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THE PR CRISIS OF NNPC DEBT

By NBF News

The best story tellers for news media could be found among public relations practitioners who are creative in generating newsworthiness from events and statements that could be inconsequential or belated. Most cover stories and exclusive reports have the imprint of those hidden publicity persuaders whose identities are frequently shrouded in anonymity. They are the 'impeccable insiders' and 'reliable sources' without by-lines.

Not that the media could not have their way in getting stories, they use the PR sources to authenticate and validate their reports. While some of those image makers have succeeded in enhancing the profiles of their bosses as well as their organisations, others, due to slight misgivings become sacrificial lambs that are crucified and banished from their beats.

There is currently an intense controversy over a seeming harmless piece of news that have some elements of PR on the insolvency of Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) which put a top public officer and the Federal Government in an embarrassing situation.

His dilemma started at the FAAC meeting in July 2010, when he disclosed that President Goodluck Jonathan had directed the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) to, henceforth, generate monthly oil production statistics for reconciliation in the second month after the month of data gathering. The directive became necessary to address the problem of recoveries for overpayment and underpayment to state from the 13 per cent derivation computation.

He, then, went further in the statement to confirm that NNPC had written the Ministry of Finance to explain that it was experiencing financial difficulties as a result of the disequilibrium between costs and cash inflow streams. The NNPC, according to him also requested for a reimbursement of N1.156 trillion from Ministry of Finance in order to repay its debt of N450 billion to the Federation Account.

Immediately after the statement, which as customary was timely issued by the PR team, the first reaction strangely came from NNPC Spokesperson Dr. Levi Ajuonuma declaring that the corporation could not be classified as insolvent when it had a healthy cash flow and could pay for its crude and product importation obligations. He further claimed that NNPC was being owed N1.156 trillion by the government as a result of petroleum subsidies which if reimbursed would enable the NNPC to offset the N450 billion debt being owed the FAAC.

After weekly ministerial meeting, like a cowed bull, Babalola was chastised before the media at a Press Conference in the Presidential Villa, where Minister of Information, Professor Dora Akunyili faulted his claim saying that it did not reflect the true position of the Corporation and that 'NNPC is not insolvent. Given the nature of NNPC, there are regular transactions between the government and NNPC and as a result, there are always outstanding balances between them.'

The new Finance Minister, Dr. Aganga then joined in the rebuke by stating that 'We have so many different transactions between the NNPC and the Federal Government, in some form of the balances it maybe a daily balance and in another, it may be a trade balance. You need to make all of these things up, if you are worried about NNPC that is a different matter.'

In a twist with contradictory disclosure, few weeks after, an independent body, the Nigeria Extractive Industry Initiative (NEITI) reconfirmed that NNPC owes Federation Account N654 billion and threatened to sanction oil and gas companies that fail to remit oil revenue and taxes to the Federation Account as recommended by the 2005 Industry Audit. The Executive Secretary of agency Mallam Haruna Yunusa Sa'eed said the NNPC is yet to remit some of the money discovered in the 2005 audit and is among the top debtors of the Federation Account.

Chairman of the NEITI, Professor Assisi Asobie re-echoed the same position, promising to lodge complaints to appropriate authorities on the oil companies that refuse to comply with NEITI's Act for appropriate sanction.

Looking at the facts and drama, one may wonder what actually put Remi Babalola, a former Executive Director in some of big banks into trouble? Is he growing wings and undermining his superiors in government? Is he an overzealous publicity freak, who would rather seek media limelight than engage in government business without attracting attention? Or could he be playing to the gallery with hidden agenda, typical of politicians, for immediate or future ambitions?

The PR team should now realise that they need to thread softly, especially on a position whose tenure is not constitutionally guaranteed from arbitrary removal. There is no crime in being very efficient in PR campaign, but definitely, something could be wrong by overdoing it, especially in a system where there are other players seeking recognitions.

•Yushau A. Shuaib
University of Westminster,
Harrow Campus, London.