ExxonMobil-Seplat Deal: The Limits of Propaganda 

Taiwo Adekunle

Although it is not given to dragging media organisations before the courts, the report that Seplat Energy Plc. had sued two online news stables for alleged libel against it over the $1.28 billion ExxonMobil’s shares acquisition deal did not come as a surprise to many, since it vowed to seek redress in court when this particular story was publish on 10th August 2022.

According to news reports, the Nigerian leading independent energy company, dragged the news stable before the Imo State High Court for alleging a $100 million bribery scandal in the processes leading up to the approval of the deal by President Muhammadu Buhari.

One of the online publications had on 10th August 2022 said that it could “authoritatively report” that $100 million was given to bribe some top government officials “with a view to compromising the process leading to the point where the purported approval was announced on Monday by President Muhammadu Buhari”.

But Seplat swiftly denied the allegation and threatened lawsuit over over the matter. A statement by the company’s Chief Financial Officer, Emeka Onwuka said: “Seplat Energy has become aware of news and social media reports alleging impropriety in the process of securing ministerial consent to the acquisition of Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited by Seplat Energy Offshore Limited

“Such reports are wholly untrue and the Company will pursue legal action against any parties involved in disseminating false information related to its business”.

True to its threat, the company in a suit number HOW/901/2022 and a second suit with number HOW/902/2022 prayed the Imo State High Court to declare that the publications entitled “Seplat/ExxonMobil $100 Million Bribery Gate: Heads may roll as President Buhari orders investigation”, libelled it.

Seplat equally prays the court to direct the defendants to publish retractions of the offensive publications in a prominent part of two national newspapers and their respective channels with a written apology. Importantly, Seplat is demanding the sum of N50 billion in general damages for libel, another N50 billion in exemplary damages for libel, a cost of action in the sum of N100 million, and an order of perpetual injunction restraining the Defendants from publishing further defamatory articles on the Plaintiff through the Defendants’ website or by other means or media.

Of course, Seplat has done what a responsible corporate entity should do by towing the path of civility and rule of law to seek justice for the company, its shareholders and stakeholders, who feel saddened and scandalised by the report. Seplat is a company founded on unimpeachable integrity. In fact, it was the first Nigerian company to achieve dual listing on both the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NGX) and the London Stock Exchange (LSE). $535million was successfully raised during that initial public offering (IPO), which was actually oversubscribed.

This could only be possible because the company thrives on impeccable global reputation in best corporate governance practices, a fact testified to by LSE’s CEO, Julia Hogget last June when the LSE celebrated recently outgone pioneer Non-Executive Chairman of the company in London.

Seplat equally has to its credit a good number of highly treasured local and international awards based on not just on its sterling performance and steady growth, but also awards on its sterling corporate governance credentials. So, it was understandable if it was pained by the offensive report, as it was preposterous for anyone to have even associated it with such despicable act in the first place.

Unfortunately, Nigerians and the global business community have been regaled with one propaganda after other ever since the news of the landmark shares deal between ExxomMobil, Delaware, USA and Seplat Energy Plc. broke in February this year. The transaction, which is the first major deal since the reform of Nigeria’s oil and gas sector vide the Petroleum Industry Act, saw the Nigerian leading independent energy firm acquire the entire shares of the ExxonMobil USA in Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (MPNU) after a competitive bidding process in the U.S.

Instructively, the deadly propagandas are coming in the midst of Nigeria’s dwindling oil production that has consistently fallen short of the country’s OPEC quotas and has plunged her into grave economic crisis. The Excess Crude Account has hit an all-time low. There is no Forex anywhere and it so severe.

Yours sincerely was at the regional headquarters of one of the leading banks in Nigeria to withdraw a few dollars from his domiciliary account, but was told that the bank had no single dollar note and they were not sure of getting any in the near future.

But here is an ExxonMobil/Seplat deal that holds quantum promises for Nigeria’s highly troubled economy being marred by needless propaganda. This is a transaction that would create one of the biggest independent energy companies on both the LSE and NGX and boost. Here is a transaction that is capable of not only bringing the strategic national oil and gas assets under Nigeria’s total control, but also delivering 186 per cent increase in Seplat’s production from 51,000 bpd to 146,000 bpd and engender 170 per cent increase in 2P liquids reserves, from 241 MMbbl to 650 MMbbl.

Yet, all some key managers and players in the Nigerian oil and gas sector and their media Rottweilers can offer are evil propagandas and dirty politics that will do no one any good, but rather sink the nation into deeper troubles.

Nigeria, in my estimation, is in its worst socio-economic crisis since after the civil war. Some even insist that we are facing our worst nightmare since after independence. Whatever! The bottom line is that the economic outlook is so gloomy and we cannot afford to emulate the mad man, who was busy chasing rats while his house was being gutted by fire.

As a watchdog, it is both imperative and commendable for a media organisation to expose corruption, especially given the grave situation it has plunged Nigeria into. However, such exposé should be a product of diligent, professional, and elegant journalism of which balance and objectivity are among the cardinal pillars. This becomes most pertinent, as there is no indication in the said report that any attempts were made to reach Seplat by phone call, text message, letter, or by any other means.

In any case, it is good that Seplat has approached the court. That will provide ample opportunity for he who alleges to also prove. But while that is expected, it needs to be reiterated that every right, including the right to disseminate information, comes with responsibility.

Also, propaganda, even in its nastiest and most rascally form must have limits. Like fire, journalism can be a good servant to the society, but it can also be a bad master, depending on the tact, professionalism, ethical standard, and responsibility applied in plying the noble trade. Therefore, only ethically solid, analytically strong, epistemologically sound, thematically broad, and highly responsible and patriotic journalism is good enough.

• Adekunle, a public analyst writes from Lagos

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