My first trip to Africa took place in 1993. I was working for Shell International, on of the ‘major’ oil companies. (Shell liked to think of themselves as ‘the’ major oil company.) I was working on a project to replace The Telex, an obsolete, 57-year old technology, with (newfangled) eMail. The Shell Group used The Telex to communicate between the autonomous Operating Companies (OPCOs) and Central Offices (London and The Hague). Although it was obsolete, The Telex had one major advantage: it worked! Everywhere! It cost too much, required too many operations people, was built from components that were no longer manufactured and relied on technical staff that was, frankly, dying. (Of old age.) But it worked! Everywhere! In fact, it was the only thing that worked in Nigeria. The, ‘and I am going to remove The Telex’ meeting promised to be contentious.

I always knew that the OPCO in Nigeria, would be difficult - but important. It was one of the largest and most profitable in Shell. But graft and corruption were endemic in Nigeria. I had heard stories of company secretaries wanting a 'tip' for typing a memo. The local populace routinely dug up telecommunications cables: the copper was valuable. Returning expatriates, proving the Pavlov concept of conditioned reflex, reached into their pocket for money when I stuck out my hand - expecting to shake theirs. Friends returning from Lagos regaled me with stories of Nigerian executives carting briefcases full of hundred dollar bills onto the Swiss Air flight to Zurich. NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) was a major stakeholder in SPDC (Shell Petroleum Development Corporation). The military government, promising reform, had created two civilian political parties, had selected both Presidential candidates and then had annulled the election when it didn't turn out correctly. In spite of all of this, Nigeria was a rich country - rich in oil, to be sure, but also in other resources. The people were educated and capable. The land was fertile. But nothing worked - except The Telex- and I was being sent to take that away. During the course of the project, I had learned the first rule of messaging: Shoot the messenger if you don't like the message. Undaunted, and rather stupid, I packed the message (THE TELEX WILL BE RETIRED) and prepared for my trip.


The telex link to Nigeria, two quarter-speed lines, was hardly high-tech. A historian with a quill could communicate faster. A moderately trained 'hunt and peck' typist could communicate faster. It would take the telex line, working 24 hours/day, more than 200 days to transmit as much information as an average LAN (Local Area Network) could handle in a single minute. Moreover, the latter comparison is improper because the probability of the Nigeria telex link remaining available 24 hours a day for 200 days in a row was zero. But the telex link was the only international communications system that had ever worked for Shell in Nigeria. It wasn't surprising that the retirement decision had not been well-received by management in Lagos.
The decision, reached after a year of study, had been announced to all Service and Operating Company General Managers -- except for the General Manager in Lagos. Although the announcement had been vetted, It was not sent to Nigeria because - "It makes it look like the Telex is being retired. That will scare them."
Instead, the announcement had been edited to make it 'less threatening'. The resulting message, a masterpiece of English obfuscation, made it clear that
The Telex was being retired - but only if the reader already knew that it was being retired. As a result, there was consternation in Lagos when they discovered facts - 18 months after everyone else. I was volunteered to visit Nigeria to explain the situation.
Moreover, Nigeria wanted me to manage their migration. In their view,
I had problem. I did have a problem; I had to convince them that they had a problem. Nigeria had to be responsible for its own transformation.
Travelling to Nigeria is exciting. Shell's travel division supplied a three page instruction pamphlet describing procedures for getting from the airport to the Guest House. (See appendix.) The medical division vaccinated me for Yellow Fever and Typhoid at the same time they were giving me malaria pills and updating my Tetanus booster.
I was happy when Graham, the Exploration and Production segment called and offered to join my visit. He had worked in Nigeria and he knew Phil Watts, the General Manager.
"Phil Watts", Graham told me, "is a no-nonsense manager: blunt and to the point. He's really angry about this Telex Migration stuff. I know you can handle it alone, but I'll be happy to come and help."
I was happy for the support.
The flight was uneventful. The Tijani Guest House in Lagos was surrounded by an 8 foot concrete fence. The building itself had a metal door. In front of the metal door, where the screen door would have been, was a security gate with heavy iron bars. This situation was replicated in front of each bedroom suite. It didn't make me feel comfortable.
A carefully planned visit programme began unravelling the next morning. My half hour presentation to an angry Phil Watts began late: Phil was busy. I thought that I'd have to condense my presentation into 15 minutes. But, because the first 12 minutes featured a Phil Watts monologue, I had to compress the whole thing into three minutes. The decibel meter was off-scale as Phil began:
"Another stupid idea being foisted upon us by Central Offices. This is a very difficult country, but we generate 10% of the Group's profits. We're the only Shell company with oil fields off-shore, on-shore and in swamps. We generate profits in spite of the fact that the population is computer-illiterate. Nothing works here. And then, with no warning, you, sitting in an ivory tower in The Hague, decide to retire
The Telex. The Telex! The only way we can communicate. We weren't informed. We weren't consulted. You will tell me that we, in Lagos, have to change. It's absurd. It's hopeless. We should have been consulted. This is your problem and you have determine and implement a solution. Telling us about the project so late is an abomination."
I looked at Graham, who had come to help. Graham, who “knew Phil Watts personally”, spoke up.
"I was also annoyed by the lack of adequate notification, Phil."
Thank you, Graham", I thought before turning back to the onslaught.
Phil was still going strong. I thought about telling him of the notification announcement. I thought about telling him of my announcement at the 1991 International Networking Conference, attended by 8 Shell people from Lagos. I considered reminding him that he had failed to appoint a local project manager for more than 9 months. I thought of recounting our numerous reminders. But I had only 3 minutes.

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