The decision of the Federal Government to award oil blocks to Niger Delta indigenes is cheering, even if it is coming 60 years after oil was discovered in the region. Participation of indigenes of the oil producing communities should have been one of the strategies deployed from the inception of oil exploration activities in the country to secure the cooperation of these communities and ensure maximum utilisation of the vast oil and gas resources of the country. But, as it is said, better late than never.
The good news from the President Muhammadu Buhari administration was broken by John Eboigbe, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and representative of the Minister of State, Ibe Kachikwu, at the Oil and Gas Roundtable organised by the Nigerian-British Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) in Lagos recently. Now that the Federal Government has taken this laudable path, we advise that needless controversies should be avoided. Let proper care be taken to ensure that the policy is well implemented and all the relevant stakeholders are carried along.
The history of the persistent and sometimes violent agitation for some form of representation and equitable participation of locals in the exploitation of oil and gas resources is a harrowing one that does not require a recall here. This decision to involve the people in the oil exploitation activities will increase their stake in their natural resource and douse tension in the region.
Kachikwu, who provided the broad outlines of the plan at the event, described it as part of a larger “stability incentive scheme” in a “harmonized holistic development plan for the Niger Delta.” This plan includes creation of jobs as well as investments and contracting opportunities for the region. Marginal oil fields will be allocated to states and indigenes of the region with a view to getting their buy-in without necessarily excluding other parts of the country. When fully implemented, the initiative is expected to douse the present tension and reduce oil production reverses by 90 per cent by next year.
This decision to engage the people of the Niger Delta was not easily arrived at. After decades of long and bitter agitations and many violent eruptions, leading to the disruption and sometimes total shutdown of exploration activities, reason finally prevailed that it would be better to engage the people of the Niger Delta in a more mature and mutually-respectful way.
Vice President Yemi Osibajo has been at the head of government efforts in this new direction. This has seen him lead peace missions to a number of the Niger Delta states and other oil producing states. The result has been positive so far, leading to the new rapprochement with the various oil producing communities. Hence, no effort should be spared to ensure that government continues on this path and that the envisaged results are achieved. The losses to the nation and the people on account of the previous policy of mutual suspicion and hostility are unquantifiable. They are easily seen in the economic recession the country is currently grappling with.
That is why we are concerned about the real essence of the “marginal oil fields” that have been set apart for allocation to the Niger Delta states and indigenes, as outlined in the peace plan. Are these marginal fields the ones already abandoned and regarded as unviable, as some interests in the affected region are already insinuating? That would generate needless controversy and may be seen as an attempt to fob-off the people. That would be very unfortunate, indeed. Let there be sincerity and a clear demonstration of good faith in the award of the oil blocks.
Now that government has come to this reasonable option, the only way forward is for it to be seen to be seeking the best interest of the region to get its required cooperation. This model has worked very well in most other oil producing regions of the world. So, there are good examples to copy from, while insisting that we take our own peculiar environment and long history of missed opportunities into account.
It is for this reason that we recommend that it is not enough for the states and a few well-connected indigenes of the Niger Delta to be incorporated into the new deal. The communities, too, should own some equities. This is also part of the recommendations at the NBCC Roundtable. Community-ownership and participation will, more than anything else, guarantee the long term peace and enabling environment for business which the government is seeking with this new approach.