Oil discovery in Niger ignites tenure elongation debate for president

Nov 15, 2008 01:00 AM

The recent discovery of oil in Niger Republic, climaxed by a foundation laying ceremony of the first proposed refinery in Walelewa village in Zinder State in October, is changing the political dynamics in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Elections in Niger republic are scheduled to be held in 2009. The current president, Alhaji Tandja Mammadou will be taking the last lap in his two terms of 10 years in 2009. But the discovery of oil is threatening to change the political equation within and outside the country. Already, there are calls for constitutional changes to allow the president to go for a third term of another 5 years.

Although the country has discovered oil about 10 years ago, its exploration, some say, was delayed largely for political expediency by the country's former colonial master, France. After his second coming, President Tandja decided to challenge the decision of France, whose survey showed that the oil in the country's deserts are not of commercial quantity.
Last year, the president invited Chinese firm CNPC to study the prospect of oil exploration and determine whether the quantity is commercially viable or not. After a series of geological surveys, the company confirmed availability in commercial quantity in several areas of the country, with the richest of the oil deposits found in Diffa, an enclave of ongoing militant rebellion in the eastern part of the country.

The proposed refinery was, however, sited in Walelewa in Zinder 300 km from the actual oil field. This according to some analysts is a political decision aimed at neutralizing the opposition elements in the country. Zinder State is home to foremost opposition leaders like Mamman Usman and Professor Sanusi Jako among others, who are known as opponents of the president.
A year later, the company was ready to start oil exploration under a 60-40 % share agreement in the next 10 years. It was this agreement that climaxed into the official commissioning of the first refinery in the country on the 24th of October, 2008 in Walelewa village in Zinder state.

Minister for energy and natural resources, Mohammed Abdullahi, himself, echoed the politics in the exploration of the oil during his speech. He disclosed that despite sabotage by many interest groups to stop the exploration, "the contract was signed in June 2008 under a private public partnership agreement." He described the exploration as historic, because, according to him Niger republic will soon be ranked among oil exporting countries of the world.
CNPC will spend over $ 4 bn on the project. Statistics from the country's ministry for energy and natural resources showed that over 324 mm barrels of crude oil is expected to be explored within the next 10 years in Diffa alone. It is also expected that about 270 mm barrels will be explored annually, while the country will in the next few years start exploring 20,000 bpd. Consumption needs of the country stood at 8,000 bpd.

Sources from the company say that exploration and refining will start by 2011, and it is this fact that many say the ruling party is trying to exploit to hang unto power until after 2011 so as to reap the fruits of oil exploration and exportation in the country. Since the foundation laying ceremony for the refinery, politics in the country is changing.
In a statement made available by the conference of opposition parties that comprises of CDS-Rahama, PNDS-Tarraya, RDP-Jama, and RSD-Gaskiya and signed by Salisu Adamu, the state secretary of RSD, the opposition said recent mobilization to change the constitution will only breed autocratic government which the people will not tolerate.

The opposition called on President Tandja to remember that in 1998 President Baare was fooled into attempting to elongate his stay as military head of state after some politicians lured him into it, but he was overthrown by the military. Adamu who described President Tandja as committed and a patriotic politician who is respected by all should not allow people who do not wish the country well to deceive him into toying with the idea.
"We respect the president as we know he is fair and just, but we wish he will fulfil his promise as he sworn to do when he was elected for the second term," he said.

The National Publicity Secretary of the RDP-Jamaa Alhaji Abubakar Aliyu Gure said there is nothing wrong in people calling on the president to continue in office after his second term elapses next year. He told that it is not a hidden fact that President Tandja has changed the way government is being run in the country, especially the various developments recorded in the oil industry and uranium sector.
"The president has been able to bring changes never seen before in several sectors and it is these changes that people feel he should be allowed to continue so that these wonderful things he started will not be left for some politicians who will only come to enrich themselves," he said.

In his reaction to the calls for tenure elongation, Secretary General of the ruling MNSD-Nasara Alhaji Sale Habi said what is happening is that the people are expressing their belief in the president who has brought change not seen in the last 22 years. He said the economy of the country has seen changes since the election of President Tandja and must therefore not be left in the hands of someone who could not handle it.
"This is what the people of Niger republic are saying and this is democracy where people's choices are respected, if they want him to be here forever, let it be."
"Remember we have the constitution and the president swore by the Holy Qur'an to depend it, but if the people say that is what they want, fine, it is then that the parties will decide, we only hope politicians in the country will view the matter with maturity and ensure the interest of the country first," he added.

But Secretary General of the ORND, an opposition party in the country and lecturer at the Niamey University, Mamman Sani Adamu dismissed the calls as selfish, greed and a pointer to the crisisfacing the country. He said the discovery of oil has already brought struggle for political manipulation and domination with the ongoing calls for the president to continue after his constitutionally recognized terms in office.
Adamu said that oil discovery is such a serious issue that needs national strategic thinking and planning so as to know how to tackle the issues relating to aftermath of the discovery, like relationship with neighbours, with communities, and how to safeguard the agricultural sector, habitation, environment and others. It is not just how to eat from the bounties as the politicians are doing.

He then called for national discourse to harmonize and find out best way to ensure the nation does not adrift back like other African countries did after the discovery of oil.
"There are three major concerns: One, is the consequences of such discovery on the agricultural sector. Two, how to tackle the possible strife that could be generated as a result especially; here we already have militants in the northern part. Three, how to control our borders and prevent illegal activities of powerful mafia groups that will now be attracted to the country. But those in power are only interested in who will reap the bounties and not how to protect the nation," he added.

Apart inflaming tenure elongation controversy in the country, oil is also pitching the politicians against each other. The first victim was Prime Minister Hama Amadu who has been with the president for over seven years in that position. He is accused of diverting over CFA 100 mm belonging to private media organizations in the country to his personal purse; he has been in jail for over two months now.
But many people see the arrest and allegation as a ploy to coerce politicians with the clout to take over next year. Elections are billed to be held in 2009 and as a result of the uncertainty over the possibility of the elections, only Professor Jako has declared his interest to contest the elections.

While politicians are celebrating the discovery and flag off of the exploration of the oil in a country ranked as the poorest in the world, there is no doubt that with an estimated 324 mm barrels discovered in one area alone, the prospect is surely to attract foreign competition, and that is what is currently happening.
Investigations by the country's energy ministry revealed that oil was first discovered in 1998 in some parts of the country by some French oil firms. However, after a series of studies and surveys, the exploration was suspended and France declared the oil as commercial non viable.

President Tandja was gingered into trying the exploration after he was able to get the country back into uranium exploration, the refusal of their former colonial masters, and the growing world interest over oil as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with demand of oil from rising China economy opened the way for the Chinese company to get license to operate as the sole explorer for now.
This decision therefore opened another international conflict to the power struggle in the country, a development analysts believed the nation's leaders did not calculate well.

Mamman Sani Adamu said that the discovery is already fuelling international interventions with the recent uprising by the Agades rebels being blamed on France who are not happy that the country invited China to reap where they did not sow. He said the US may soon make a head way into the country, because according to him since the crisis in the gulf, the Americans are looking towards Africa for their oil needs. The discovery in Niger republic will surely attract them.
"We have suddenly become an attractive country, and our fear is that instead of our leaders to look at how the country will benefit from the resources, they are busy fighting to see who will get to reap it personally," he said.

He warned that oil politics is so devastating, consequences of which were seen in Angola, Congo Brazzaville and many African countries.
While bothpoliticians, international actors in the oil industry and the civil society are fighting to control the oil discovered in the country, many citizens of the country are praying that the discovery will lead to change in their lives.

Source / Daily Trust
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