Discovery of oil is just the beginning of a lengthy process in Gambia

Mar 01, 2004 01:00 AM

During his New Year message to the nation, President Jammeh used the occasion to promise Gambians that within three months, he was going to disclose how this country would become rich and it would even become a donor nation. While he did not disclose how such a dream was going to be realized, many people began to speculate what it was that prompted him to make such a prediction.
As a result, the rumour mills started churning out tons of possible reasons for it. Many theories were put forward, which included the discovery of petroleum or other strategic minerals like gold and diamonds. However, President Jammeh could not even wait for the three months deadline to lapse before he let the cat out of the bag by announcing his famous "Alhamdulilah" petroleum discovery.

Many people have no doubt welcomed the announcement, believing like him that it is the beginning of the end to our poverty as individuals and backwardness as a nation. However, his prediction that with the discovery of oil, Gambia would soon become a rich nation was a very simplistic way of putting it. It is one thing to discover oil, but it is completely different thing to become a rich nation.
We have seen nations that have oil for quite a number of years now but some of them still continue to be at the very bottom of the development ladder. It is usually not the type of resources available that matter most, but the way they are managed, and we all know that our record of resource management in this country, particularly since the assumption of office by this regime had not been quite impressive.

Therefore, even if we have petroleum and all the other strategic minerals in this country, as long as our system of resource management does not improve, this country can never become rich or a donor nation. No doubt a few individuals can become rich but a majority of the people would continue to wallow in poverty.
Indeed, the very mention of oil and its management would no doubt bring back the memory of many Gambians about the alleged mismanagement of three huge consignments of crude oil and refined petroleum that had been supplied to this country on concessionary terms by the Federal Government of Nigeria. Therefore, if the regime had not been able or willing to account for at least two of those consignments, it would be hard for anyone to be comfortable with entrusting them with the management of an entire oil industry.

It is also quite necessary to discuss a few pertinent facts about petroleum, particularly to those over-optimistic about the discovery, including President Jammeh himself. They should understand that the discovery of oil is just the beginning of a lengthy process to realize any benefits from it. In the first place, it has to be determined whether the quantities are economical enough to warrant prospecting, which itself takes quite a long time.
It would also no doubt cost quite a fortune to put up the necessary infrastructure and facilities to sink wells and start pumping out the black gold, particularly when it is offshore. We all know that Gambia does not have a fraction of the amount needed to finance such a process and therefore, we must rely on those "western" oil companies he referred to in his speech to do it.

That should then be followed by protracted negotiations between the government and those companies as to how to share the profits, which indeed may not be realized for the first few years of operations. The process takes such a long time that the present generation of Gambians may not realize the full extent of the benefits of any oil discovery, let alone become a donor nation in the foreseeable future. Therefore, I think President Jammeh was a bit too hasty in his reaction to the discovery.
It is also an open secret that many other countries in the sub-region, including our immediate neighbour Senegal have made similar discoveries of traces of oil, with the same "western" oil companies such as Fusion Oil and Gas, Amerada Hess and the Cape Town-based Energy Africa being involved in those discoveries, and yet, none of the leaders of those countries have made half as much noise about it as President Jammeh. Was it really necessary?

There is also another aspect to oil that most people either did not see or did not know, and that is the potential risk of environmental pollution that normally goes with it. There have been numerous examples in many oil-producing countries. A good case in point are the problems being experienced by the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, which continues to suffer from serious environmental pollution.
Therefore, if it can happen to a powerful nation like Nigeria with better facilities, then we can imagine what it can do to a country like Gambia with a very small land area, and if adequate safety measures are not put in place in order to prevent such environmental pollution, then we would be doomed as a nation. In that case therefore, rather than realize the benefits of the oil, we are likely to instead reap its curse.

Presently, even without oil, we are losing the battle against pollution and environmental degradation. Therefore, we can imagine how we are going to cope with a serious pollutant like petroleum. It would mean that we have quite a lot of thinking and planning to do before we would start jubilating as an oil-producing nation.
To some people therefore, the discovery of petroleum is a curse rather than a blessing to this country.

Source: The Independent
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