"I'm not here, Phil, to discuss the past. I'm here to help you develop plans for transformation: the telex (note the lower case) is obsolete and it will be retired."
"Report back with a plan at the end of the week," said Phil, ending the meeting abruptly.
"At least", I thought, "things can't get worse." The remainder of the day in Lagos was spent attempting to locate the people and meetings that were supposed to have been arranged beforehand. In spite of these difficulties, I learned a lot about telecommunications in Nigeria.
There was a billion-dollar, state-of-the-art fibre optic ring around Lagos. (But, it wasn't connected to any of the buildings in the city centre.) There was a fibre optic link between Lagos and the Oil provinces in Warri and Port Harcourt. (But, the fibre was routed along a pipeline that converted the 200 kilometers journey to 1200 kilometers. Power supplies at the pipeline pump stations were not 'fail-safe' because a single pump could fail without affecting oil flow. Unfortunately, such a failure did shut down the fibre - frequently.) There was microwave communications to the divisions. (But, it didn't work well in the rainy season and the concrete foundations on the relay towers had recently been discovered to be hollow.) There was a plan for a domestic satellite communication system. (But, the local telephone company wanted the customers to purchase and install the Earth Stations, the multiplexing equipment and the local links. Then, they demanded a donation of the equipment, which they would let the same customers use at an exorbitant tariff.) British Telecom had plans for an international satellite service. (But they had had plans for at least two years.)
Discussions that day indicated that success depended on linking the new fibre ring to the Shell building, Freeman House, in the centre of Lagos. We decided that Graham would remain in Lagos to work on that problem. I would visit Port Harcourt with Bob Agerbeek, an expatriate working in Lagos.
My car arrived at 5:30 the next morning. The trip to the airport was uneventful. My 18 seat Briscoe Aviation Twin Otter awaited. I was somewhat surprised when I discovered, or more precisely, failed to discover, Bob at the airport. There were 35 people at the airport jostling for seats on the plane. When 'boarding' was announced, everyone dashed for the airplane. Not realizing the procedure, I had been slow off the mark and was left on the tarmac. (It would have been useful to know that there were 17 seats on the airplane.) I banged on the door of the aircraft and pointed out that I had flown in from Holland. I had to get on board. Somehow it worked: someone was ejected.
I had expected the Port Harcourt Airport to be small, but I hadn't expected to see a burned out TU-154 on the tarmac. By now, however, I was a 'veteran', so when I joined my 17 fellows on the Shell bus, I wasn't surprised by the Armored Personnel Carrier escort into town. As we drove away, we passed another burned out aircraft. It was sticking out of the mud - just short of the runway. We passed a prophetic sign.

Low Flying Aircraft

The drive to Port Harcourt was depressing. I saw vultures picking through the garbage and cinder-block houses in a sea of mud. It didn't look like a good place for The Martin Family vacation. Finally, however, the bus turned into the plush Shell Compound. An oasis of manicured lawns, a swimming pool, a golf course and the destination of everyone in the bus.
Almost everyone in the bus. I had to go to the plant. And, I belatedly realized, I didn't know exactly who I was supposed to meet. Bob, who had been trapped in the elevator following a power failure, had the visit programme. The Shell plant, moreover, was huge. The bus dropped me off in front of a large building. It began to rain.
Walking into the building, I saw about 50 Nigerians shouting at a single receptionist whose job, it appeared, was to ignore them. Proudly displaying myShell International badge, I decided to march right past the front desk. I was intercepted by a large lady guard. My case would have been stronger if I had known who I was supposed to meet. As it was, I was directed to the 'Telecommunications Building'.
Carrying my suitcase and briefcase, I walked into the thunderstorm, through the mud and toward the Telecommunications Building. Unfortunately, the building wasn't built. It had a big sign ("Telecommunications"), but no walls. I trudged back to the nearest populated area. I was directed back where I had started. I was wet. I was muddy. I didn't look like a distinguished visitor from Central Offices.
Glancing in the direction of the frightening lady guard, I made a dash past the reception desk - figuring that once inside I would be able to find someone who could help. The guard, whose speed belayed her size, intercepted me. Ejected and dejected, I joined the milling crowd in front of the receptionist. I was getting worried. I knew I was late for my meeting. I didn't know where I was supposed to stay that evening. I was drenched and sweaty. I was aware that telephone contact with Lagos was impossible. I was trapped.
I scribbled a note ("Help!") on a piece of paper, pushed my way to the front of the Nigerian crowd and tried to get the attention of the receptionist. Suddenly I heard a booming voice.
"Hey! I'm looking for a lost white guy."
"It's me!", I shouted - raising my hand. (As you can imagine, raising my hand was not necessary.)
The remainder of the visit in Port Harcourt went well. I had several meetings, many presentations and an evening visit with a friend at the Shell Compound. Transferred to Nigeria to manage a huge project, he was quick to show me his return ticket (April, 1994). It was framed and mounted on the wall of his house.
Back in Lagos the next day, Graham and I determined that everything depended on establishing reliable international communications between Lagos and London. The final presentation depicted several steps, but the key in every case was international telecommunications. Nothing would be possible unless Shell's Freeman House was connected to the fibre optic ring. The connection could only be established if 500 meters of fibre cable was installed between Freeman House and Nitel. Amazingly, Shell Lagos had already acquired permission to pull the cable through a network of storm sewers. But, as was pointed out at every opportunity, this fibre had to be pulled 'before the rainy season."
Phil Watts, who once again arrived late, was easily bored when he wasn't dominating the conversation. About three minutes after we started, he interrupted.
"Okay, I understand. How much will it cost?"
"How much will what cost?" We hadn't completed cost estimates, we were just presenting options for discussion.
"Everything. How much will everything cost."
"Everything? I have three options - which one do you want to do?"
Phil sighed. "This is Nigeria. We will do all three and hope that one works. Now: How much? One million? Two million? Five million? Ten million?"
"Ten million," I replied.
"Okay, I agree", said Watts turning to Godwin, the Deputy Managing Director. "We'll fund it out of my personal kitty." Then, turning to us, "thank you for coming gentlemen. And don't forget to take your malaria tablets."
The meeting, which appeared to be a success, was over. I turned to Graham.
"10 million, eh? Is that Niria, guilders, pounds or dollars?"
"I think he's talking about US dollars, Dan."
"Good." [This was, of course, in the time the dollar was worth something.]

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