Okoko: Why Oil Companies Have Not Been Making Major Investments

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Mr Keniebi Okoko is the Chief Executive, KDI Group, the parent company of a group of businesses that offers a wide range of services, including an oil service firm that serves the local oil and gas market in the country. In this interview, he tells Emmanuel Addeh, that with renewed attention to community relations by a handful of oil firms operating in the region, the perception of neglect will soon change.

How would you assess the general operations of international oil companies in the Niger Delta?

If you have been around, you will notice that the oil companies have not been making major investments out of fear of crisis in the Niger Delta. Because as businesses, the companies are always scanning for issues that could lead to threat in their operations. So, if we achieve peace in the region for a considerable period of time, you are likely to see more investments from these IOCs.

Investors can then think of bringing in new rigs to drill more oil wells and the way it works is that anytime a new well comes on stream, it creates jobs. That is why ultimately, anyone who likes the Niger Delta must continually seek peace in the region so that our people can get respite from the economic deprivation.
And I think that that is part of the main reasons that the political leadership in the Niger Delta region, has to work much more closely with some of these companies, especially since their presence is pivotal to the development of the region.

As someone in the oil service sub-sector, you seem to be very optimistic about the activities of some of the major players. Are there any specifics that you can point to?

Of course, I know because I am involved. For instance, I know that Agip appears to have taken the lead in this direction with its community relations and engagement activities. You are aware of the number of Independent Power Projects they are carrying out and there is one even with the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board (NCDMB) which is quite laudable. I was born here in the Niger Delta like many other people from the region. The local communities and other communities where there used to be a lot of illegal bunkering, seems to have reduced because of the collaboration between the communities and Agip, especially.

Earlier, I talked about the farmers’ day, and the impact has been massive. The one for this year, held in Rivers state and you can imagine the help being rendered to the benefitting farmers. I am talking about the Green River Project Farmers’ Day Celebration which is a yearly event that for over 20 years now has given NAOC and its Joint Venture Partners the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of individual farmers, farmers’ cooperative societies, youth and women cooperative societies, agro-allied organisations, research and education Institutes, local government and civil society organisations. Through that singular programme, the company has enabled individual farmers and cooperative societies to showcase their yearly products, produces and services and to provide a platform for networking and exchange of ideas.

It is also an opportunity for the company to award prizes to outstanding farmers and the most productive cooperative societies and promote the company’s commitment to rural farming in areas of operation. So, you can see the difference that this scheme has made in that particular sector. And it’s a big event every year for the ordinary people.
I am also aware that in the area of education, which the Niger Delta desperately needs, you may also be aware that thousands of people have benefitted from the company, especially in sponsorship and award of scholarships in the areas of science.
Major among these areas of concentration are the geosciences, Engineering (Petroleum, Mechanical, Civil, SubSea, Electrical/Electronics, Marine, Chemical), Petroleum Economics, Law (Oil and Gas/Petroleum). So, the Niger Delta is looking up. We are rising.

As a young boy who was born in this region like every other ordinary Niger Deltan, don’t you think there is still room for improvement?

Those are some of things we encourage these oil companies to do. However, I feel that the present management of the company appears focused on transforming and helping the Niger Delta succeed seeing themselves as part and parcel of the Niger Delta region. And we encourage them to continue to come up with such big ticket programmes, especially in the poor communities where fishing as a form of livelihood has become almost extinct.

We must also applaud them on the farmers’ day initiative which has become an annual national event, although they lost one of their pioneers last year. The Nigerian management has done well in the last one and a half years in terms of how they relate with their host communities. And I think having taken the lead, other IOCs will follow. The political actors and the oil and gas operators must also work hand in hand. Don’t forget that majority of our earnings come from the Niger Delta and if these companies do not find the conductive atmosphere to operate, the economy will begin to falter. They need to provide jobs.

And that is why the political leadership needs to continue to work with these companies. And now we are fortunate to have a Minister of State for Petroleum in the person of chief Timipre Sylva, who understands the terrain and knows first-hand the plight of the people of the Niger Delta. Working closely with him, the oil companies can do a lot more. With the Minister of Petroleum we have now, who is purpose-driven and focused on making an impact in the Niger Delta and the country as a whole, the result of this collaboration will begin to bear fruits soon.

But the perception is that the oil companies operating in the Niger Delta have not really done much to ameliorate the suffering in that region.

Yes, I agree that things were really bad. However, I must say that things seem to be changing. That has contributed to the relative peace in the region. I am in the industry, so I know what is happening. The supply of electricity and water to host communities is now being taken seriously by the IOCs. Many communities now determine what projects they need and they are the ones executing those projects though it is funded by the IOCs. I know that Agip takes it as part of its corporate social intervention. So, it’s not business as usual. Yes, there are still issues that need to be resolved. The oil companies can do better.
But as an operator in that industry, I can tell you authoritatively that in the last one year or so under the new management of Agip, they now take community relations very seriously.

What is your advice to youths in the region who still think that violence is the way to go?

Violence has never resolved any problem. If all knotty issues end at the roundtable, why should we resort to violence to achieve our end, which is the development of the Niger Delta. It is the era of intellectual engagement where you sit on one end and I sit on the other end and we engage in intellectual arguments.

In the end, it is in the interest of Nigeria, the oil companies and the political leadership to collectively engage these youths to end the wrong perception that the Niger Delta region is violent.