On July 25, suspected Boko Haram insurgents ambushed and attacked a crew prospecting for oil in Borno State in a ferocious attack that left scores of people dead including nine soldiers. Ten geologists were rescued but this is just the opening salvo, indicating that an insurgency on oil assets in the troubled North East could make Niger Delta militants look like amateurs writes ISAAC ANYAOGU.
Far across the horizon, thick plumes of dust rose in the face of the seething sun, sitting just above the dry crust of parched earth. This was not unusual in Jibi, 50 kilometres from Maiduguri, capital of Borno State where dust hazes often cloud the sky.
The strange thing was how the ground had begun to creak with a tremor loud as the pounding of a thousand hoofs of horses, and how the dust rose from every direction.
“They are here!” cried Musa, (not real name), engaged by the army to help navigate local terrain. Bloodshot eyes, his hands shivered as he tried to steady his rifle. He could feel his stomach tighten as his rubbery knees defied every impulse to bolt.
At once the soldiers snapped out of cars and makeshift tents for the nearest rifle. Frenzied shouts and a hail of gunfire set in chaos. In the past, they could radio for help, draw up a battle formation and even knock together an exit strategy as Boko Haram battle cry rings in unison with the thundery ta-ta-ta-ta—ta of Kalashnikovs.
But July 25 was different. It was just dust and gunfire and blood.
Musa dived on the ground as the bullets wheezed past his ears. A sharp pain shot up his left side where he landed on a geophone connected to one of the vibrator trucks brought by the oil prospectors.
One of the professors from the University of Maiduguri had explained to him the previous week that they used the equipment among others to get a sound picture beneath the surface of the ground to know where to drill. However, listening to the geophone now, Musa could hear was own blood hum.
This was a bad idea.
Not to the government in Abuja. The obsession to find oil in large swaths of desert land around the Lake Chad Basin has bothered on mania.
Prospecting for oil began when Buhari was appointed oil minister under the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1976, buoyed by discoveries in the Niger and Chad ends of the Lake Chad. After toppling the democratically elected government of Shehu Shagari in 1983, Buhari as military dictator splurged huge resources in a phantom quest for oil. He returned as president in 2015, and the next year ordered Maikanti Baru, NNPC group managing director to make finding oil in the north a priority.
Drilling in the north has the overt objective of deepening Nigeria’s estimated 37billion barrels oil reserve but in reality, it reeks of sectional ambition to make the north an oil producing region regardless of the cost.
“Though it is too early to be categorical, there is a possibility that we may find oil in commercial quantity in the Chad Basin because of the discoveries of commercial hydrocarbon deposits in neighbouring countries of Chad, Niger and Sudan which have similar structural settings with the Chad Basin. Therefore, it is prudent to aggressively explore the Chad Basin for possible hydrocarbon deposits,” Alison- Madueke as petroleum minister said in 2010.
After a fruitless search for nearly five years, the project was scrapped. Some of those leading the charge were the same people who superintended over failed efforts years ago. Usually, bureaucratic institutions are not structured so that principals receive unvarnished feedback from subordinates.
Otherwise, the president would have received a feedback in the form of a memo that began with: ‘With all due respect, Sir, if you want to know what fart sounds like, just read over your last memo ordering us to go drilling for crude oil in the Lake Chad basin.’
Perhaps the decision to go in search of oil in the north at this time is the clearest evidence of a government in denial, ostensibly peopled with characters who reason as though rigor mortis has set in on their intellect.
Which was exactly how Musa felt, as he crawled under one of the vibrator trucks, as bombs and bullets rend the air.
The suddenness of the attack had knocked off the possibility of quickly summoning help. Members of the Civilian Joint Task Force and the soldiers were returning fire but their flanks had been compromised and were being gunned down from behind.
By some accounts, at 9pm rescue was yet to come. None of the over 40 people in the area could be accounted for as oil workers and scientists fled across a wide expanse of mostly arid land with the occasional shrubs and backwater villages for cover.
NNPC has been mandated to drill over 600,000 square kilometres in the Gongola Basin of the Benue trough including areas deep into the borders of the Lake Chad Basin. In October 2016, the national oil company said it would acquire 33,550 sq km of 3-D seismic data for processing in a bid to get a clearer picture of oil reserves in the area.
Yet this is one of the most volatile regions in Africa. “Nigeria and Chad have fought a series of border skirmishes in the 1970s over control of the basin. Their disputes remain unresolved. There is still ambiguity over ownership of a number of islands in Lake Chad. There’s been ongoing diplomatic posturing and local communal conflicts between Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon over control of the ecological basin. Nigeria’s intention to drill new oil fields will only heighten the stakes of these tensions and lead to violence,” said Kingsley Sawyerr an energy lawyer.
Nigeria is relying solely on its army’s word that Boko Haram has been contained, but frequent assaults by the insurgents suggest that Nigerians have been served coloured water as juice.
Releases by the military on combat activities to end the insurgency, code-named ‘Lafiya Dole’, employs colourful language that so often obfuscate substance. Insurgents are ‘neutralised’ or soldiers are ordered to give a ‘decisive punch’ to radicals.
Occasionally, there is the release about surrendered insurgents being ‘air lifted for de-radicalisation,’ thrown into the mix to mollify Human Rights Watch.
But there are times words are not enough, no matter how well they are adorned. Like on July 26, when news trickled in that nine soldiers had been killed following the foiled kidnap of 10 geologists from the University of Maiduguri who were among the prospectors.
There were no figures for the Civilian JTF and the local hunters, or the contract workers that were killed in the skirmish. Apparently, some dead are more equal than others.
Last year, at the 2016 National Association of Petroleum Economists conference in Lagos, geoscientists said there are teething challenges militating against oil field development in the Chad Basin, prominent of which is the integrity and mapping of oil wells.
Government has said that currently over 600,000 seismic section and 30,000 wells log are being scanned and rectorised in good time for the eventual drilling. This is after 23 wells have been drilled with two of the wells, Wadi-1 and Kinsar, encountering non-commercial gas.
Experts say that is due to the formation in these basins which make it difficult to estimate appropriate levels of oil wells and the prospect areas. They suggest the deployment of intelligent well appraisal systems, transmission of real-time well data to specialists across the globe which will involve Broadband capacity technology. Needless to say, Nigeria does not have the capacity to carry out complex operations in the trough nor the resources to engage professionals. This is a key reason why International oil companies shunned drilling in the north.
Besides the hazardous terrain, economics does not favour an oil search in the north at this time – or anytime again.
“While there are about 37 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and about 187 trillion standard cubic feet of gas in the South of Nigeria, what we want to explore in the North is an unproven reserve of about 2.3 billion barrels of oil reserves and about 14.65 trillion standard cubic feet of natural gas available for four or more countries in the Chad Basin,” said Henry Biose of the Petroleum Economics, with the University of Port Harcourt.
Biose said further, “If you do the cost benefit analysis, you can see that it is not viable in the short and medium term.”
Already the NNPC has spent over N130billion according to information government officials have provided in the effort.
Global conditions do not also favour this action. Oil prices are struggling to leave $40 per barrel floor when they sold for over $100 per barrel in 2014. Goldman Sachs, a leading global investment firm called on Nigeria and other developing nations to lower oil production taxes to remain competitive in a world where shale producers with 50 percent of their projects now short-cycle, marked by lower costs and fallen break-even costs have ramped production by 190 billion barrels in 17 years.
Shale producers are upsetting the global oil market order with speed to market advantages and outstanding production volumes expected to peak at 13 million barrels per day by 2030. Even if Nigeria were to become so prolific and can produce 3million barrels, a glut in the market has prompted OPEC countries to cap members’ supply.
“The market is already oversupplied and Nigeria has to look into other options beyond just sale of crude oil. This is time to start looking inwards, especially in refining, as this trend will continue,” said Chuks Nwani, an energy lawyer.
France, the United Kingdom and other European countries, many who are car manufacturers are planning to give up diesel and petrol vehicles in about two decades from now as battery powered vehicles gain traction.
More than ever before the world is seeing a surge in renewable energy. In 2016, additional 161GW capacity or renewable energy was added according to International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), a body that collects data on renewable energy investments globally.
9.8 million people were employed in renewable energy worldwide, according to IRENA’s 2017 report, up 1.1% from 2015. Solar PV with 3.1 million jobs (up 12% from 2015) and wind with 1.2 million (up 7% from 2015) led the jobs numbers.
The north has vast human resources, the best sunshine in Nigeria, fertile land for agriculture and enormous mineral resources where the funds wasted in phantom oil search could have been better utilised.
As Musa sat under a neem tree, nursing wounds on his leg, he made up his mind. He would leave on a cement truck leaving for Lagos the next day.