By Egufe Yafugborhi
PORT HARCOURT— TWO councillors of Akuru-Tolu Local Government Area, Rivers State, Nelson Whonknows, and Victor Sam, aka Flenjo, have accused an indigenous oil company of sponsoring militants from neighbouring states to attack assets of rival oil firms at Oil Mining Lease, OML, 25.
They said the local oil firm wanted to scare away Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, to pave way for its takeover of operations at the said OML.
Belemaoil Producing Limited, the fingered indigenous oil firm and Kula Supreme Council of Traditional Rulers, KSCTR, however, vehemently denied the allegation
They spoke at a peace meeting convened by Governor Nyesom Wike to resolve the dispute between Shell and host communities over OML 25, which led to shutting down of oil production for two years, even as Federal Government’s attempts to settle the rift in the past ended in a stalemate.
The councillors said: “We have been informed by community members in the two wards that Tein Jack-Rich Jr has hired thugs and militants from neighbouring states to disrupt operations and production of SPDC following the renewal of the company’s licence to operate OML 25.
“The thugs have taken over OML25, resorted to terrorising the sea routes and vandalising pipelines belonging to SPDC and AITEO. A meeting was held by some persons in the area where they also agreed to shut down the operations of Newcross Exploration and Production.”
LG chair corroborates councillors
Chair of the local government, Mr. Roland Sekibo, who spoke earlier, noted that even if the communities had justifications to protest and demand improved development benefits from Shell, alleged meddlesomeness by Shell’s competitor, Belema Oil, smacked of corporate malice, which inflamed the communities’ anger and prolonged occupation.
Sekibo said Belema Oil management created the false impression that they bought OML 25 from Shell and the assumed seller refused transfer of operational rights.
He pointed out that it was at a meeting with stakeholders at NNPC, Abuja, that it was discovered, apparently by community stakeholders, that OML 25 license was still under the ownership of Shell.
The LG boss said though the owner of Belema Oil hails from the area, it was illegal to shut down production on the facility in order to arm-twist the system to sell the assets to Belema Oil, adding that such action, if condoned, could negatively affect other Rivers business people with operating licenses in other states.
He added that in the Global Memorandum of Understanding, GMoU, between the operator and hosts, Shell had already deposited N960 million in a dedicated account for the development of the communities, convinced that the fund, if judiciously deployed, would transform the host communities.
Amanyanabo of Opu-Kula, Hope Opusingi, also said people were misled to shut down OML 25, and that after some stakeholders discovered the reality, which is that the operating license of SPDC had been renewed, they toed the path of peaceful coexistence and development with the operator.
Belema Oil denies allegation
Acting Managing Director, Belema Oil, Mufa Welch, denied the involvement of the company in the closure of OML 25, alleging that the host communities rather prefer Belema Oil to take over. He acknowledged SPDC as the licensed operators of OML 25 with Belema Oil holding a paltry three per cent stakes in the bargain.
“With the way we operate, the communities are bent towards us. That OML has been closed for almost two years, we have nothing in the shutdown of the OML 25,” he stated.
It is a smear campaign— Kula royal fathers
In defense of the company owned by a son of the soil, Kula Supreme Council of Traditional Rulers, KSCTR, had also faulted the accusation by Whonknows and Sam, calling on the public to disregard their petition.
The KSCTR said: “The misguided actions of these young men portray them as persons morally bankrupt and bereft of proper reasoning, otherwise, how can Jack Rich Tein Jr arrange for vandalisation of SPDC pipeline, which also conveys the crude oil of his company to the Bonny Export Terminal for sale?
“We condemn, in the strongest term, the attempt to tarnish the image of our illustrious son in the ongoing smear campaign being orchestrated by the paymasters of Whoknows Nelson and Victor Sam, aka Flenjo. These purveyors of the fake news are well known foot soldiers of two brothers from Kula, who are the main detractors of Jack-Rich Tein Jr.
“Their frivolous announcement is diversionary and intended to deceive and mislead the public and the security agencies who have been duly informed of the clandestine move by SPDC to cause communal crisis by promoting militancy and high level of insecurity in the host communities of OML-25.”
Why we waded in—Wike
Governor Wike had activated a conflict resolution process, June 22, when he convened a key stakeholders’ meeting where OML 25 host communities and assets operator, Shell, tabled their differences over the lingering dispute. Security services commanders were in attendance.
Within 10 days of the governor’s mediation, the disputing host communities and Shell agreed on terms and signed a Memorandum of Understanding, MoU, for re-opening of the oil facility, but it was not without dissenting voices.
The opening meeting, convened by Secretary to the Rivers State Government, Dr Tammy Danagogo, turned out to be a revealing truth and reconciliation forum, which outcome exposed critical compromises, greed, deceit and sundry pettiness that had inflamed the crisis.
At the maiden reconciliation meeting at the Government House, Port Harcourt, managements of SPDC, Belema Oil Limited, host community leaders and security services commanders, traditional rulers, political office holders from the locality, youth leaders, chairs of community development committees, CDCs, from Kula, Belema, Offoin-Ama, Opu-Kula and Ibiame, all attended.
Urging the disputants to resolve the issues speedily, Wike stressed that “OML 25 has been shut for one reason or the other. Some persons in the communities are hauling insults at me. No matter the insult, nothing will make me not perform my duty to the area. Federal, state and the local governments are losing funds to continued closure of the OML 25.
“If Shell is behaving wrongly, tell them, if Belema Oil is behaving wrongly, tell them. It is wrong for anyone to say Federal Government is handling the matter. When conflicts of this nature affect communities, it is for the state and affected local government to resolve them.”
The governor said he had no personal interest in the drilling of oil or issuance of licences, but rather committed to peace and security in communities for the development of the state, warning against politicisation of the economic development of the host communities, Rivers and Nigeria.
Shell states claim
Managing Director, SPDC, Osagie Okunbor, revealed that the Federal Government had since renewed OML 25 operating licence for the company for another 20 years after Shell paid all necessary fees in October 2018.
Okunbor said: “We operated in a cordial environment until August 10, 2017, when some community people entered the facility. Information given us was that they were unhappy over issues of social amenities and employment. We listened and were keen to address these issues, but at some point, another element entered the equation, that we should relinquish and hand over to Belema Oil, that is from the community.
“We have made all the payments and it is our facility. We are keen to return and operate for the benefit of all. I have made myself available to talk to stakeholders from the communities to try and understand what the issues are and how we will go about resolving them.”
He welcomed Wike’s intervention, pledging Shell’s preparedness to address the social amenities, empowerment and sundry grievances of the communities.
Terms of settlement
Terms reached on the eventual resolution of the conflict involved halts to host communities’ occupation of the assets for re-opening of the Belema Flow Station and payment of outstanding funds owed the communities under the extant Global Memorandum of Understanding, GMoU.
Other terms include a mandate on Shell to pay N1.36 billion into a dedicated account within two weeks for the development of the communities.
The GMoU was signed on behalf of the communities by traditional rulers, youth presidents, chairmen of CDC among other opinion leaders from Kula, Belema, Offoin-Ama, Ibie-Ama, Boro and Opu-Kula communities located in Akuku Toru Local Government Area.
The governor’s representative, Secretary to the State Government, Dr Tammy Danagogo; Solicitor-General of Rivers State, Mrs Florence Fiberesima; Permanent Secretary, Chieftaincy Affairs, Mr. Felix Odungweru superintended over the signing at the Government House, Port Harcourt.
Danagogo said on the occasion: “The fundamental reason for the meeting was to sign the agreement, without prejudice to who holds different positions in the communities, to resolve issues between Shell and our people.
“After this agreement, other meetings would be convened to determine issues of employment, community development and contracts. For now, the aim is for Shell to pay the funds that have accrued and for the flow station to be opened for further development in the communities.”
Also speaking, General Manager, External Relations, SPDC, Igo Weli, stated: “This is good model and template; best practice. We came here to find solutions because we want the best for our communities. There are always constructive and peaceful ways of resolving conflicts.”
Amanyanabo of Kula, King Kroma Eleki called for peace across Kula communities to pave way for the peaceful operation of OML 25. He commended the Rivers State Government for ensuring the peaceful resolution of issues in the area.
Amanyanabo of Belema, King Ibinabo Kalaoriye, who also signed the agreement, thanked Rivers Government for the peaceful resolution, expressing happiness with the terms of agreement, adding: “Those who occupied the flow station would leave.”
Chair of Akuku-Toru, Sekibo, said the development was a genuine progress and would help the development of the area as going forward, Shell would have learned her lessons and work in the interest of the host communities.
Head of Ngeje community, Chief Ibinabo Kiliya, also thanked the Rivers Government for involving the community in the settlement. He signed the agreement on behalf of his people.
Rivers Government explained that it based its actions on the renewal of SPDC’s operating licence. It said should NNPC transfer the licence to Belema, it would ensure implementation.
“We want our people to own oil block, not that they take away operating licences of others in our state illegally, this is because Rivers people are operating in other states. Let us approach these issues in peace to achieve progress,” Danagogo said.
Dissenting leaders threaten peace accord
With the mission of the Wike peace accord accomplished, crisis still looms as parallel leaders in Belema, Offoin-Ama and Ngeje host communities reject the MoU facilitated by the state government.
The dissenting community voices expressed their disapproval in a statement in Port Harcourt by Prince Opunabo Ekine, His Royal Highness, Sibia Aaron Sukubo, Offo XIII, Chief Ibiosia Nath-Sukubo, Chief Ibinabo Daniel Kiliya, Chief-elect Mpakaboari Welsch, Chief-elect Oputuboye Walter, and Chief Wapakaboari Gaga.
The statement read: “Our attention has been drawn to a false and misleading statement by the Rivers State Government claiming that host communities of OML25 have agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with SPDC on July 1, with a view to re-opening the flow station.
“It is most unfortunate that a state government that is supposed to concern itself with good governance would be this desperate to champion an illegal course to forcefully re-open an oil platform that was peacefully shut down based on the legitimate grievances of the host communities.”
Meanwhile, according to the company, while the disruption of operations lingered, the host communities of OML 25, Belema and Offoin-Ama, enjoyed contract awards, employment of unskilled labour and SPDC’s social investment programmes, including yearly award of regular and special scholarships to eligible candidates from the area.