Nigeria: Has Respite Finally Come for Oloibiri?

11 August 2020

Emmanuel Addeh asks whether Oloibiri, a small Niger Delta town where oil was first found, is finally getting the required attention, decades after its seeming neglect

Sixty four years ago in the little town of Oloibiri, a community in today's Bayelsa State, south of Nigeria, oil was first discovered in commercial quantity. But today, the town lies almost in ruins despite promises made by the authorities to revamp the small area which was once the goose that laid the proverbial golden eggs for the country.

The year was 1956, the month was January, the day was Sunday 15 and the company that eventually struck the black gold in the now neglected district after several years of futile search was Shell Darcy, as it was then called.

The onshore oilfield named Oloibiri 1 by the company, according to records, had an initial production of 5,000 barrels of oil per day, thereby becoming the 'firstborn' of all wells in the country which today produces an average of two million barrels per day.

However, it was not until February 1958 that Nigeria's first crude oil export came from Oloibiri field and has since then changed the trajectory of Nigeria for better, while it has continued to suffer abandonment.

Rather than ensure development for the hosts, like it is done in other parts of the world where oil has been discovered, the people today, are almost living decades behind the rest of the country, with just occasional flashes of cosmetic palliatives.

Although Oloibiri, the oil well, has since dried up and the land left uncultivable by residents due to the massive pollution, ordinarily the place should be a tourist attraction.

It remains one of the country's most underdeveloped places, while the only sign of its historic status is the physical structure of the oil well located at the town's entrance. Not even a visitor's centre or a museum, despite government promises, preserves the legacy of this site.

In the past, many feeble attempts had been made by succeeding administrations to make a hub of the town, but all ended as failed promises.

For instance, in March 2001, then President Olusegun Obasanjo during his state visit to Bayelsa, laid a foundation stone for the construction of the Oloibiri Millennium Landmark Projects, which was supposed to house an Oil and Gas Research Institute. Till now, it remains an idea.

Though Oloibiri's oil lasted for only 20 years before it dried up, producing approximately 20 million barrels of oil that generated millions of dollars for the Nigerian, it remains a symbolic monument.

But 64 years after the discovery of crude oil in commercial quantities at Oloibiri, the federal government says it is working closely with the Bayelsa State government and Shell Petroleum and Development Company (SPDC) for the establishment of an oil and gas Museum and Research Centre in the town.

The project was launched last week with the inauguration of key project committees and setting of delivery timelines by the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Chief Timipre Sylva.

The project is being promoted by four key institutions, namely the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board (NCDMB), the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF), SPDC and the Bayelsa State government.

Speaking during a virtual event which had the leadership of the participating entities in attendance, the minister stated that the oil and gas museum and research centre presented a unique opportunity to correct a historical oversight, noting that the museum would preserve the heritage and developments in the oil sector, similar to what is obtainable in other oil producing nations.

He outlined the project execution plan, noting that it would be fast-tracked, with pre-construction activities lasting for eight months while actual construction should be completed within 36 months from the date of commencement.

Recalling that the project had been on the drawing board for over three decades, the minister commended President Muhammadu Buhari for granting his approval in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic impact.

He said the president approved the establishment of the Oloibiri Museum and Research Center (OMRC) as part of his signature programs that would leave behind enduring legacies and impact the oil and gas community, the people of the Niger Delta, and indeed the entire country.

Providing details of the project, the minister stated that it consists of the construction of a museum where historic developments, data, equipment, and tools used in the Nigerian oil and gas industry will be stored for posterity and the construction of a functional research centre where prototypes can be tested and validated in fulfillment of the requirement for approval of new technologies.

He expressed the hope that the research facility will close a major gap in the nation's quest for home grown technology inputs required to service exploration and production activities in the Nigerian oil and gas industry.

To ensure sustainability, he said the project adopted a development model that will leverage the benefits of public-private partnership, inter-agency collaboration, and inter-governmental alignment, so as to optimise resource utilisation and ensure that the Oloibiri monument meets international standards.

A critical success factor to timely project execution is the establishment of an optimal governance structure with clear reporting lines, key performance indicators and quality resource team he said.

He added that two committees and five project teams had been created to provide necessary support and supervision essential to deliver the OMRC project.

According to him, they include the steering committee, which would be responsible for providing leadership and steer and the coordinating committee, responsible for providing oversight on activities of all the project teams.

The project teams included construction, funds mobilisation and management, community relations, health, safety and environment and secretariat, which shall be set up and operated in NCDMB head office in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State.

Providing further insight into the project, the Executive Secretary of NCDMB, Mr. Simbi Wabote, explained that PTDF would contribute 40 per cent of the project cost while NCDMB and SPDC would provide 30 percent and 20 percent respectively, with Bayelsa State government providing the balance of 10 percent.

He listed some of the socio -economic benefits of the project to include creating Nigeria's hub for oil and gas artefacts, attracting petro- tourism, retention of history and dissemination of knowledge, opportunity to bring change and socio-economic development to Oloibiri.

Other benefits include human capital development and facilitation of prototype development and testing, facilitating commercialisation of research and acceleration of home grown technology development.

Speaking on the immediate next steps, Wabote said the partners would contribute the take-off funds, conduct design competition, conduct feasibility studies, establish project cost and take final investment decision and commence construction.

In his comments, the Managing Director and Chairman SPDC, Mr. Osagie Okunbor noted that the history of the company in Nigeria was intertwined with Oloibiri.

He recalled that two attempts had been made in the past to launch a similar project but they failed for various reasons.

"Listening to the very well thought out details and framework, it gives us quite some confidence that this time all the ingredients are there to get it right and I pledge the support of the SPDC JV to this effort" he said.

Also speaking, the Governor of Bayelsa State, Senator Douye Diri assured that the state government would support the project by providing the enabling environment for its success and sustenance.

He called on the federal government and operating oil multinationals to invest more in the building of critical infrastructure in the oil-rich State.

He said the call became imperative in order to give back to the Otuabagi/Otuogidi communities where crude oil was first discovered in commercial quantities in 1956.

Diri, who welcomed the project said the oil bearing communities deserve better infrastructure to compensate for the long years of neglect amidst huge resources being tapped from there.

"We receive this day with a tinge of mixed emotions. This is because, naturally, the people of Bayelsa State as guardians and holders of the primary source of wealth of our entire nation are deserving not only of recognition but also of all the dividends that ought to flow from this special status.

"I therefore, appeal that the federal government throw its full weight behind all processes required to bring much needed development to Bayelsa State including the initiation and completion of other necessary developmental projects across the State.

"For instance, the road from Nembe to Brass, the Local Government of the Minister of State Petroleum, Chief Timipre Sylva, is critical to us and should be given urgent consideration by the federal government and the oil multinationals operating there, the Nigerian Agip Oil Company. Agip has been operating on that Island for many years now" Diri stated.

The governor, who thanked Buhari, Sylva and other partners in the oil and gas museum and research centre, for kick-starting the project, gave the assurance that the state government would support the project by providing an enabling environment for its success and sustenance.

"In addition, Oloibiri deserves to be a national heritage site. We will therefore implore your Excellency, Mr. President to give effect to this consideration and expedite it by all lawful means possible.

"This initiative, is indeed the fulfilment of a longstanding quest to preserve the history of petroleum exploration and its impact in the Niger Delta, and by extension in Nigeria and the world in general. It is heart-warming that this vision is now coming to fruition.

"The choice of Oloibiri as the location of the museum and research centre is quite apt and commendable. It couldn't have been anywhere else" he said.

With the latest move, will Oloibiri get the recognition it desperately needs this time?

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