Nigeria has sent warning signals to international oil companies that they must stop treating the country like a “trading colony” and demanded that they invest in its energy sector if they want to retain access to its resources.

Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, minister of state for petroleum, said that some of the world’s biggest independent oil traders had benefited for years from exporting Nigeria’s crude and selling the country back refined petroleum products, without putting money into developing the sector. “We have to get selfish on this,” he told reporters in an interview. “If you have been selling me [refined] products for six years and you can’t put a foothold in the country, then I shouldn’t be buying products from you.” Mr Kachikwu’s comments come as Nigeria faces an economic crisis, with the halving in oil prices since 2014 and renewed militancy in the Niger Delta pushing the country into its first recession in more than 20 years.


Industry sources say a refinery tender this year for rehabilitating the country’s processing plants, which had interest from foreign companies, was suspended because of the political sensitivity around the prospect of even a part-privatization of state-owned assets. Until recently the OPEC member was Africa’s largest crude producer. But dysfunctional refineries have left its 180m population reliant on trading houses such as Vitol, Trafigura and Mercuria for refined fuel imports. “Nigeria cannot become a trading colony,” Mr Kachikwu said. He led the state oil company for 11 months before being removed in July. “I’m saying to them, ‘If you want to trade put your base here, do the refining here’.” And indeed, some trading houses have already invested in infrastructure in Nigeria, while others have complained about the difficulty of doing business in the country. Vitol has built an import terminal for liquefied petroleum gas and invested in Oando, the country’s largest independent oil conglomerate.


In a related development, some of the biggest energy producers in Nigeria are owed billions of dollars in arrears for joint ventures with the government. Many are shifting their focus offshore as security concerns and payment issues mount. Their needs to be a well thought out policy in place to attract such investment,” said one Nigerian oil industry veteran. “You cannot coerce a company to invest.


Drawing in foreign investors is particularly critical as the government struggles to borrow from international sources of funding. Investors and lenders including the World Bank have raised concerns about the government’s management of the economic crisis. Plans for a Eurobond and foreign borrowing have so far not come through. Last month ExxonMobil agreed to sell its majority stake in its Nigerian marketing and retail arm to a local company. But Mr Kachikwu said he needs companies to invest in more infrastructure such as refineries and pipelines, while the country is also seeking crude-for-loans deals to monetize its untapped oil resources. “The petroleum industry got us here. It has got to get us out of here too,” he said. “It [high oil prices] spoilt everybody and we messed it all up.”


The former ExxonMobil executive said Nigeria was also in talks with governments and could sign a preliminary $15bn five-year forward sales agreement with India by the end of the year. You have to be careful as to how many [forward sales deals] you take,” Mr Kachikwu said. “You have to tie that to your capability to produce and your ability to grow production.”


In the latest blow this week, the Senate rejected President Muhammadu Buhari’s plan to borrow $30bn from abroad for infrastructure projects and budget support. Foreign and domestic industry executives are also less sanguine. They say the investment climate under the Buhari administration has so far been characterized by policy uncertainties and a sense of hostility towards the private sector. The prospect of even partial privatization of state assets such as refineries is politically sensitive.

Maureen Nzeogu
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