By Obi Nmwakama
AMONG the details of the proposed oil industry reform bill prepared by the oil minister, Dr. Rilwanu Lukman is the proposal for a petroleum university to be sited in Kaduna.

I should concede upfront that I have personally not read this bill and cannot talk with facility or insight about its content and form, and thus particularly, its implication in the evolution of the oil industry in Nigeria.

What I do know, like many other Nigerians in the past several weeks, is that this proposed bill to restructure the oil industry had governors of the South-South, also known as the Niger Delta, up in arms, literally. In their statements released to the press, the Niger Delta governors publicly condemned Lukman’s proposed bill, claiming that the larger implication of the bill went powerfully against the regional interest of the Niger Delta.

They basically threatened to pull out of President Yar Ardua’s amnesty farce. One of the riling aspects of the bill for the governors apparently was the proposal to site a spanking new Federal University of Petroleum Technology in Kaduna, former capital of the Northern region, and hometown of the current oil minister.

The proposed university dedicated solely to petroleum studies in Nigeria is conceived to train high manpower for the Nigerian oil industry as it expands towards more national autonomy. It is in that respect different from the older Petroleum Training Institute in Warri, established in the 1970s to train middle level manpower for Nigeria’s then budding oil industry.

Reactions against the alleged plans to site the Federal University of Petroleum Technology in Kaduna has been so visceral indeed, it eventually forced the president to offer a recant; forcefully pledging that there was no plan to upstage the Petroleum Training Institute already in Warri which had been billed in earlier plans to become a degree awarding institution.

I think the plan to site the Federal University of Petroleum in Kaduna, if it is still a plan, is a distraction given the realities of our current situation. Besides it feeds unneccessasarily, the appetites of regionalists and powermongers, and makes hardly a sense.

It is like taking the Atlantic to the Sahara desert: difficult and unsustainable. Secondly, it has a hollow triumphalist ring to it. At the roots of Nigeria’s national conflict seems to be the question of who controls the access and the benefits of the oil resources in the delta.

This seems to be the dirty secrets of power in Nigeria since 1965 when oil began to contribute more significantly than ever to Nigeria’s national receipts. The control of oil and its infrastructure was also in some abstract way at the roots of the Nigerian civil war, and it does seem like the consequences of that war continues to reflect itself in the politics of oil in Nigeria.

The truth of course is that the proposal to establish an Institute of Technology to train specialized high manpower for the local oil industry is not new. It was first mooted by Odumegwu-Ojukwu as military governor of the Eastern Provinces to representatives of the oil industry operating in the East in March 1966.

Ojukwu’s early proposal for the school to be established in Port-Harcourt to train personnel “to run the vast complexes of the industry” was first reported publicly in the West African Pilot of Saturday, March 26, 1966.

I am drawn to these facts by the work of the historian Dr. Kairn Klieman of the University of Houston, who is currently writing on oil industry activities in Africa, and presented an intriguing paper on that subject last November at the African Studies Association in Chicago.

Among the sources she is citing are declassified State Department communications between the US Ambassador Elbert C. Matthews meeting with Shell-BP’s managing director, Stanley Gray over Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s proposal.

According to the document: “The ambassador mentioned the governor’s proposal to Mr. Gray and asked for Mr. Gray’s views. Mr. Gray emphatically opposed locating a university level institute of technology in Port-Harcourt. He said Port-Harcourt industry could not possibly absorb the graduates of such an institution for many years and to have a large number of unemployed graduates centered in the city could only mean serious trouble… .”

The Shell man argued against the concentration of any non-essential activity in the oil industry in Port-Harcourt to avoid creating “sources of possible discontent.” He of course preferred “technical education at a lower level than envisioned by governor Ojukwu” as these “could feed industry’s needs in Port-Harcourt better than a university level institute of technology.” Of course, Ojukwu went ahead to establish the shortlived University of Technology, Port-Harcourt with a Department of Petroleum Engineering in 1966. That university was closed down in the season of discontent. But it does seem that Gray’s template now serves Lukman’s proposal to site this newly proposed University of Petroleum in Kaduna, far away from the “sources of possible discontent” in the Niger Delta.

It is a mistake in two respects, one of which I’ve already highlighted: Kaduna does not offer grounds to study petroleum studies, given the possible requirements for petroleum hydrology. But far more important and crucial in this debate for me particularly is that it is a needless investment at this stage.

There are already a number of universities in Nigeria, including the Federal Universities of Technology with already established schools of petroleum studies. Many of these are currently underfunded and under-equipped.

For instance, an institution like the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, has no well drilling simulator or equipment. It would make greater economic and strategic sense for the federal government to upgrade the facilities and training programmes of these already existing departments of petroleum studies in Nigerian universities, as well as upgrade the Petroleum Training Institute at Warri.

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