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Tunde Fagbenle: Oil companies, exploitation and unemployment

by Tunde Fagbenle

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Okoigun is able to commend the present government of President Jonathan for enacting “the Nigerian Oil and Gas Content Development Law in 2010,” and apparently actively pursuing its observance, saying that the big players like Shell, Total, etc are beginning to yield attitude and embrace the law “instead of looking for loopholes to circumvent it.”

Alfred Okoigun is my friend, but more importantly he is a Nigerian to be proud of. He is the Group Managing Director of ARCO, an oil company he started about 34 years ago and which has from a couple of hands, has grown into a big player with over 400 staff, out of which 200 of them are engineers and technicians. He told a story a couple of weeks ago in his speech at an oil and gas conference held in Abuja.

The story is worth recounting here not only to highlight the lapses in the oil sector local human resources capacity building that has bearing on the rising unemployment in Nigeria. But also to demonstrate how a focused government’s policy fosters development. Moreover, that we all in our own little corner can join hands to fight the unemployment ogre and move Nigeria forward.

Mr. Okoigun narrated the story of one such oil and gas conference he attended many years ago when Mr. Rilwan Lukman was still our oil minister. Says Okoigun: “The CEOs of the oil majors were also present. Keynote speakers had a field day talking about the progress they were making in the development of oil and gas industry in their areas of operation. When it was the turn of Sir Philip Watts, Group Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell Group, he presented a beautiful picture of Shell’s success story in Malaysia. He narrated how Shell went into Malaysia with experts, engineers, technicians and sufficient human resources needed in all facets of oil and gas drilling, exploration and production.

He continued: “At the time he was sharing this experience with the delegates at the conference in Vienna, he was proud of one major achievement of his company in Malaysia. Malaysians had been groomed in all fields of oil and gas engineering. This was to the extent that Malaysia was then exporting skilled manpower to other countries as experts in oil and gas industry.”

Then, during the question and answer session that followed the Shell man’s presentation, Alfred got up to ask: “If Shell had done such a wonderful job in Malaysia, why was that kind of endeavour not replicated in Nigeria? Could it be that the Malaysians acquired the skills due to the concern of their government in the exploitation of their natural resources? Or was it because Malaysia had stable government over a long period of time and so the government was focused on ensuring that the citizens of the country reaped the benefits of the collaboration with Shell?”

It was a deafening applause that greeted Alfred’s poignant question. “On stepping out of the conference hall,” Alfred says, “the then Managing Director of Shell in Nigeria Mr. Ron Van Denberg walked up to me and said, “Alfred, Alfred, do you think that Shell is not doing enough in Nigeria? Do you know who should be doing more? Your government, your government.”

At the time of this story, Nigeria was undergoing intermittent changes of government in the military era, and, for all they cared, as long as the oil majors paid their taxes and carried out other statutory responsibilities, it was well with Nigeria.  As Okoigun opined, had the Nigerian government been more focused on national manpower development as a policy and more exacting on the major players in our oil sector, “maybe Nigeria would have been exporting locals as experts to other countries by now. As it is today, we are still struggling to grow local capacities in the oil and gas industry, an achievement that had been recorded in other parts of the world. I believe that the Shell success story in Malaysia had the hand of government in it.”

However, Okoigun is able to commend the present government of President Jonathan for enacting “the Nigerian Oil and Gas Content Development Law in 2010,” and apparently actively pursuing its observance, saying that the big players like Shell, Total, etc are beginning to yield attitude and embrace the law “instead of looking for loopholes to circumvent it.” He calls on them to “take advantage of the law to grow Nigerian companies to be viable participants in the industry even at this late hour.” “All I am saying,” says Okoigun, “is that beyond making money, there must be legacy to boast of like the Shell example in Malaysia that I mentioned.”

For a country to fully develop and sustain its manpower capacity, the key is education, education, and education. And the role, focus and sincerity of the government cannot be overemphasised. This much was contained in the convocation lecture of the University of the State of Osun on March 27, by Prof. Toyin Falola reported in the column of Prof. Ayo Olukotun in The PUNCH.

I quote Olukotun: “One area in which this point comes home is the contrasting perspective of leaders of the developmental states of Asia who devoted a substantial share of national revenue to funding education and the gross underfunding way below the 26 per cent stipulated by UNESCO of the same by Nigerian leaders. According to the famed scholar (Prof. Falola), this has produced a situation where many Nigerian graduates are not just unemployed but are unemployable to the extent that employers are frustrated in many cases because they can hardly find fresh graduates with the right skill sets and work ethics that will add value to their organisation.”

But talking of the scale and horror of unemployment in Nigeria, not long ago I read a piece by one Emeka Nobis. I can’t remember where I read it now but I immediately copied and saved it on my system. Emeka charged Nigerian graduates to look outside the box for gainful employment. Space would not permit me to quote Emeka at large today but may do so in the future.

Emeka Nobis berates the Nigerian graduate: “A normal Nigerian graduate in our times is the one who thinks the money comes from working in an oil company and going to offshore rigs even if he or she studied Shorthand as a course. A normal graduate is the one who thinks mechanics are lesser beings. A normal Nigerian graduate is the one who thinks business is just buying and selling and it is for brains that couldn’t withstand the rigours of academic labours and so decided to do boy-boy apprenticeship.”

He then opines: “Many Nigerian graduates do not realise that it gets to a point where they have to look away from the usual norms and do what may seem unpalatable to many but has the potential to become a global enterprise. They don’t just think of looking within to that God-given intrinsic value that can provide opportunities for them to bless lives and be blessed in return. They just don’t think of looking at their vicinity and devising means to dispose neighbours’ refuse for a fee. They just don’t think of driving a taxi and putting creative edges to it. They don’t think of developing apps on their borrowed laptops even when they studied computer engineering. They don’t think of making grandma’s goats reproduce many kids they can eventually groom and then sell and expand. There are so many ways not to think normal but the normal Nigerian graduate has a problem with abnormality.”

Together, we can make Nigeria work. Together, we can make Nigeria great. And that’s saying it the way it is

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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