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ALISON-MADUEKE AND COMMUNICATION CHALLENGE

By NBF News
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'The Minister of Petroleum Resources, Deziani Alison-Madueke,' editor of Thisday on Sunday, Ms Ijeoma Nwogwugwu wrote in her column of September 5, 2011, 'is one of the most opaque and inaccessible public officials I have ever had the privilege to encounter. She habitually refuses to respond to official inquiries, no matter the number of times the requests are made'.

The editor may not be far from the truth. In other words, the minister is anything but media savvy. Unlike many top government officials and top politicians throughout the world who go out of their way to court the media, Mrs Alison-Madueke has maintained a huge distance from the media. Her opponents recognize this obvious political handicap, and have manipulated it to maximum advantage.

More than any other minister in this administration, Mrs Alison-Madueke has been the subject and victim of stories planted in the press with a view to arousing mass hysteria. About a month after the Nigerian media went to town with the false news that Nigeria had concluded a plan to build three refineries in Indonesia to refine Nigeria's crude oil which will then be sent to Nigeria for local consumption, the press reproduced a news report ostensibly published in an Austrian paper alleging that she has just acquired an eye-popping property in Vienna, the headquarters of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), for a whopping 20million Euros. The residence is reported to be next to that of her predecessor, Dr Rilwanu Lukman, who years ago served as the OPEC secretary general.

To make the story look credible, a version of the report written in the German language was produced, purportedly culled from the Austrian paper named Haute. It was even claimed that the house has an Olympic-size swimming pool and gardens. Like most fictions and works of propaganda, this report is riddled with contradictions. Though it claims that the residence is an architectural masterpiece and sits next to Dr Lukman's, the same place is described as secret!

The purveyors of news of the phantom purchase who claim to have got the report from an Austrian newspaper were to turn round to allege that the foreign paper lifted the report from a Nigerian online news service.

Whatever credibility crisis the news of the so-called property purchase may have suffered, the purveyors did succeed in creating a bit of mass hysteria initially. Nigerian websites, mostly those run by Nigerians abroad, carried angry articles reacting to the alleged transaction. Some early morning radio presenters spoke about the report as if it contained even a grain of truth. Ironically, none of the media which carried the phantom report and the angry reactions has displayed the required kind of grace by admitting that the report about the purported purchase is a complete hoax.

As already stated, the forces against Alison-Madueke are adept at media manipulation, an area where she has so far displayed little talent. When in the middle of this year President Goodluck Jonathan was set to reconstitute his government and news filtered that she was likely to return to the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, multinational oil companies mobilized their propaganda arsenal against her. The press was awash with reports of her being at the centre of 'oily deals'. Interestingly, the deals cited are the very ones that made her look very patriotic in the eyes of the Nigerian people when they eventually got to know the truth.

The multinationals cleverly capitalized on the public confusion over the near identical names of two oil producing companies to manipulate public information against her. The two companies, which are new in Nigeria, are Seplat and Septa . (The Corporate Affairs Commission should not have registered Septa since its trade name bears too much resemblance to Seplat which is in the same line of business). Seplat is a company formed by two indigenous firms, Sheba and Platform, and it has a French firm as the technical partner. Septa, on the other hand, is the Nigerian subsidiary of Seven Energy, a multinational based in France. Seplat took over the 45% interests of Shell, Total/Elf and Agip in Operating Mining Leases (OMLs 4, 38 and 41) . This was before Mrs Alison-Madueke became the Petroleum Resources Minister in April, 2010. Septa was to replace Agip in the technical management service contract the Italian company had with the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company, an NNPC subsidiary which still retains its 55% stake in the three oil blocks.

But what was reported in a section of the media is that Mrs Alison-Madueke has sold NPDC's interests in the three oil blocks to her friends in Seven Energy/Septa! Septa's new role as financier and manager in a deal with the NPDC, sometimes described as a strategic alliance, was misconstrued and misinterpreted to an unsuspecting public as an outright sale of the blocks without competitive bidding. Worse, she was reported to be the person who sold Shell's, Elf's and Agip's stakes to Seplat. As has been noted above, the Seplat deal preceded her assumption of duties in the Ministry of Petroleum Resources.

Quite ironically, Mrs Alison-Madueke has not had the best of relationships with Seplat people because of her insistence that Shell did not act well in selling its interests in the oil blocks. Her argument is that the joint venture agreements between the NNPC and the western multinationals provide that anytime any western operator wants to divest its interest in an OML, the operatorship automatically reverts to the Nigerian government through the NNPC. Therefore, Shell does not have the right to sell its interests in those blocks to a third party without consulting with the NNPC. She consequently caused the NNPC to publish in different newspapers a caveat emptor, or a warning to prospective buyers to treat with caution. Still, the media published that she has been in cahoots with Seplat and ' other friends of hers to rip off the nation'.

In this propaganda war, no prisoners are taken; all is fair. A newspaper recently published a report about how Alison-Madueke treated the Senate with contempt by ignoring two summons for her to appear before the Senate Committee on Upstream Petroleum. Another wrote how she flouted a judicial order against Excell, described as her husband's oil company. Yet another has published how she, as the Minister of Mines under the late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, ordered four Nigerian banks through Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi to cough up two million dollars each to bankroll the jewelry exhibition in Hollywood of a Nigerian designer, Chris Aire. It added that Nigerian delegates stayed in a suite where $34,000 was paid a night for each person by the banks.

The Vatican City would describe these allegations as 'taking imagination too far'. Both the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and the NNPC have stated that they have no record of such summons. And the Senate has not challenged the claim. As regards treating a judicial order with utmost contempt, not even President Jonathan, with all the enormous powers at his disposal, has displayed disdain for the courts of the land. In respect of the alleged order to the Central Bank governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi who is a very strong character, not even the Finance Minister can do so, let alone Mrs Alison-Madueke as Minister of Mines under Yar'Adua. With regard to the payment of $34,000 per night for every Nigerian delegate who lodged in Hotel, the truth is that the hotel has never had a suite which costs up to $7,000 a night. Its tariff is available on the Internet.

Mrs Alison-Madueke, has not done well in the propaganda campaign over her record in office. She herself seems to recognize this fact, but attributed the problem to the NNPC Public Affairs Division in an enlightening interview with Thisday, The Sunday Paper of June 12, 2011. No, Madam. The chief image maker of any organization is not really the head of the public relations department but the chief executive. A very charming and pleasant lady at Shell, at the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Mines, she became less accessible when she moved to the Ministry of Petroleum Resources.

A lot of people seem to ascribe the change in attitude to her new found influence and power. Not quite. The truth is that she felt she needs to stay away as much as possible from local and international lobbyists and their agents who began to mount unbearable pressure on her no sooner than she was sworn in. But she truly has overdone it. It is a serious error on her part not to court the media. She needs the media in her battles with the multinationals who insist on bringing down any person who has an independent mind and is not prepared to dance to their tune which is often in conflict with Nigerian national interest.

Consider, for instance, the single-minded battle she fought to increase the volume of crude oil produced by the NPDC from a mere 40,000 barrels per day to the present 90,000bpd within one year, and wants it to climb to 265,000bpd by 2015 so that it can compete with exemplary state-owned oil producing companies like Petrobras of brazil and Petronas of Malaysia.

Oshowole is chief executive of a petroleum consulting firm in Lagos.