Communities: Job security would ease oil region rebellions

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Amalete Abalo learned about Africa’s simmering oil wars the hard way. The assistant coach of Togo’s national football team was one of three people shot dead when rebels in Cabinda opened fire on the bus carrying the Togolese squad as it arrived in the Angolan enclave to compete in January’s African cup of nations.

The attack by a separatist faction in the highly militarised province, birthplace of Angola’s booming oil industry, added weight to the argument that conflicts in the continent’s oil-producing regions will never be resolved by force of arms alone.

Nowhere is that lesson more apparent than further up the continent’s west coast, in the Niger delta. Home to the bulk of Nigeria’s oil reserves – the world’s 10th-biggest – the delta has felt the full might of military force.

Most recently, a year ago helicopters from a task force permanently stationed in the delta rained bullets on villages and militant camps in an area controlled by Government Ekpemupolo, known as Tompolo, a kingpin of the delta’s insurgency.

The show of force may have persuaded wavering militants to accept a government amnesty that followed, Mr Ekpemupolo among them. But kidnappings and attacks on oil installations have since restarted.

The nexus of security forces, politicians and criminal gangs involved in crude theft appears largely undisturbed. Many former militants complain that the government is failing to meet promises of stipends and training.

At its peaks in recent years the unrest contributed to cutting Nigeria’s production by an estimated 1m b/d – equivalent to the total imported daily by the US from its third-biggest supplier.

The motivation for young men to take up arms is simple. “There are no jobs, nothing for us,” says Paul, 22, a fighter in Bayelsa state. Crude spills have poisoned long stretches of the creeks where locals fish, wash and worship.

The delta is not poor for a lack of money. The oil-producing states receive a bigger slice of federal revenues than the rest of the country. Corruption diverts much of it, however.

Emmanuel Egbogah, special adviser to the president on petroleum matters, has devised a plan to give oil-producing areas 10 per cent of the net profits from the joint ventures between the government and the foreign groups that pump Nigeria’s oil. The scheme could pay out about $555m a year – or $20 a year per person in a region where most live on less than $1.50 a day – and bypass the graft-ridden bureaucracy.

However, the proposals are tied to contentious efforts to overhaul oil industry legislation. Identifying beneficiaries and ensuring they receive the cash will be difficult.

Foreign oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil and Chevron seek to assuage public wrath with social projects. But oil company money also finds its way to informal security contracts for settlements to guard facilities, setting village against village, locals say.

Newer arrivals on the continent have tried to head off such anger before it boils over. Even then, there are pitfalls. Aidan Heavey, chief executive of Tullow, an Irish explorer that has made some of Africa’s most promising discoveries in recent years, says it has built a clinic on the Ugandan side of Lake Albert in tandem with drilling for crude. But 35km across the lake lies the deprived eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“What you are looking at are two communities beside each other,” says Mr Heavey. “One is already getting all the benefits – schools, hospitals, infrastructure. It’s going to have massive employment and training programmes. The other side is a community with nothing – no roads, no schools. Unless there are facilities on both sides of the lake it will be destabilising.” Tullow has pledged an extra $7m for community projects on the Congolese side.

Cash and clinics are doubtless welcome. But what most people seem to want is jobs. In Nigeria, they are supposed to have them already. But a long-honed “local content” policy is only slowly beginning to show results. “Over the years, people have paid lip service to this idea,” says Ernest Nwapa, the top official in charge of local content policy. “The oil and gas industry was operating in silos.”

In March, the policy was signed into law. Decisions on granting licences will henceforth take into account oil groups’ compliance with targets.

The quotas range from sourcing 80 per cent of storage tanks in Nigeria, to 85 per cent of seismic testing and 100 per cent of laundry services. Where Nigerians with the requisite skills cannot be found, expatriates may be used until the job is “Nigerianised” through apprenticeships.

There has been progress already. In 2005, Nigerians accounted for 250,000 man hours of engineering design, Mr Nwapa says. Last year, they clocked up 5m man hours.

Officials from countries such as Ghana and Niger, both crafting policies to manage nascent oil industries, are watching closely.

As Mr Nwapa concludes: “When you build hospitals, give scholarships, give them equity in the oil you are adding something. But the cap to everything is to create places where people can work for a lifetime.”

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