Barkindo: A secretary-general like no other
18:31 Riyadh time: A message from Mohammed Barkindo. “You’ve indeed been a worthy ambassador to our country, President Buhari tells Barkindo, outgoing OPEC secretary- general,” the message read.
19:34 Riyadh time: “Mashallah Wali... Well deserved recognition after all these years and achievements,” I replied.
21:02 Riyadh time: “Alhamdulillah Abou Aziz. Eid Mubarak,” Barkindo responded.
21:20 Riyadh time: Eid Mubarak Abou Sadique.
1:45 Riyadh time: Barkindo sent two videos from NTA network showing the meeting between him and President Buhari.
08:17 Riyadh time: A message from an OPEC staff telling me, Barkindo is dead at dawn, may he rest in peace.
These were the last messages I received from the late Barkindo. These messages proved to be the last I will ever receive from him, and consequently the last I will ever send to him again.
I still can’t believe that I won’t be getting messages from him again.
All these years that I had known him come to an end with these simple messages.
I was hoping to meet him again and hug him after three years since we last met. It was because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, and virtual meetings of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries that we did not meet all this time.
I am not the only person who was separated from his loved ones because of the pandemic, and I am not the only person who will never see a person again because of the pandemic.
It was a painful morning and one that I won’t forget. But I also will never forget the Wali (Barkindo).
Barkindo navigated through troubled waters throughout the six years he spent at OPEC. He took over from Libya’s Abdalla El-Badri in the summer of 2016.
Barkindo was the solution to a long stand-off between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran with each country trying to install a representative of its own at OPEC’s top position.
As the three countries were impeding each other, OPEC tried all the solutions to resolve this and have a secretary-general after El-Badri got three unprecedented extensions that made him the longest serving secretary-general in the history of OPEC.
The organization went as far as bringing back Indonesia, which was no longer an oil exporter after turning into a net oil importer.
Traditionally, the secretary-general must come from a neutral country that has no affiliation with price hawks (Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Algeria) and price doves (the Gulf Cooperation Council states).
Usually, the top official is appointed from a small producer like Ecuador or from Nigeria and Indonesia. A few times, Venezuela had that chance and Libya had El-Badri as a compromise solution for letting Saudi Arabia hold the OPEC head of state summit in 2007.
And when the organization’s members fail to agree on a candidate, the Secretariat in Vienna is steered by the head of the research or a senior staff as was the case of Iraq’s Fadhel Chalabi in late 1980s (who also passed away few years ago) and Kuwait’s Adnan Shihab-Eldin in 2005.
So after three and half years of squirreling, the OPEC finally chose its man, Barkindo.
It is hard to be a beloved secretary-general, but he did a fair job of keeping his friends close and the OPEC’s enemies closer.
He was very smart at keeping the same distance between all OPEC’s countries and I remember him saying that it is really tough to keep all ministers happy.
That is normal for an organization that best resembles the American classic “12 Angry Men,” where a jury of 12 are locked in a room debating for hours to decide the fate of a man.
The OPEC acts in the same way and all the ministers keep debating for hours on many issues from administrative matters to increasing or cutting oil supplies.
When Barkindo took over, oil prices were dampened by the rapid growth in North American supplies. Inventories were full and above the five-year average. It was a time of despair.
To solve this, all oil producers in the world needed to come together to fix the situation. So the first thing Barkindo did was visit Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where he met with the sovereigns.
I remember Barkindo telling me that he met with the late Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad and told him that the OPEC needs his interference to bring everyone to the table.
Barkindo said: “Sheikh Sabah was a real diplomat, he knew how to talk to other heads of state.”
According to Barkindo, Sheikh Sabah smiled and told him: “Don’t worry about anything. I’ll speak to Saudi Arabia and Iran. We will fix the situation in the market.”
At that time, Khalid Al-Falih was the Saudi energy minister. He had a different approach to OPEC and he was more willing to resume talks with Russia and other producers.
Few months back, OPEC had an unsuccessful meeting in Doha with Iran not showing up, which made Saudi Arabia insist on seeing Iran attending the meeting and joining any agreement to curtail production. As Iran refused, the 20+ countries at Doha including Russia could not reach an agreement and Saudi Arabia’s former Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi packed his luggage and headed back to the Kingdom.
Al-Falih resumed the talks and he found in Barkindo a reasonable partner and the two with the help of other ministers were able to create a common front in Algeria, where they all agreed on talking to non-OPEC producers. That meeting was the start of the OPEC+ alliance.
I can’t say that Barkindo did it alone with Al-Falih, but they teamed up and got the support of others to sign the Declaration of Cooperation with non-OPEC producers.
The declaration is Barkindo’s most-prized agreement and it was the reason why he was seen as a national hero in Nigeria.
Nigeria is a big country with a huge population of over 200 million and oil production that is prone to theft and decline.
Every dollar for Nigeria counts and seeing oil prices on the rise again must had been at the back of his mind.
For someone who was known for caring for the poor in Nigeria and supporting them like Barkindo did, putting his nation’s interest first was a must.
There were over 200 million Nigerians who needed him as much as they needed the oil minister and the government.
Barkindo was relentless, accommodating, and reasonable. He knew where power was and he knew how to deal with power.
Yes, he couldn’t take decisions, as it was reserved for the ministers but Barkindo was instrumental in keeping discussions open and influencing their decisions.
OPEC ministers have the final say but Barkindo was good at maneuvering around their egos and making them open to cooperation. All his predecessors had to play the same role but Barkindo was good at engaging everyone.
He was a good listener and very patient. I think this is what he learned from his mentor the late Rilwanu Lukman, who was one of the three “Wise Men” of OPEC along with Indonesia’s Dr. Subroto and Venezuela’s Arturo Grisanti.
Barkindo started his journey with OPEC in June 1986, when he was a special adviser to Nigeria’s Petroleum Minister Lukman. He attended the meeting on the island of Brioni, then Yugoslavia (presently Croatia). At that meeting Lukman was first elected as OPEC president — a post that rotates among ministers. Lukman was loved by ministers to the extent that he was later re-elected five times, something unprecedented in OPEC’s history.
Lukman took Barkindo under his wings and taught him everything. He traveled with Lukman to Saudi Arabia many times and he met with OPEC’s legends such as Ahmed Zaki Yamani and Ali Al-Khalifa. He developed good relationships with Saudis and other Gulf officials.
He was very spiritual and always visited Islam’s holy sites. He always visited Makkah and Madinah but he also loved going to other sites such as Najaf in Iraq and many others in Iran.
On every trip he made to a Muslim country, he would visit a shrine, a mosque or any other Islamic monument.
He believed that respecting other’s beliefs promoted harmony and helped win people’s hearts and trust.
From 1986 to 2022, he climbed up the ladder in OPEC. He initially served as Nigeria’s official government delegate; then as Nigeria’s national representative to OPEC before becoming Nigeria’s OPEC governor. He also served as acting secretary-general for sometime.
This long journey is what made Barkindo what he was. That man who was relentless, accommodating, and reasonable. He learned the ins and outs of OPEC and saw how many ministers got crushed or sacked. He knew where power was and he knew how to deal with power.
Away from OPEC, he was a very caring person. He had his own way of making everyone around him feel special by listening to their views and respecting them.
He was very humble and maybe it was due to his deeply religious personality and Sufi ways. He believed that by doing good to the poor and needy, one can secure a place in heaven.
He once said to me: “It’s by their prayers that we go to heaven. They have clean hearts and Allah listens to them.”
Not only that he fulfilled his religious duties by caring for the poor and the needy but he also fulfilled his earthly duties toward his country. This made him gain respect of his president and fellow countrymen.
It is tragic that he died the same day he was honored by the president. And even more tragic is that he was supposed to join the Atlantic Council at the end of the month.
He served his country and its people, and I guess it was time for him to meet his Creator after this long journey.
Maybe his calling was to be OPEC secretary-general and be a loved face of the organization. And maybe the timing is not accidental. He always believed in holy days such as these days of Hajj and I’m sure that he always wanted to die in Ramadan
He was a giant and a man from a different time, when OPEC had wise men.
It would be hard to find someone with the same qualities and knowledge of Barkindo.
His departure touched all the journalists who knew him as he was very kind to them, a quality that is very scarce in OPEC circles.
Journalists aren’t welcomed and for them to find that loving heart of Barkindo, it would be an unforgettable privilege. Only a few people have this gift to deal with journalists who can cause trouble in their pursuit of information.
I’ll miss seeing his name on my phone and getting his messages. Yet, I feel pleased that I talked to my beloved brother for one last time before he departed this life.
May his soul rest in eternal peace.
• Wael Mahdi is a senior business editor at Arab News and co-author of “OPEC in a Shale Oil World: Where to Next?”