expeditions killing great animals; fishermen told stories of the water goddess a.k.a mammy water.
Were these animals and mammy water encountered by your uncles and elders in real life?
Oh well, they encountered them as they told us. Obviously as a little boy, these stories might have been made up just to give us something interesting but one was consumed by that and that may have contributed to me developing interest in adventure. So if you go back to the past centuries, yes, maybe there may have been quite a number of them who excelled because they were mainly great hunters and wonderful farmers that went into the thick forest and encountered elephants and other big animals. We were told all these stories.
Could you remember any uncle of yours that really told these stories?
Yes, I can remember quite a few. I grew up with Uncle Francis Jibunoh who was a great hunter. When I was between the ages of eight and nine, my uncle took me to hunting expeditions a number of times and I remember he used to remark to so many people that Newton would make a great hunter because I was a wonderful snapper. Even at that young age, I could handle guns pursuing wild animals in the forest.
Were you not scared?
That is the joy of adventure. You have to conquer fear first because you cannot be a great adventurer without conquering fear.
How did you start the desert journey?
I had done so many adventures before I started off the desert journey.
Which other adventure?
I have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, for example, and when I found out that Sahara was the biggest desert in the world and that it was a forbidden territory that people were so scared of it, I told myself that I was going to try it as well and that was it. I love to adventure.
How long did it take you to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
It took me six to seven days?
Where were you sleeping?
When I make up my mind to go on adventure, I prepare myself. I normally go with my sleeping bag, enough food, drinks, snacks that would last me the number of days I wish to spend there. In the sleeping bag, not even an ant can crawl in. Snakes might just cross over you but would not hurt you at all, except you want to hurt them – that is the only time they would fight back.
Where did you take off from when you crossed the desert the first time?
The first one was from London to Lagos.
By road, how, because the desert is not a tarred road?
Yes, it is not a tarred road but I have to find my way. Then, I used compass, but now we are privileged to have modern radar.
Did you come alone?
Yes, I did both trips alone.
What kind of vehicles?
I have used two different kinds of vehicles. The first one was my Volkswagen Beetle and the second one was a Suzuki Jeep that was converted to be desert compliant.
For the first trip, how long were you on the road?
How were you feeding and fuelling the car?
I carried fuel and could re-fuel in areas where there is fuel. I removed all the seats in the car except the driver’s own; I used the other ones to store all the food and equipment to make the journey. I also had a rack on top where I stored the fuel.
What about the animals you encountered in the desert?
The desert is barren. As there is no greenery to feed on, they stay just like that. They are desert animals and are used to desert environment.
Were you not attacked by these desert animals?
These animals do not attack anybody. Have you ever seen them attack? They only do that when there is danger. Like I told you, I am now a serious environmentalist; these animals are like our cousins now.
Inside the sandy, dusty sand dunes and trees?
There are no trees because there is no vegetation in the desert.
How long did it take you to cross the Sahara Desert?
It is now getting better because of modern system of better vehicles and navigational equipment. When I first did it, it took me ten days to cross, but these days you can do it between five and six days depending on the vehicles and the difficulty you might encounter with sand dunes and other environmental condition that exist in the Sahara.
When is your next road trip to London coming up?
We have planned to do it at the beginning of this year but we are having challenges. First, it was the Arab Spring. Most of the countries in the northern part of Africa were going through the Arab Spring problem; you know, when Libya had their crisis, there were no flights zone in the territory so it was dangerous to drive that way because they were bombing everywhere; and when that was over, the crisis in Mali started and it’s on-going, we do not know when that will be over. So we are suspending the expedition until the situation becomes clearer. We would not want to get there and be stranded or held hostage or even be termed as terrorists. Some of the people I am going with this time around have to be subjected to searching as first-time adventurers.
I learnt you were orphaned at the age of two. How did you go through the rigours of growing up without parents?
Yes, we were orphaned at the age of two. I had a younger sister named Edith. We did not know we were orphans, until one day someone told Edith that we were orphans; she ran with tears to inform me. Then I was seven while she was five, I consoled her but that was the day I made up my mind to be a serious-minded fellow in life.
Who did you live with; your paternal or maternal relations?
You know in Nigeria, we are our brothers’ keepers. We lived with our father’s relatives until a certain stage in life when my sister and I were separated and Edith was taken to live with my late mother’s relation. There she lived and died at the age of 13, while I remained with my uncles in my father’s family as a man.
What happened? What killed your only sister?
I would not know. I was not there.
What childhood experience could you remember as an orphan?
Well, I remain grateful to my uncles and the great Jibunoh family. Though I had some feelings of wrong treatment, but those treatments I considered wrong strengthened me, and today I am glad I passed through them.
Coming from an orphaned background, you studied early enough and even travelled to London to study engineering with special emphasis on soil. How did it come so easy like a privileged child?
My family did the best they could at that tender formative years without parents. I also worked hard as a young person, including in my academics. After my secondary education, my friend and mentor informed me of a scholarship scheme which I applied for and was successful. That was how I had the opportunity to travel and study outside the country. Again, my nature as a hard-working person was part of the reason I survived well in London. As a student, I had a job which I did not joke with. I got on well with my employers and also did very well in my academics. I studied soil engineering.
You worked and rose to become the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Costain (West Africa) Plc where you spent 36 years. What were those strong points that saw you through?
Working with Costain gave me a lot of challenges. When you have a challenge and are able to conquer whatever it is, you might not understand it. In Costain then, construction jobs might come in harsh areas, people would be running away, but I would say ‘I will do that’. Somehow, I became a favourite because I was taking responsibilities, so anytime there was any vacancy, I would be the first to be considered. In most cases, the higher I rose, I realised I was the first Nigerian to get to that very position. With the expatriates on board; I was the first to be a Nigerian Manager, General Manager, Director, Managing Director and finally Chairman before I retired. I took over all these positions from the expatriates.
It shows you were a real team leader, intellectually sound, committed and a focused member of staff.
I think that taking up responsibilities was part of it because there were quite a lot of people that were academically more qualified than I was. Some people had their Master’s and Doctorate degrees before me, but I was being preferred. Whenever there was any difficult job, my bosses would call on me, saying: ‘Newton, can you manage it? Can you do it?’ Even when I could not, I would reply affirmatively by saying I would try.
Were you bridge experts or roads construction experts in Costain then?
Road construction and bridge construction all require the services of a soil engineer and because I am one by profession; whenever there was need for solid foundation for a bridge, I was asked to go and do it. There were other engineers and supervisors, but I would be drafted there to ensure that it was done and done well.
Please tell us more about how you made it to the top in Costain.
Last year when I went for a re-union, I met some of my bosses, some were now very old and in wheel chairs. They cherished seeing me. One of the things that also propelled them to take me serious was the expedition that I made to come back to Nigeria. That kind of adventure gave them a completely different idea of who I am. They took on to me and gave me those difficult jobs. They still remember it and still talked about it during that last re-union of Costain (West Africa) chief executives. In fact, that dominated the discussion; they went to the internet and read about what I have been doing since I left the company. They were very interested. I had a wonderful time in Costain. I got married, had, raised and educated all my five children while I was in Costain. Even though I gave in a lot to Costain, I also got back a lot from them because of very special postings they also assisted me to train my kids abroad. I would say that I owe a good part of my developmental life to my 36 years in Costain.
Did you take any desert trip while in Costain?
Sure, I took the second and third trips there. By the time I did the second trip, I was managing the company already, and I was also doing a lot of things with the environment. So it was like a blessing because I said the art and environment come together as one in building and construction; so I was able to combine both. I was not just taking off time to enjoy myself; rather I went to broaden my knowledge by getting into a global issue.
Now that you are out of Costain, what has happened to the legacies you left there?
You have to find out from people who are there now because I do not have anything to do there now.
You do not go there again?
I have never stepped a foot there since I retired in year 2005. You know, when you leave something after 36 years, all you have to do is to pray for them to get better because one of the things I learnt in management school is that a good manager is the one who is capable to manage himself out of business.
Yes, I have one or two of them.
What are they?
I took over from an expatriate and wished to hand over to a Nigerian, but I handed over to an expatriate again.
Well, it was not my making. Costain as a company was being run from the parent company in the United Kingdom. That was the way the head office wanted it unlike today that the UK branch has nothing to do with the Costain in Nigeria anymore. Handing over to an expatriate did not make me happy because I trained more Nigerians than all my predecessors. I organised overseas trainings and education a lot than any other Managing Director did. I reduced the expatriate content in Costain from 28 to only 12 within a very short time just to make sure that the Nigerians got more opportunities.
What is the second regret?
It was the question you asked about why I don’t I go to the office anymore. Some of the staff do come to me a lot; they do not give me the opportunity to visit them. Again, when I went into full environmental conservation, a lot of them came with me.
With your wealth of experience as an engineer, environmentalist and successful Managing Director/CEO, how can one build a successful business?
You have asked me a very difficult question. Businesses are run differently, on a different environment and on a different style. When you talk about business, you talk about a whole lot including training, investment, and even construction. I do not like to tell people to follow their lives the way I do because human beings are different. I do most of the things I do because I am a more adventurous person and it worked for me; some other person may decide to do so and it would not work for him or her. It depends on one’s approach. But what I know is that articulating whatever you want to do and sharing it with people who you know may think better than you is always very important. If you have articulated very well and as you progress, you are bound to make your mistakes, and it is only when you have articulated that you can know where your business and problems are coming from. There is hardly any business that goes as smoothly and as you may want it. But if you do not have a plan and vision and develop your strategies along that vision and have a landmark with which you can check this vision, then of course, that is what I think is important.
What is the message of FADE (Fight Against Desert Encroachment), the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) you founded as an environmentalist?
The message of FADE is to preserve our planet. Our planet is suffering under serious degradation; it is being subjected to a lot of over-development without taking replenishment into consideration. If you look around the world today and look at the entire phenomena that are happening which include earthquake, tsunami, tornadoes and desertification, we found out that it is because the planet earth is subjected to some very serious over-development. Population is gone to 7.7 billion around the world; China is moving 30-40% of their population out of poverty and that means development. India, Brazil and others are doing it. Nigeria will soon join the league. So the more you develop, the more pressure is put on the planet earth and if you do not look at how to mitigate against the effect all these are having on the environment, then we are going to get into trouble. Desert will come from the north and the sea will come from the south and there would be no country for us. My message is simple: ‘Please whatever you take from the earth put back a little bit more than you are taking’.