By Sunday Smith

The presence of active and formidable Indigenous companies in Nigeria’s upstream oil and gas sector ought to be a source of pride to any Nigerian. It is a testimony of how far the country has emerged in terms of developing local capacity. It shows that Nigerians if given an opportunity, can excel in areas that are currently deemed exclusive to people from developed nations. However, the reverse is the case in Nigeria.

It is challenging to operate in the Niger Delta no doubt, after the region’s several years of abuse and marginalisation. But it is even more difficult for these indigenous oil companies as they lack the resources and economies of scale deployed by International Oil Companies (IOCs) to cushion the effects of instability in the region. They are constantly dealing with issues including oil theft, vandalism, restive youths, and government pressure, yet they thrive in the face of these threats.

It is, therefore, further saddening to see indigenous companies being deliberately maligned by fake news via the deployment of what is referred to as ‘Yellow Press’. Yellow press, simply put, is a form of pseudo-journalism which involves the reporting of mistruths and unverified facts to perpetuate a preconceived heinous agenda. The scourge has gained grounds in recent years to the extent that numerous sensitization campaigns have been executed worldwide to equip the public with the necessary skills to discern between the menace and real journalism.

It is with these discerning eyes that we set to investigate a recent publication on some alleged ‘’reputable‘’ newspapers maintaining that there is an instigation of a wind-up proceeding against Nigeria’s largest indigenous oil & gas company, Aiteo, on account of a purported contractor invoice of N259 million, an amount less than a fraction of its corporate social responsibility programme for just a quarter in the same region, or let alone, its several assets running into billions of dollars from any of its operational bases.

This story doesn’t add up for many reasons. Firstly, we have followed Aiteo’s success story for over a decade. This is a company that has ramped up oil production from 23,000 bpd at the onset of the OML 29 acquisition to over 90,000 bpd within four years. In the process, Aiteo has made laudable contributions to education in its host communities in Bayelsa, Aiteo has also made monumental contributions into sports at National and continental levels, emerging the current biggest football sponsor in Nigeria.

A company source who did not wish to be named due to the “absurdity of the claims”, dismissed the matter emphatically as falsehood. “The position conveyed by that publication is unashamedly conjectural and a product of wishful thinking propagated by reprehensible individuals who actively seek – and will continue to fail – to sabotage the growth and success of our proudly Nigerian company”, he says.

It is inconceivable that Aiteo will throw away its hard-earned reputation by refusing to pay a debt that is just about half of its philanthropic contribution to education in Bayelsa State alone. So, it is difficult to detect that something must be wrong with this report somewhere.

If there are any proceedings, no one at Aiteo seems to be aware, “ Nobody is aware that the matter has even been formally lodged or listed in any form of hearing whether ex parte or on notice.  In short, these proceedings do not legally exist”. The source advanced further.

Also, upon closer inspection of the publications, the deliberate omission of some cogent information bordering on the authenticity of the narrative and the complicity of the media in abetting, mischief-makers is clear. It is clear that no court, federal or state, has ordered the commencement of a wind-up procedure against Aiteo. It appears that reliance has been placed on draft documents that lack even the most basic form of authenticity, a situation that evinces the most dubious intentions behind the publication.

Another contractor to Aiteo contacted during the course of this investigation claims they had no serious issues from the company as Aiteo has continued to meet its financial obligations. “The issue is that there are some of us contractors whose working relationships were inherited from previous operators. Some contractors have submitted dubious invoices, it is a common industry scam when you change operatorship. Even the Federal Government of Nigeria is suffering the same issues of bogus claims from contractors of previous administrations. It is a well-orchestrated scheme. We just urge Aiteo to quickly finalise its ongoing contract execution verification process and pay us genuine contractors”.

Hardly would anyone blame a company dealing with a large number of service contractors from verifying quality and compliance to agreed performance standards from time to time.
When contacted, the corporate communications department of Aiteo confirmed that there were several contractors with poor performance and outright fabrications which led to the rejection of certain claims and termination of contracts. “This publication was fed to the reading public against the deliberate falsehood of not seeking any explanation from us. We will take every legal step available to the company to protect our brand. Our lawyers have been instructed to put in hand, action to deal with the legal proceedings – actual or potential – as well as to address the defamatory consequences of all the publications.”

Another indigenous giant that has had to contend with the danger of misinformation and news twisting is Seplat Plc. A report appeared in some media publications that the court has ordered the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) to take over the publicly listed company. However, the reality is that the court judgement only applies to a director rather than the company itself.

As inferred, a bad news story can cause plummeting stock prices, destroy the reputation of a business, sway investors or cause stakeholder panic. And because of how these subtle ‘soft stories’ destroy people’s reputation; detractors have manipulated a lot of media houses into publishing lies that serve selfish purposes. Of recent in Nigeria, even the president and commander-in-chief, his vice president, Yemi Osinbajo; first lady, Aisha Buhari, have not been spared the menace of fake news attacks. One of the unprofessional blogs who broke the fake news on Aiteo last Friday, deleted its story in entirety, for fear of litigation.

The people of the Niger Delta and the rest of Nigerians have been lied to by different people at different times, and on different issues. These lies have sparked violent agitations and led to tragedy in the Niger Delta. That is why it is pertinent for us to constantly sift through reports to extricate facts from fabrications and speculations.

Two decades ago, the Nigerian upstream sector was the exclusive terrain of International Oil Companies (IOCs), which include giants like Shell, Chevron, Total and ExxonMobil. These foreign companies largely determined the course of Nigeria’s oil production and it was difficult to find Nigerian companies involved in Oil Exploration and Production.

The story is different today; a couple of oil companies owned by Nigerians have forayed into the field. While they may not level up to the IOCs yet, they have revolutionized the industry by opening up opportunities for more Nigerians to excel in the sector. These companies include Seplat, Aiteo, Eroton, and a host of others. They continue to blaze the trail in this sector, acquiring ageing assets from the IOCs, ramping up oil production and investing in local content development.

These Nigerian Oil Companies (NOCs) should be celebrated. Their success should be our success as Nigerians because they represent our collective dreams. Consequently, their failure will also lead to our national economic failure. In recapitulation, it is our responsibility to stymie the spread of fake news, because when things go bad in the Niger Delta, everyone loses.

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.