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Never Quite The Insider

Never Quite The Insider

Another decree that was damaging, to the brewing industry at least, was General Babangida’s decree banning the import of malted barley. Up to that point most states had their own brewery producing good local brews such as Champion, Trophy, Life and Rock. Over thirty breweries provided strong local employment and revenue. The upshot of that decree was that only Guinness and Heineken were able or prepared to invest in the R&D needed to develop drinkable beer out of local grains such as sorghum.

This delivered the two companies the golden opportunity to build dominance so that by the mid ‘90’s their joint share was approaching 90% and they were two of the most capitalised companies on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. There were only four or five other breweries still operating. Another more bizarre indirect consequence of the decree was the later advice given to a new MD not to drink the coffee!

When Babaginda’s decree came out the breweries had a short window to stock up on malt before the ban took effect. By this time, as a knock on from the indigenisation decree and rather lackadaisical management by the two foreign partners, Guinness had a Nigerian chief executive. Chief Abel Ubeku had risen up the ranks via the personnel function, as HR was called back then, and was a colourful, opinionated man who was later to make an unsuccessful bid for the presidency funded, as was alleged, by the proceeds of his time at the helm of Guinness.

The finance director was a man called Ben Arenyeka, who it later transpired, had rather dangerous felonious contacts through his wife’s criminal connections. The senior expat, a Guinness man, was the DMD Archie Fairley. The major controversy of that period has not been authoritatively documented though some facts were brought out in the local press at the time. Officially, Guinness had always refused to confirm the many rumours and stories but certainly what transpired passed into Lagos folklore and was an ever constant in the back of the mind of subsequent DMD’S and MD’S.

As a result of the shortage of foreign exchange the company had been resorting to the use of middlemen who could find hard currency to import necessary materials. One of these was hops for which a long term contract had been agreed with a local importer who had paid Ben Arenyeka £150,000 for the privilege, plus as David Hampshire noted, ‘as Ben was a good Christian, another 10% for his church’.1 Ultimately the local purchase order turned out to be unnecessary and the contract was cancelled. The furious supplier came in to complain to Archie with a copy of the relevant cheques as evidence. He explained exactly how much Ben, and his church, had been paid for the contract. Fairlie knew this put him potentially in serious danger and rang David.

This was on a Thursday and, in the dangerous assumption that no one was aware that he possessed this information, it was agreed David would fly out on the Monday. However, he subsequently called David again to tell him that as he had been coming into the office the gates had opened to allow a car to exit and he had been able to enter without stopping. This had obviously saved his life as several shots were fired but missed the car as it had driven straight in.

Rumours were already circulating within GN, which actually led to at least one ritual killing of an officer from the procurement department, presumably to silence him. The following day Ben’s wife, Esther, visited Archie at home. Apparently a social call, they had coffee. Evidently, at some point Archie left the room to get something. That night he fell seriously ill with a mysterious sickness. After a series of late night phone calls between David and the GBW company doctor, Douglas Foster, a medical evacuation was arranged and with the help of the British High Commission (whose Land Rovers were scrambled to escort the ambulance on to the runway) Archie Fairlie was flown home and treated.

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However, this was only after a serious scare when he started bleeding internally in the middle of the night and were it not for decisive action by GN’S contracted doctor, Bayo Adebayo, he would never have made the plane. Apparently, during that night an Irish expat by the name of Tim Sheehan was holding vigil at Archie’s bedside. Suddenly his drip backed up red and Tim realised his friend was haemorrhaging. He sent his driver, one Matthew, to drive to the doctor’s house in nearby Maryland and point the car at his gate and keep flashing and sounding the horn until the doctor came with him. This was achieved and Adebayo administered what he said was a one off shot of some form of coagulant to stem the flow. If it wasn’t enough he would not be able to try another dose. Equally, too much could cause blood clotting. In either case Fairlie would not make the air-ambulance. It worked and Archie Fairlie survived to eventually take his Guinness pension and retire to Sussex.

In the subsequent internal investigations other scams were discovered including a major one concerning the final malt imports before the ban took effect. Esther was reputedly involved in several, with or without her husband’s connivance and was eventually jailed for many crimes. She was running a gang involved in various rackets and was believed to have been responsible for several murders, including her husband’s secretary at Guinness with whom he was having an affair. Ben’s driver was also killed, although this was believed to have been arranged by Ben because he knew too much about the malt fraud. Guinness in London and Lagos were anxious to downplay the drama and the story was that Archie had food poisoning. Even though they did their best to dampen speculation and manage the public relations impact the local press had their own views.

The most common theory was that the poison had been a berry used by local practitioners called a ‘Calabar bean’ administered through Fairlie’s coffee. There was actually an attempt by Ben’s supporters to put suspicion on the DMD’S secretary to protect Esther. Whatever the truth from then on no senior expatriate ever allowed his coffee to be made by his secretary and always brought in his or her own in a flask. In any event, no secretaries wanted to make tea or coffee again, in case something happened and they became a suspect or were even coerced into delivering an unwholesome potion! Once my appointment was announced some twelve years after this incident, the story was still known enough that, ‘I hope you aren’t going to drink the coffee’ was a frequent comment. That and other incidents had left Guinness Nigeria with a tainted reputation.

The foreign shareholders evidently needed to take some action and after the controversy had settled down somewhat Abel Ubeku left, there having been no clear evidence linking the MD to the fraud. First, Fred Okonola and then Maxwell Oteri took over as MD and a procession of Guinness Ireland managers as DMD. Aranyeka was ‘retired’ and the finance director’s position was thereafter always filled by a Guinness expat. As DMD, Clive Brownlees and then Brian Farrell had the task of improving the relationship between the local and expatriate management at a time of extreme economic and political turbulence in the Nigerian operating context. It took no little courage on their part taking over in such unpleasant circumstances as David told them exactly what had happened prior to their appointments.

The early part of the 90’s was grim, as the quality of all beer in Nigeria had suffered badly from the move to sorghum and local maize as the key raw materials. In addition, a Northern, Muslim dominated military administration, a weakened naira and a struggling and corrupt economy made life difficult. The total beer market collapsed from the 12 or 13 million hectolitres in the 1980’s to not much more than four million by the mid 90’s. Guinness Stout’s market share had done well as the more robust flavour disguised some of the rancid flavours of local ingredients but Harp suffered badly and volumes plummeted from a million hectolitre brand to around 60,000 a year. Breweries all over the country ceased operating until by the mid 90’s, of the 30 or so at the peak, only three or four were producing more than a few hectolitres for their immediate local market. However, during the period, thanks to Heineken’s technical excellence, NBL built Star and Gulder into strong, almost dominant, market leaders.