Tonye Cole, who owns and directs the affairs of the oil and gas multinational Sahara Group, granted EMCOMIUM Weekly an interview on Tuesday, July 12, 2011, at Elizabeth R’s event place, Awori Street, Dolphin Estate, Ikoyi, Lagos, where he christened his visionary blueprint, The Nehemiah Project. A project committed to rebuilding the society by empowering and inspiring the youths as the future leaders of our country, to discover, explore and realize their full potentials. Thevent which comes up on Sunday, July 24, 2011, is expected to feature 20 outstanding youth leaders from various walks of life. He also opened up on other and issues and challenges facing Nigerian youths.
Who’s Tonye Cole?
Tonye Cole is the son of Ambassador Patrick Dele-Cole. I am from Port Harcourt, Rivers State. I attended Corona School, Victoria Island, and later King’s College, Lagos before proceeding to King’s School, Ely, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom. I’m also an alumnus of University of Lagos with a merit honours in architecture. I worked briefly as an architect for a frontline Brazilian architectural firm, Grupo Quatro SA in Goiania Brazile (’90-’92) and was involved in the design and implementation of the urban planning and city development of Palmas. I’m currently the Managing Director of Sahara Energy Resource Limited.
You are an architect, how did you venture into oil and gas business?
I co-founded Sahara Energy Resource Limited in 1996 with my friends. Tope Shonubi and Ade Odunsi and we started as an oil and gas company whose core interest at that time was the trading of excess oil from the Port Harcourt and Warri refineries.
As a very serious businessman, how have you been able to manage your resources well?
With a combination of hard work and dogged determination not to be middle-men in the transactions, Sahara Energy established itself as a credible trading house within three years followed by diversification into storage depot and vessel ownership, building depots in Lagos, Onne and Abuja with a combined capacity of 55,000 metric tones and a fleet of five vessels moving products across West Africa. Today, Sahara Energy is a major employer of labour with a staff strength of over 400 people, upstream assets comprising of nine blocks including one deep water block in Ghana and deeply involved in developing the domestic gas infrastructure.
Being an oil expert and very busy man why are you floating Nehemiah Project?
Yes, I am doing this because it is a project that touches me quite deeply. It is something that I’ve been doing on my own for a while which is basically to talk and interact with the youths. I do so at various for a, going to the universities and other places. I have tsrated talking to children right from age 7 up to 40 years. I travelled to universities across the world to interact with Nigerian students in the diaspora. Apart from that, I get requests for employment on the road, in the church, even on the plane and everywhere. And it’s an indication that something is quite right. Anytime we open a vacancy request, we get more than 50,000 applications and it points to the fact that something is definitely wrong with that type of system. So, the burden now started coming up. And I said, “What can we do about this situation? The oil industry cannon employ everybody.” So, thinking about this and the interaction that I’ve had with young people I found out that Nigeria is one of the most talented nations in the world.
However, for some reasons, maybe from a mental perspective, we found out that the thought of using skills and talents as first line of livelihood is not what we think can be viable. We first want to go into medicine, engineering or other white collar jobs. My interactions with most of the artistes and those involved in skill related careers showed that all have the same story about first trying to get a bank, oil and gas or other jobs before the challenges of life forced them into what they would call a career today.
So, are you saying that informed your decision to show them what their skills are?
Yes. Thinking about it, I started with them about finding a way to put together something that would tell their stories to a generation of young Nigerians and get them to start thinking early on that. They have the skills and the talents and they can employ them in those areas. I also know from working on the job creation committee that was set up by President Goodluck Jonathan, that there is a whole lot of skills that can be developed and put into maximum use. So, we need to change that and that is what I’m moving towards. You need to utilize your skills, build an entire business out of that and employ hundreds of people. The entertainment industry accommodates music, fashion, modeling and photography. It’s a different area of employment that can be upgraded. So, we have all these are and talents but no one is ready to develop or say anything about them.
So, how do you intend to go about it and who are you working with?
I called my people that you could classify as successful in different areas like Ali Baba, Basketmouth, M.I, D’Banj. I spoke with them so that we could find an avenue for them to tell their stories to encourage and inspire a whole lot of youths so that they can follow their footsteps. And most of them agreed that it is achievable. Instead of thousands of youths asking me for jobs that I know I cannot provide. So, on July 24, 2011, role models would come in to tell their stories.
You talked about using role models to appeal to the youths. Tell us how you can be a role model to others youths?
I’m ready a role model to many Nigerian youths. What I would say is that you must have a say in your nation and believe that you can do what you have set out to achieve because we have done that and we have achieved great result. It means they can also do it, but that does not mean that they have to come into oil and gas before they could do what they always wanted to do. Once you put your mind to some things, do it and you will excel. I also believe that we must love Nigeria because it is a country of opportunities. Open your eyes and you will see them. If you do, you would not go wrong. So, it is all about the thinking, we should not be complaining rather we should be solutions providers.
So, is it right for us to say your background actually informed your decision to float an NGO?
Yes, you can say my background. But apart from my background, I am more informed by interaction over the years with a lot of youths and I have realized that their demands are always the same. Once you finish speaking, the next thing they say is, ‘Can I get a job?’ So, we need to change the mentality of people towards that dependable thoughts, so that they can start thinking of how they can start to work, use the skills and be independent.
In the Nigerian system, most especially during public officer’s selection, why do you think we often have square pegs in round holes?
That is what we have to change, we definitely have to change it. Until we start putting the right people in strategic positions we may not experience development in this country.
A lot have been said about your ministerial nomination and the aftermath. What really happened?
Please, don’t let us talk about that now. There would be a better time for that. All we are doing now is to rebuild this society by empowering and inspiring the youths as the future leaders of our country, to discover, explore and realize their full potentials.
So, apart from being an oil expert, what else do you do?
This is basically what I do. I also like impacting and changing lives, even if it is only one person. I do my own social projects also where I call my friends, we bring funds and impact lives but in a very quiet way. I have 13 companies and all of them has managing directors and lives are being impacted through several means.
Who are the people we are expecting and when is the event?
It would hold on Sunday, July 24, 2015, at the harbor Point Eevent Centre, Ahmadu Bello Way, Victoria Island, Lagos. Nigeria’s kind of contemporary comedy, Ali Baba; queen of Nollywood, Kate Henshaw-Nuttal; Austin J. J. Okocha; queens of make-over, Tara Fela-Durotoye and banke Meshida Lawal; Dapo Oyebanji a.k.a. D’Banj; Olamide Ajayi of the Iconola fame; former Most Beautiful Girl In Nigeria, Omowunmi Akinnifesi; the fashion making phenomenon, the Okunoren Twins and the reputable fashion model hunter behind Beth Models, Elizabeth Elohor and many others.
*This story was first published in ENCOMIUM Weekly on Tuesday, July 19, 2011