Respite is on the way for oil producing communities in Ohaji/Egbema local government areas of Imo State that have for too long, been clamouring for increased participation in the oil and gas development projects going on in their backyard. This respite came on the heels of a one-day roundtable discussions on ‘natural resource benefit-sharing’ held on August 21, 2020 in Owerri, Imo State. Assa is the host community of Oil Mining Lease (OML) 53, major flow stations of oil companies and in particular, the Assa North Ohaji South (ANOH) gas processing plant operated by SEPLAT Petroleum Development Company. Being one of the seven critical gas projects initiated by the Federal Ministry of Petroleum and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the ANOH project is set to be one of the largest greenfield gas condensate development projects in Nigeria to date, with the expectation that future gas production from the project will supply the domestic market.
As with most resource-rich communities in Nigeria and Africa at large, Assa community is one of the most impoverished areas in the state. Despite the heavy presence of oil company executives, heavy equipment and pipelines criss-crossing their villages, the community lacks basic infrastructure such as schools, healthcare facilities and employment for local youths. In fact, Ohaji-Egbema youth are now reputed for their restiveness. Community leaders expressed deep concerns about the heightened due process concerns regarding the handling of important issues around the negotiation of a global memorandum of understanding (GMOU) with oil companies, land acquisitions, resettlement, compensation and traditional livelihoods.
‘In fact, we are now in a state of despondency‘, a local chief of the community narrated as he bemoaned the lack of community inclusion in the oil and gas operations.
From the discussions with 22 leaders and representatives of various interest groups in Assa community, it became clear that the community representatives lacked knowledge of the details of the gas development projects. They had no idea about the contract deals between the federal government and the companies, the actual land grants taken from them to build flow stations and gas processing facilities, the terms of the licences and mining leases awarded to the indigenous and multinational operators, and the scale of environmental impacts that will result from these extractive activities in their communities. Complex contract deals negotiated behind closed doors far away from judicial and public scrutiny, always tilt in favour of the multinational corporations (MNCs).
Among other things, the lopsided power relations between communities and the multinationals was particularly evident in the negotiation of the GMOUs unilaterally drafted by the companies and handed over to them to sign. Bitter complaints were made regarding the manner in which the communities were shut out of conversations regarding the subdivision and use of the lands as well as the extent to which exploration and prospecting activities are to be carried out. It was easy to tell that communities did not receive expert guidance and lacked the resources needed to negotiate better terms and benefits. The Global Memorandum of Understanding imposed on the community is considered wanting and in need of periodic review especially in light of the subsequent discoveries of more oil wells.
The assumption that big industry names operating the area would result in the swift development of Assa has been clearly rebutted as the companies have failed to make their presence felt in the adequate provision of amenities and in the fulfillment of their corporate social responsibility. Community leaders are also concerned that Assa is grouped in the same cluster with other neighbouring non-oil producing communities and yet required to share the entitlements accruing from the projects with them. This has stirred dissatisfaction among the natives who consider the situation to be unfair.
Over and over, the communities reiterated their support for the macro-economic development projects sited in their community, but are however, demanding opportunities to participate and benefit from the extractive activities sited in their own vineyard. The community is demanding to be heard. Flagging off its benefit-sharing campaign at the roundtable, SPACES FOR CHANGE committed to lending its voice to the plight of Assa community and leading advocacy efforts for improved community participation in the oil and gas projects.