Changing the Niger Delta Narrative

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Emmanuel Addeh examines the attempt by one man to change the unsavoury Niger Delta story that could take restive youths off the streets in the region

The Niger Delta, unarguably Nigeria’s goose that lays the golden eggs, has for a long time been bedevilled by several vices, including kidnapping, pipeline vandalism and even outright militancy.

In the past, succeeding governments have made efforts, including granting presidential amnesty to warlords who succeeded in reducing Nigeria’s oil export earnings by more than half by their activities.

However, many of the attempts at resolving many of the knotty issues have remained cosmetic and short-lived. Not even the payment of monthly stipends to youths who are perpetually angry and frustrated with how the Niger Delta has been treated has helped to end the problem.

But one man, who believes that job creation and massive industrialisation remains the key to ending violence and destruction by the young people in the oil-producing areas, seems to have taken up the gauntlet, and has decided to match words with action.

His private initiative, he surmises, has the capacity to turn the Delta’s youths from crimes and criminalities to productive young people who can earn a living from their sweat, rather than waiting for handouts.

The man, Dr. Azibapu Eruani, originally a medical expert, owns Azikel Refinery, a full hydro-scheming plant, Azikel Power, which is licensed for 500 megawatts on-grid power generation for the country; Azikel Air which is the aviation wing; and Azikel sand, which is involved in dredging activities.

According to the 45-year-old entrepreneur, beyond seeking temporary solutions, creating jobs for the teeming youths remains one of the most long-lasting ways to stop restiveness in the Niger Delta.

It was in confirmation of this belief, that he recently pulled the crème of Nigeria’s captains of industry, political leaders and other professionals to Yenagoa for the foundation laying ceremony of one of his pet projects, the Azikel Refinery in Gbarain, Bayelsa.

Gifted with a somewhat unusual confidence, the story of Eruani, a trained medical doctor, who was Health Commissioner in his home state of Bayelsa and later special adviser to former President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, remains the typical grass to grace story.

Somehow, he has succeeded in conquering the many vicissitudes faced by entrepreneurs in the country from where he started by selling sand to builders where he first noticed that money could be made from even the most artisanal endeavours.

“I had my own challenges and learnt all quests for survival in medical school, because it came at a time when my father had some business challenges and he couldn’t cope with a lot of the financial obligations and I had to try to take the lead. This led me into all sorts of legal jobs in the university.

“I quickly realised that the only way to create wealth is sell something, buy something and create something. I said what am I going to sell? I decided on what to do I said I was going to sell sand,” he said in an interview recently.

By recognising opportunities, like the typical entrepreneur, along with 22 others, Eruani got a license to build a modular refinery years later, but of the 22, only himself and Alhaji Aliko Dangote are currently in the race to build the first refinery in the country.

Perhaps, because of his burning desire to change the status quo and re-launch the Niger Delta into prominence, the medical doctor-turned entrepreneur, from Ogbia, former President Goodluck’s hometown, has been generating employment and creating financial freedom on a stainable template for the Niger Delta.

Eruani insists that he was buoyed to commence the refinery project partly because of the persistent long human and vehicular queues at Nigerian filling stations, acute short supply, importation of refined crude and the burden of incessant increase in pump price, being the reasons he applied to President Muhammadu Buhari at the inception of his administration in 2015 for a license.

At the foundation laying ceremony of the project in Yenagoa by many eminent Nigerians recently, an elated Group Managing Director (GMD) of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Maikanti Baru, lauded the resilience of the entrepreneur.

“Of the initial refinery licenses granted by President Muhammadu Buhari, Azikel Refinery is in the fore-front on delivery of the refinery, having achieved task in the Phase I, II and III and a record performance of attaining 65 percent completion,” he said.

Former President, Olusegun Obasanjo who was also on hand to perform the foundation laying ceremony of the 12, 000 barrel per stream day (bpsd) hydro-skimming Azikel Refinery, said he doubted the seriousness of the project at the initial stage as none of the 18 private refineries licenses granted during his tenure moved to site.

He said President Buhari was lucky to have such committed persons, particularly Eruani among the beneficiaries of his licensing round, unlike him (Obasanjo) who gave out 18 and none was able to operate till date.

The refinery project, seated on a 19.9 hectare landmass, it was learnt, will create 10, 000 direct jobs, and is expected to refine Bonny Light Crude Oil, and condensate to produce Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), Kerosene, Jet A1, Diesel, LPG and Heavy Fuel Oil among other by-products.

“We will reverse net importation of refined petroleum products, add value to Nigeria crude oil, and proffer solution to decades of problems limiting the nation’s capacity to improve fuel production, which has become the nightmare of successive leaders,” he says.

Aside his new project, Eruani said his passion to create jobs for Nigerians in general and the people of the Niger Delta in particular as well as add value to the economy, has always existed.

“Azikel dredging business has impacted a whole lot on the Bayelsa economy and that of the Niger Delta. We have provided employment to the people in the region and in Bayelsa,” he adds.

He boasts that “Azikel dredging is one of the biggest tax paying companies in Bayelsa State and in the Niger Delta,” maintaining that “We have re-engineered the economy of Bayelsa State. We have also taken on huge infrastructural development critical to Bayelsa State and the region.”

But how would Azikel succeed where others have failed, given that they all operate in the same environment.

To this he responded: “We are operating this refinery in line with international best practices. And the scenario here is this, we are selling the refined products to Nigerians. The market is available here. We are buying the crude oil from the same Nigerian market. There is not going to be freight charge on the crude oil, so the economy of freight is already going to come to us.

“Why it would not fail is because we haven’t failed in all other business operations. Because we deployed best business practices, any business that does not follow best practices would fail even if it is in the United States or in Nigeria.”

During the foundation laying ceremony, Obasanjo also commended Eruani, for taking the bold step to invest in the first modular refinery in Nigeria.

Obasanjo added: “I must confess that when Eruani brought the investors to me about a year or so, I had my doubts. This is because out of the 18 licenses issued by my administration, not one was built with the beneficiaries blaming it on a number of excuses.

“So, I didn’t know that this would be possible. Now, I believe that it can be done and I must commend President Buhari and his government for this initiative.

“I must also advise that more Nigerians should be encouraged to do this and there is space for everyone to operate with the government providing the enabling environment.”

Obasanjo said Eruani had broken new grounds for both local and foreign investors to emulate, adding that he would gladly be available to inaugurate the project next year.

“I have seen in Dr. Eruani a genuine entrepreneur, a good ambassador of the nation, and I have the hope that the refinery project will go a long way in creating jobs not only for the people of Bayelsa but for all citizens,” he said.

“Azikel Group has demonstrated the true entrepreneurial spirit inherent in Nigerians with its approach to investment,” the former President concluded.

Governor Seriake Dickson, who signed the certificate of occupancy and handed it over to Eruani, during the event, explained that he would continue to support viable economic ventures in the state, especially those with such serious-minded persons as Eruani.

Eruani thanked the governor for his support, stating that he had been a keen supporter of the project and has ensured all government machinery were working amicably for the development of the project.

Besides making money, Eruani’s abiding passion, he says, is to be able to affect the average Niger Delta person with his efforts through his companies positively.

According to him, “the next thing is the big dream that I have, changing the world, and changing the world from home. I want to change home. I want to create the much-needed employment base. I want to create that financial freedom.

“I want to create that industrialisation that is very much needed in the Niger Delta. We want to create a platform for Bayelsans and Niger Deltans to look up to and say this is possible, then I will think I have achieved a major objective.”