By Soni Daniel
Despite the passage of time and the change in government, her desire to see the emergence of an imposing architectural masterpiece with the inscription “Oloibiri Oil and Gas Museum” remains very strong. The idea of the project, which she conceived in the early 70’s when she was the Chairman of the old Rivers State Tourism Board, rages on her mind like a timeless mirage. As it is, Mrs. Ethel Diete-Spiff, who is now retired from active service, sleeps and wakes up with the mental picture of the multi-purpose centre, which she conceived in her hey days to serve as a reference point for oil and gas production in Nigeria. As a young lady married to a serving military governor, she was bubbling with trail-blazing ideas that could fetch Nigeria a fortune, if they had been harnessed into concrete ventures. One that really hit her on her mid rib like a hurricane was that of developing a World Class Oil and Gas Museum complete with research, recreational, cultural, social and economic empowerment facilities for the teeming population in the country. The idea was so clear on her mind that she wasted no time in reaching out to the then President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari and his Vice, Alex Ekweme, one of the country’s best architects to share the vision with the two leaders.
The whole idea of the centre was rooted in historical and cultural perspectives: Nigeria’s first oil field was discovered in Oloibiri on Sunday, January 15, 1956 by a company called Shell Darcy, later known as Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, SDPC. Oloibiri, then a small fishing hamlet, and the headquarters of the Oloibiri Local Government Area, lies somewhere around 72 kilometres East of Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, with the oilfield of about 13.75 kilometres tucked away in a swamp within Oil Mining Lease 29. Its discovery changed Nigeria’s oil history as it launched Nigeria into the elite club of oil producers and brought instant wealth to the nation with a daily output of 5000 barrels per day. “Oil Well One” as the place has come to be identified, is in the heart of Oloibiri-Otuabage in Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, which was then a part and parcel of the then Rivers State.
The elite entre was conceived as a One-stop shop consisting of the Oloibiri Petroleum Institute, providing a base for research and for oil and gas, renewable energy of international standards, an exhibition arcade that would dwell on the history of Nigeria’s oil exploration, its impact on the lives and the environment, as well as proffer solutions. The centre was also designed to have a 5-Star Hotel to cater for the diverse interest of global visitors from key oil companies and other tourists.
These were the details that were unveiled to President Shagari by the initiator of the project, who remains unassuming but highly expectant that it would come to reality, many decades after she birthed the idea.
“By the time I finished presenting my vision of the project to President Shagari, he was so impressed that he gave me and my team of committed Nigerians the go-ahead to proceed with the work. “That was how I began to write letters of invitation to embassies, oil company executives and other oil-related business officials to be part of the project.
“What surprised the then president was that on the day he laid the foundation stone for the OOGM with pomp and pageantry, he was shocked at the splendid organisation that I had put in place and the quality of officials who graced the occasion and he had no option than to give me a pat on the back.
“The highpoint of the showers of praises on me was when Shagari asked me to ride with him in the presidential helicopter that brought him to Port Harcourt. “He had motioned to me to board the helicopter before him as a mark of honour and appreciation of a lady who had pulled the world to Oloibiri that day, but I politely declined, showing him respect and respecting his high office as the President of Nigeria, pleading with him to enter before. “No, you enter before me,” Ethel Diete-Spiff quoted Shagari as saying on the day the foundation stone of the project was laid in 1983. The event of that day stunned her and she began to pay greater attention to the project, knowing that the whole country was with her in the move to get it working. But she was wrong.
Although Shagari was serious and determined to get the museum completed and put to use before long, his government was terminated by a military coup on December 31, 1983 and that automatically halted the progress of the project. The monumental setback notwithstanding, the project was not erased from the mindset of the initiator while her resolve to push forward with it, rose again to the horizon.
Despite the economic potentials of the project, neither the federal government nor any state in the country has shown sufficient enthusiasm towards it beyond elucidating its importance and paying lip service to the place of tourism in national development. Disappointingly, only a few federal government officials have ever visited the site of the project, one of them being former information and culture minister, Labaran Maku under the Jonathan administration. The oil companies, including Shell, which first tapped oil from the oil field, have also been actively paying lip service to the OOGM. Like the centre, which has remained a conceptual variable, Oloibiri, itself remains famous only in history but lacks basic amenities. Like other Nigerians, they also visit “Oil Well One” as a monument that merely reminds them of their involvement in oil but with no tangible gains.
But with no progress being made in the project, the founder and initiator of the project has been forced to resort to divine intervention by referring the matter to God via daily prayers. She does not pray alone over the project but joins faith with other like-minded women to push the matter to heaven for early intervention.
She says: “The Oloibiri centre is extremely very important to me even now than over three decades ago for several reasons, the first being that it is the epicentre of modern Nigeria. The proceeds from the multi-billion dollar industry it spawned funded our transition into a modern state with the social and economic infrastructure that goes with it.
“Oloibiri has touched lives in every region of the country and remains the strongest symbol of our national growth. It deserves to be celebrated and monumentalised. And I am committed to that.
Due to her obsession with the project, Ethel Diete-Spiff now sings and recites the imperatives of Oloibiri as a sweet song: “Oloibiri launched us into the elite club of oil-producing nations, giving us a pride of place and a voice in the international community. That single event was and still remains the monumental shift that brought us to where we are and where we are headed”.
She is full of hope that the present administration will push through with the project. Her optimism is prodded by the fact that the government has good intentions and the political will to do the needful.
According to her, “What is needed is the political will to bring the OOGM to fruition. “This government is very forward-looking and I am hopeful that when we have an opportunity to present the case for Oloibiri to the relevant authority, we will get a positive response,” Ethel says.
To be able to mobilise enough feminine voices to drum spiritual support for the project, Mrs. Ethel Diete-Spiff has set up a non-governmental group known as Mothers’ Initiative for Peace, MIP. Apart from praying to God to expedite the take off of the project, the MIP members drawn from the nine Niger Delta states of Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo, Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa, Ondo, Abia, and Imo, also find time to educate women in the region on the need to work for the overall development of the area through peaceful co-existence.
Mrs. Ethel Diete-Spiff is so worried about the delay in completing the project that she has thrown open to any Nigerian or foreign entity that can take it on Public Private Partnership basis. She has even invited some of the oil-producing community under the aegis of HOSTCOM to partner with whoever is willing and ready to join hands in bringing the project to fruition while she is still alive.
“My greatest wish is that this project should be completed during my lifetime. I will be eternally grateful to any group or individuals who can bring this to reality before I pass on,” she said.
The pressure is really mounting given the fact that it would be exactly 60 years in August this year since oil was discovered in commercial quantity in Oloibiri and 33 years after the project was first conceived by Mrs. Ethel Diete-Spiff and there is nothing whatsoever to show for it. As the clock ticks, the founder of the project is under pressure to seek help from everywhere, anywhere and from anyone who cares to listen to her in pushing it through. But what a shame to a nation that a famous historical and cultural project with so much financial potentials has been kept in the cooler for over three decades and no one’s conscience has been pricked for once. As the bell tolls for the 60th anniversary of OW1, shame and anxiety rage over OOGM and a woman’s best wish and obsession fade faster into oblivion. Too bad!