ABUJA/LAGOS (Reuters) - The new head of Nigeria's state oil company is a workaholic stickler for the rules with a strong background in law, qualities he will need if he is to overhaul an organisation notorious for corruption and mismanagement.
Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, the new managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp (NNPC), was previously executive vice chairman and general counsel for U.S. oil major ExxonMobil.
Former colleagues have called him smart, responsive, personable and the right person to clean up the mess at a company that has been accused of failing to account for tens of billions of dollars.
"Dr. Kachikwu is a very diligent person. He's a team player ... He is very unassuming and easy-going. He dresses well and mostly wears suits but nothing too expensive or extravagant," said a former colleague, who declined to be named.
Kachikwu's first act on taking up his new post was to sack a whole layer of senior managers at NNPC.
Fixing how the state runs the oil sector, at the core of which lies NNPC, will be the key to helping Nigeria.
Despite being Africa's biggest oil producer, years of self-serving politicians taking money with impunity have left the country facing a cash crunch and no substantial savings to fall back upon.
Hailing from Delta state in the oil-rich south, Kachikwu is in his late 50s and has a wife who also works in the oil industry for local producer Seplat. He is a high chief in the ethnically Igbo town of Onicha-Ugbo, a role that he takes seriously.
His ability to win fans started early, before his Harvard Law days, at the University of Nigeria in Enugu state.
"The students would create mock courts to sue each other and the students union. There were several chambers and his was one of the most popular," said Ugo Okoroafor, communications adviser to the central bank governor, who attended university with Kachikwu.
"We knew he was on a strong trajectory."
Kachikwu also found time to start a publishing company called True Tales Publications, which now distributes Hello! Nigeria among other gossip and fashion magazines.
Uju Ifejika, one of the few female heads of a Nigerian oil company, Brittania-U, worked as a junior counsel under Kachikwu at Texaco in the late 1980s and saw him as a mentor.
"He gave us an opportunity to grow and believe in ourselves. But you must work day in, day out. He is a workaholic. He does not rest, so you can't rest," she said.
BREAK WITH THE PAST
Nevertheless, his appointment was a surprise to most as President Muhammadu Buhari broke with tradition by picking not only a lawyer over an engineer, but an outsider to NNPC.
Kachikwu is also one of the few Christian southerners among appointments made so far by Buhari, who is a Muslim northerner. Nigeria's population is roughly split between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north.
A presidency source said Buhari purposely sought out an outsider and requested the records of those in top positions at foreign oil companies.
"His pedigree speaks volumes. His record shows he is a credible person, that is all I can say," presidency spokesman Femi Adesina said.
Kachikwu will have to plug massive revenue gaps from NNPC's oil sales.
NNPC does not publish annual reports and its book-keeping has been criticised for being opaque, which appears to have allowed billions of dollars to disappear.
Such a combination of lapses and political interference allowed ten years worth of crude oil from one area amounting to over $12 billion to go unaccounted for, according the Natural Resource Governance Institute.
Even with strong direction from the top to help him curb corruption in Nigeria's oil sector, Kachikwu will have to contend with entrenched inefficiencies, such as weak communication between divisions and equipment replacement approvals that take years.
"He is eminently qualified ... when you are immersed, you may not see things so clearly. An outsider can break in with fresh thinking and methods," a senior NNPC source said.
But some have questioned whether he will act as a diplomat, ironing out differences between independent oil companies and the state, or represent a surrender to foreign interests.