Liberia’s oil boom…..blessing or curse?

Africa’s oldest independent nation, Liberia, is at the verge of oil exploration. But what’s in it for ordinary Liberians? A story is told of how three races, including a Liberian (representing the black race), went to meet their creator. The Whiteman was asked what favor he wanted from God. He requested for knowledge to do many things. The Asian asked his creator for manufacturing power and a large population to be able to sell his produce.

Finally the Liberian was quizzed about what he wanted. After much hesitation the Liberian was able to muster some courage President Ellen Johnson-Sirleafand reluctantly said, “Well, I was just perambulating and my friends said they were coming to see you…so I just decided to accompany them”. Their Creator being sorry for him said alright, since you came along I will put some minerals…and perhaps, small crude oil under your soil. But you will depend on your friends to get it out and have it processed. Probably, God has remembered his promise and put some oil in our soil. But what remains a corridor gossip is whether it is a “blessing or a curse”.

In the 60’s, Liberia Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was compared to that of Japan. Liken to 21st century reality, the sweet land of liberty has taken a downward trend on the economic ladder. Thanks to the post-war recovery process that is trying to revamp our economic system. Some banking experts blamed it on the economic system the country has – Manage flow Economy; i.e., the market forces of demand and supply determine the value of the Liberian Dollar to that of the United States Dollar. Liberia has nothing to show for the timber and iron ore industries she once boasted of.

To a larger scope, all she now has a broken infrastructure system, pot holes and poverty-striking citizenry. Here we are at the cross-road of oil exploration…. Is it timely and are we prepared? How many petroleum engineers, geologists and other technocrats can we boast of? Is it a mere conduit through which our so-called and self-proclaimed rich; few untouchable bourgeois or it’s certainly going to redefine the livelihoods of ordinary citizens whose daily mealtime is based on lucky ticket. In our local parlance, we referred to such situation as, “someday good and someday bad” or “my pot can’t boil”?

The dichotomy between ordinary Liberians and those self-professed bourgeoisie remains a challenge. According to statistics, the average Liberian live on less than one United States dollar a day. Giving the status quo, the voyage to the land of oil exploration in somewhat unknown as the country journey to develop her citizens in the sector remains ambivalent. Instead of training more engineers in the oil sector, we’ve given oil blocks to companies like Chevron, Canadian Overseas Petroleum Limited (COPL), ExxonMobil, etc.

Liberia needs to copy the excellent example of other African countries like Ghana, Sudan, etc. Petroleum was discovered in western Sudan in the 1970s, but Sudan did not actively pursue oil production until the 1990s. The country began exporting oil in 1999. The same oil crisis in Sudan has given birth to the newest nation on the plant – South Sudan. Political commentators think Africa’s superpower - Nigeria - might experience similar division in her oil-rich Niger delta region. With Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, adopting oil workers and rich Nigerians; at the same time calling for Islamist rule in the north, one can safely say the government of the Federal Republic has an uphill battle to fight.

Liberia’s oil sector, if it’s properly handled, will be able to adequately improve our health care delivery system, education, road network, electricity, etc. Other than that, bulk of the revenue that will be engendered will disappear in foreign accounts with no one to be held culpable.

Years back I hailed the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) under the then leadership of Christopher Neyor as President/CEO, when NOCAL signed two separate Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) on December 20, 2011 with the Ministry of Education and the University of Liberia. NOCAL gave US$500,000.00 grant to the Ministry of Education and US$350,000.00 to the State University. According to the MOU, the Ministry of Education was to use said amount to upgrade high school laboratories across the country and attract more science and mathematics instructors to public high schools. Similarly, the University of Liberia was to improve its Engineering Departments.

I also gave President Sirleaf a patriotic salute in 2010 when she commissioned various assessments of the oil and gas sector and remedies for areas with deficiencies. Aided by non-participating oil companies, petroleum lawyers and consultants, the President identified four key areas for reforms:

1. The creation of a policy that incorporates local content and revenue management;
2. Revisions to the existing Petroleum Laws and Model Production Sharing Contracts;
3. An Environmental Management Plan; and
4. Placing a moratorium on the Bid and Award of blocks 1 – 5 until the completion of the above reforms

However, when her son and Senior Advisor, Robert Alvin Sirleaf took over the leadership of NOCAL, my heart bawled for mama Liberia. Many Liberians, including myself, wonder why Mr. Sirleaf would want to offer‘’so-call pro bono” service at the National Oil Company of Liberia? Mr. Sirleaf is not a petroleum engineer; neither is he an expert in the oil sector. Why he didn’t offer pro bono (free services) at the Monrovia City Corporation to help Madam Broh beautify Monrovia, but instead, the ‘greasy’ oil company of Liberia? He claims to offer free service at NOCAL but takes home same benefit as other Chief Executive Officer plus more. Moreover, Mr. Sirleaf runs foundation under the disguise of charity work. For instance, the Robert A. Sirleaf Foundation, Robert A. Sirleaf Barrack Youth Club, and Robert A. Sirleaf Social Work Fund. Why Mr. Sirleaf wants to play on the intelligence of all Liberians? A wise man once said, “You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool everybody all the time”.

Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back was President Sirleaf’s state of the nation address (2013) to the national legislature. She spoke lengthily on key policy issues and reforms, but inadvertently didn’t talk about one of Liberia’s monumental income generating avenues – the oil sector. This act by the president only leaves more questions than answers on the minds of many Liberians. Is Liberia oil sector and blocks now turning into family wells? The modus vivendi of Madam Sirleaf’s government on corruption, only shows that the stance on embezzlement is purely a phantom. Corruption, as professed to be being public enemy number one, has now become a bedfellow to the Sirleaf led government. Mr. Robert A. Sirleaf is an honorable man, but masquerades as a pro bono worker at NOCAL, where he receives same benefit plus more as other Board Chair of the National Oil Company of Liberia. Liberia’s oil is not a family well, but a national resource that should improve the living stand of ordinary Liberians. In the words of NOCAL’s former Board Chair, Christopher Neyor, Liberians could be inspired in the oil sector where the opportunity for them becoming millionaires could be realized.

Is President Sirleaf fulfilling Christopher Neyor’s vision of creating Liberia first millionaire or billionaire? Madam President please learn from the colossal error of some of your fallen African brothers and save your hard earned internal recognition. You witnessed what happen to Dictator Col. Maummar Gaddafi and his sons involvement in the running of Libya; Hussein Mubarak of Egypt and other non-African leaders like Saddam Hussein, etc. Back in the late 1970’s when Madam President was in the political struggle and advocacy; she spoke against injustices like nepotism and corruption. Regrettably some of the same things she spoke against are being exhibited right under her nose. Notwithstanding, am only reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Madam President wake up and smell the coffee!!
About the writer
The writer is a youth activist and practicing journalist who promotes youth empowerment and the African Renaissance. He’s also the Executive Director of Torchbearers, a vibrant youth group that is transforming the lives of many adolescence in Margibi County.

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