By Ibiba DonPedro
Whenever it appears as if the matter of the disputed Atala Oil OML 46 has died down, overtaken by news of fresh trouble in a season of daily occurring troubling events in the land, it manages to bob to the surface, defiant. Clearly, the charged matter of the marginal oilfield, Bayelsa State’s prized oil resource possession will neither simmer, nor just fizzle out soon.
In the midst of celebrations in the state as the oil and gas rich state with the sobriquet, Glory Of All Lands’, clocks 25 years on October1, 2021,a certain pall of gloom hangs over the muted celebrations as informed citizens continue to discuss the matter of the loss of the marginal oilfield on social media platforms and across the state.
This comes in the thick of yet unconfirmed reports of ongoing illegal crude oil theft, popularly referred to as ‘bunkering’, at the Atala oil field site located in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. A new voice of concern has been added to sustained loud cries from Bayelsa persons and groups deeply troubled over the fate of the oilfield, which was granted to the State in 2003 under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration. Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha was then governor of the state.
In a release signed by its Chairman Chief Nengi James and Alagoa Morris, described as the officer in charge of Atala investigations, the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO Bayelsa State sent out a high note of concern over the reported loss of Atala Oilfield to the financially stressed state, declaring its pain that, ‘the Atala facility allocated to Bayelsa State since the administration of Alamieyeseigha, could have reduced the unemployment level in the state, increased revenue accrual to Bayelsa and assisted in meeting some of the developmental aspirations of the state‘.
In addition to the public statement by the CLO, the apex ijaw socio-cultural organisation Ijaw National Congress, INC in response to persistent, concerned queries by informed persons and groups in the State following allegations of collusion in the manner in which the state lost the Atala Oilfield, has set up a 7 man team to carry out investigations into the matter of the loss of the oil asset. The investigating team announced by INC President Prof Benjamin Okaba is headed by Prof Ambily Etekpe, has Chief Ayakeme Whisky, Bomo Tons Fetepigi Obhe, Secretary, Igbamukumo Jephthah, Alagoa Morris, Alfred Doibo and Dr.Pereowei Subai as members. The team has been directed to dig deep and report to the INC.
A Coalition Adds Its Voice
Indigenes of Bayelsa State and their kin in the United Kingdom, United States and Canadian Diaspora have been in shocked animation since the Federal Government in April, 2020 announced the revocation of the Atala Oilfield along with 10 other marginal oilfields. They were further sent reeling when in February, 2021 reports filtered out that the Federal government acting through its supervisory agency, the Department of Petroleum Resources, DPR had approved the handing over of the Atala oilfield, an asset hitherto owned by the Bayelsa State government, through BOCL to new owners, Halkin Exploration and Production Limited.
A letter to that effect indicated that the Atala oilfield, part of a farm in of Oil Mining Lease (OML) 46, was approved for transfer after the Director, supervising DPR, Sarki Auwalu, copied a memo dated February 26, 2021 to the Minister of State for Petroleum, Chief Timipre Sylva, notifying him of the directive which had been given approval by President Muhammadu Buhari. Sylva gave his approval for this forfeiture.
Bayelsa Oil Company Limited BOCL and its joint partners CEPL and Hardy Oil Nigeria Limited had managed the oilfield since 2011.
In response to this development,a letter dated August 18, 2021 signed by the leaders of a coalition of Ijaw organisations among them Efiye Bribena, Elaye Otrofaniowei,Ben Amaebi Okoro,Rosemary John-Oduone,and Chief Amagbe Kentebe respectively representing Ijaw Elders Forum, Ijaw Professional Association, Ijaw Nation Forum, Ijaw Women Connect and Embasara Foundation has called on Governor Diri to take action to retrieve the state’s Atala asset by setting up a competent public inquiry to expose the truth of the matter of the percieved involvement of key persons in the state in the loss of Atala Oilfield and its purported transfer to a private company with links to influential persons in the past administration specifically, the former governor Dickson and his relatives. The coalition also called on the governor to set in motion processes to constitute a board and management for the BOCL, to reorganise the company and follow up on the recovery of the State’s prized oil asset.
In the midst of concerns over the silence of the Bayelsa state government as the Atala matter raged, in July 2021, Gov Diri who eventually spoke on the Atala Oil issue, stated that, ‘“We kept silent over the issue of the Bayelsa State-owned Atala Oil Field, because we needed to have all the information that led to the revocation of its licence. Part of what I have done in the last one week of my absence was to state the position of the Bayelsa State Government, which I did clearly to President Muhammadu Buhari. “So, our position on Atala Oil Field is that it is a prized asset of Bayelsa State and that revocation should be reversed.
Perceptions of Conflict of interest
One of persons linked to the increasingly muddy and disturbing to Bayelsa people Atala issue, is Moses Oruanze Dickson said to be a younger brother brother to the former Governor of Bayelsa State, Senator Henry Seriake Dickson. A lawyer who is said to act as an external solicitor to Halkin interfacing and negotiating the sale of BOCL equity, his perceived involvement in the Atala saga is particularly offensive to Bayelsa people National Point investigations reveal.
At the same time, his law firm is said to have a retainer with BOCL at the time BOCL’s controlling interest over Atala Oil Field was purportedly stripped.
Justus Otonyo, a social activist based in Yenagoa said, ‘Its so sad what these people have turned the assets of Bayelsa to. What manner of persons can be so insensitive as to seek to deprive a whole state and people of what belongs to even Bayelsa children not yet born?
Minister of State Sylva, had in the midst of the heat set off by the revocation of the Atala oilfield denied that Atala was specifically targeted. He told journalists that, ; “About 11 marginal fields were revoked for non-performance, and the holders of these fields held them for 17 years without producing these fields, and as a country, we lose money. Because if we are producing these fields, the country too will be getting royalties and other payments, and taxes from your production,” Sylva said.
“But when you hold an asset and you just keep it, and you are not producing that asset, the country is losing money ultimately.
The messy take over of Bayelsa State Atala asset and its uncertain conclusion has taken several twists and turns marked by mind blowing publications and counters in the mainstream as well as social media. On July 2, 2021 a full page advert by the Bayelsa Oil Company signed by Bello Akpotu on behalf of the management, expressed its concerns over the trending letter from the DPR where its Director, Auwalu requested the transfer of 41% of BOCL 51% holdings in Atala to Halkin Exploration, a company whose Managing Director appointed in January 2021, is Ebikabowei Charles Dorgu, former Managing Director of BOCL.
In the said publication, BOCL denied any knowledge of such transfer discussed or approved by the BOCL board. The DPR letter also stated that Halkin Exploration, claimed to have expended $60,000,000 to revive the Atala asset, a claim that has eyebrows raised in the state and beyond. Halkin was registered in September 2019 with the Corporate Affairs Commission CAC, with Sagoe Temitope K and Ogbu Oliaku named as shareholders.
But, the Atala oilfield has been managed since 2013 by CEPL working in conjunction with Hardy Oil. CEPL holds a 35% farm in agreement with BOCL.
CEPL states that working with BOCL, it had developed test products with a crude cargo of 1000 barrels awaiting DPR approval for evacuation before these troubling developments .
Clearly, battle lines for the prized Atala marginal oilfield have been drawn on the sands of Bayelsa state. Three men who hold or have held the most powerful position of governor, hold the key to resolving the challenging issue among them Timipre Sylva, Seriake Dickson and the current governor Douye Diri. Clearly, the vocal groups who have kept up a strident cry for open investigations into the Atala oilfield matter expect justice to be done in favour of the state and people, not powerful persons with vested interests in the matter.