Nigeria's Oil: Boon or Doom?
Address by Archbishop John Onaiyekan (November 2-3, 2006)
ENUGU, Nigeria, NOV. 25, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here are excerpts from a
speech that Abuja Archbishop John Onaiyekan gave at a Nov. 2-3
gathering of the Catholic bishops' conference of Nigeria. The theme of
the gathering was "Making Oil and Gas Wealth Serve the Common Good."
* * *
By John Onaiyekan
Archbishop of Abuja
The oil and gas phenomenon anywhere in the world today is a highly
technical and specialized issue. … On a few occasions, I have looked at
the reports issued by government on the movement of incomes in the oil
sector. They are written in such technical language that the more you
look, the less you see; the closer you read, the less you understand.
Since the crude oil is underground in deposit, how do we know how much
is taken out and how much is left? I imagine we have to rely heavily on
the experts, most of whom are also our partners in business. This is
probably why the oil sector is so liable to manipulation and dishonest
practices. I leave others to go into these technical details. Thanks be
to God among the speakers during this workshop, there are indeed
experts in the field.
I hope that they will present their contributions in a language that we
shall all be able to understand. I look forward indeed to being
enlightened by them. On my own part, however, I believe that whether we
understand the intricacies of the oil business or not, we should be
able to address some ethical issues that surround the oil and gas
industry in Nigeria, seen in terms of a gift of God to our nation. It
is in this perspective therefore that I make my brief contribution.
The wealth of the nation
I wish to start with the observation, which for me is a strong
conviction, that the most important wealth of any nation is its people.
Persons are the most valuable resources of any nation. In the case of
Nigeria, we are blessed with huge population of over 130 million men,
women and children. …
Apart from sheer numbers, we have also proven that Nigerians are
resourceful, highly motivated and can show themselves as brilliant as
any group of people can be. This is our greatest wealth.
Our nation will never be truly great until the people are well managed
and motivated to perform at their optimal standard. In a nation where
many young graduates roam the streets unemployed for years or are
underemployed, selling phone cards and newspapers, there is something
Every able-bodied hand that lies idle is a loss on the nation. Every
well-trained brain that is left to lie fallow is a major dent on the
productive capacity of our country. In many countries, the rate of
employment is a major concern of public authorities. People win or lose
elections on the basis of how many of their countrymen are in
Unfortunately, in Nigeria, this has not been the case. Government and
governance has been practically reduced to merely manipulating oil
wealth. It seems nobody really cares whether Nigerians have jobs or
not. So we spend all our resources buying from all over the world,
goods that other people have produced, while our factories are left to
Worse still, as some recent clamorous events have shown, many of our
leaders steal the monies of the people and use it to buy up useless
property abroad, or stash it in foreign banks. We should note that
these funds are not just sitting in the vaults of the foreign banks.
Rather, they are being used to oil the industries of those countries,
thereby giving jobs to their own people while Nigerians have no capital
available to carry out small- and middle-scale industries.
It is not surprising that the authorities in these countries look for
every excuse not to release to us the loot that they are holding. I
believe that the nation needs a complete change of attitude in this
regard and we pray that our leaders will understand this.
The example of some countries clearly illustrates the truth that people
are the wealth of a nation. Some of the nations that are now in the
frontline of the world economy have little or no natural resources.
Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong are examples. They have no crude oil,
hardly any minerals, and little or no land even to farm on. All they
have are people who are educated and prepared to work and who are put
in the position to work and to produce. The result is a wealthy and an
I read recently that Dubai, the gem of the Gulf States, derives only
10% of its fabulous wealth from oil. The rest comes from the good human
management skills of their rulers and the keen business acumen of its
There can be no substitute for proper deployment of human resources.
Lack of natural resources can be remedied, if the people are
resourceful. But no matter how rich a country is in natural resources,
if the people are not well managed, little will happen.
Our country is a good example. In a recent article, the British
Economist magazine (Oct. 21-27, 2006, page 50) talks of oil wealth as
the "curse of black gold," and makes this telling statement about our
country: "Despite billions of petrodollars flowing in since the 1970s,
Nigerians are considerably worse off today than they were in 1980.
About 71% of them live on less than $1 a day, infant mortality is high
and the country is unlikely to achieve any of the UN's millennium
development goals by 2015."
This somber picture seems to me closer to the realities under which the
average Nigerian lives today than the glowing picture of a "vibrant
economy," which our official sources continue to paint and project at
home and abroad.
We might also cite many other countries of Africa that are rich in
natural resources but wallowing in poverty: for example, the Democratic
Republic of Congo, Angola, and to some extent also Gabon. Indeed the
proper management of the people is the major responsibility of public
authorities. If they do their duty in this regard, the people
themselves will manage their economic affairs and manage them well.
When shall we ever learn?
It is only after we have properly appreciated the importance of our
human resources that we can then begin to look at our natural
resources, including oil and gas. But we must look beyond oil and gas.
We take so much for granted and yet there are a lot of other great
gifts of God to our nation. On three levels: on the ground, above and
below, the nation is rich. Above ground, God has blessed us with
wonderful environment and climate. Generally mild, with no extremes of
cold and heat, we can nurture life for both animals and plants.
When we look at our soil, we have vast arable land, fertile soil that
can produce a wide variety of crops and plants, trees and forest. We
recall that in the colonial days, our nation produced a lot of wealth
from the cultivation of cash crops, most of which have in the meantime
been totally neglected. Even food production, which ought to be a major
concern of every nation, has suffered the same serious neglect. An
example is rice. One of the many unenviable records assigned to our
nation is that we are the greatest rice market in the world. While we
go all over the world buying up surplus rice produced by others abroad,
our local rice production is stifled almost out of existence.
Finally there is the subsoil, the minerals under the ground. The
discovery of oil has unfortunately led to the neglect of other mineral
resources in our country. Despite the effort of the Ministry for Solid
Minerals, it is still mainly oil that is our concern.
We have neglected other mineral resources like our traditional coal and
tin, which even our colonial masters did a lot to develop and exploit.
Our nation will do well to diversify our sources of mineral wealth by
paying greater attention to the different kinds of mineral resources
with which our nation has been blessed.
Oil and gas resources
This is the major wealth generating natural resources that we have put
practically all our attention on. We are lucky that as things stand, it
is still a good money generating resource. But we need to put the oil
issue in its proper perspective. We have to remember that oil is
nonrenewable. Whatever is taken away now, will not be available for the
generations that will follow us.
We therefore have a responsibility to future generations in the way we
exploit and extract the oil resources. The least we can do is to use
our present oil incomes to put in place structures, services and
amenities which will be of lasting value for present and future
generations. Obvious areas of concern would include education, health
services, housing, transport and communications network. The present
dubious drive for privatization is hardly a step in such a direction.
We should also not forget that the demand for oil, even if it is not
exhausted, will not be forever. We know for sure that those who are now
buying our oil are working frantically for alternative sources of
energy. They are doing their best to liberate themselves from their
dependence on oil. That day will come earlier than we think. It may not
hit us during our lifetime but we definitely must think of those who
are coming after us.
And this leads to the third observation: exploitation of oil at what
price? As we seek to make as much money as we can from oil, we need to
pay attention to how this is being done. Much of the crisis in the
Niger Delta is a result of a callous and careless exploitation of oil
without due regard for the environment today and the consequences for
the years to come. It would be grossly unwise to destroy our
environment simply because we want a few couple of million more dollars.
Those who design and implement our policies in the oil sector have to
look seriously into this. I am not fully informed of the relationship
between our government and the oil companies. Whatever this may be, it
is surely the duty of government to work on behalf of their people, to
ensure that those who come here to extract oil do so at least with the
same care and attention that they use when extracting in their own
It is a shame for companies to operate in Nigeria with principles and
methods totally different from what they use elsewhere only because our
rulers either do not know or do not care. Money is important but not
the end of everything.
Responsibility of civil authority
It is the responsibility of civil authority to pursue the common good
of all citizens. This is a basic principle that calls for a brief
expatiation. By the nature of things, man is a social being. We cannot
live as lone individuals. We live in community. That is why we have
families and nations and peoples. From a Christian perspective, we
believe that this is the plan of God for the humanity that he has
created. On the one hand, every individual has his inalienable rights.
Made in the image and likeness of God, it is only to God that he must
give absolute allegiance. In principle, no one can have absolute power
over anyone else.
On the other hand, in the exercise of one's rights, one must also take
note of the needs of others and the good of the society at large. Since
we cannot trust every one to do this well and consistently, there is
need for a civil authority, with power to enforce good order.
Enforcement of good order for the common good is the only justification
for the authority that those who rule wield. When they use their
authority in any other way but for the promotion of the common good,
they would be misusing their authority. Consequently, they would no
longer morally deserve to be obeyed.
Pope Benedict XVI expressed this in a blunt way by quoting a no less
blunt African bishop and Father of the Church, St. Augustine of Hippo.
He describes as "a band of robbers" those rulers who divert public
resources to their private uses, neglecting the care of the people
entrusted to their care. Thus it is the duty of civil authority to
reconcile individual interests with the good of the society at large.
From [the] point of view of resources, this has serious implications.
On the one hand, it is a clear principle of our Catholic social
doctrine that the goods of this earth are destined for the good of
everyone. This is called the "principle of the universal destination of
goods." Indeed the Lord God has made available sufficient resources to
take good care of everybody on the earth.
At the same time, it is also a basic principle of Catholic social
doctrine that individuals have a right to private ownership or private
property. Indeed their right to private property sustains the
individual rights vis-à-vis the society. Again, it is the duty
of government to balance the demands of the respect of private property
with the principle of the universal destination of goods.
This is why civil authority has every right to introduce mechanisms for
redistributing wealth among citizens, so that those who have surplus
are not only encouraged but also even obliged to release what they do
not need for others who are in dire need. This is the rationale behind
the taxation system in many developed countries, where the rich are
taxed heavily to sustain free or at least affordable social services
Thus we come back to what we started with namely: the primacy of the
human person. In all that the state does for the common good, the human
person must be at the center, the apex and the criteria of development.
Policies of government that ride roughshod over human beings are
immoral. We should never sacrifice human beings on the altar of
policies; no matter how good and carefully worked out they may be
thought to be.
Particularly, it is a crime crying to heaven for vengeance for the
state to make the poor to pay for the human costs of its misguided
policies. This consideration is relevant when talking of making oil and
gas wealth serve the common good of our nation.
Oil as common wealth of all Nigerians
In Nigeria, by law, all natural resources underground belong to
government. But this is a far-reaching ideological option that our
nation has taken. Some say in fact that this has been imposed on us
without proper discussion and negotiation. However, it is not the only
I am told that in America, you are the owner of the oil that is under
your garden. In any case, the gold rush and the early oil explorations
in the United States were on this basis of private ownership of oil
fields and mines. Therefore, the question "who owns the oil" needs to
be properly addressed and answered. Having decided that government owns
the oil, this puts a heavy burden of responsibility on civil authority
that is supposed to act on behalf of the people to ensure that this
commodity is properly used for the sake of the people.
The decision that all minerals including oil belong to the state is
another way of saying that they all belong to all of us together. It is
the duty of government to ensure that this is really so. I am quite
convinced that, all things considered, it is the best option. We can
imagine what would happen if every village (or indeed villager!) were
to take charge of the oil deposits in its farmlands.
It would have been impossible to mobilize the resources necessary to
extract even a barrel of crude oil. But having decided that the state
shall control this commodity, it is also necessary that this common
wealth of all be indeed for the common good of all and everyone. This
brings us to the issue of economic and political management of oil
It is a fact that huge sums of money are accruing to the Nigerian state
from the sale of oil. The state has a moral responsibility to ensure
that this wealth is prudently managed for the common good of all
Nigerians. It is no longer a secret that there have been serious lapses
in this regard. Recently, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, who ought to know these
things, confirmed the long-circulating rumors that over the years,
considerable portion of our oil revenues has ended up in private
pockets. He spoke of "billions of U.S. dollars. There is only one word
to describe this: stealing." The nation is still waiting for a
government that would have the moral courage and credentials to address
this colossal looting.
The demand by host communities for special consideration in the
distribution of the oil incomes has strong merits. This is especially
because they bear the brunt of the environmental negative implications
of oil exploration and exploitation. Justice demands that the damage
caused by oil production activities be repaired with the resources of
the oil business. This is the justification for disbursing more funds
to oil-producing states than to others.
We are all familiar with the clamor for "resource control" by the
politicians in the oil-producing states. Their demand is legitimate,
provided it also means that there will be proper resource management.
It would solve no problem if politicians collected huge checks from
Abuja, only to lodge them in private accounts at home and abroad,
leaving their people in squalor and misery. In fact, if the federal
government had done its duty well by developing oil-producing areas and
ensuring that the environment is properly looked after, there would
have been less need for a clamor for resource control.
The issue has clearly a political angle. This is not only a matter of
economic distribution. It has to do also with honesty of
administration, with a sense of justice for all and a concern for the
weakest. Unfortunately, the record of our leadership in this regard has
been dismal. The national leadership has been guilty of gross neglect.
But unfortunately, not seldom, the local leaders too have at times
duped their own people rather than serve their pressing needs and
genuine interests. The tragedy of Ogoniland, culminating in the Ken
Saro Wiwa affair of almost exactly 11 years ago, is only a clamorous
instance of a widespread and sad situation.
The oil companies
Before concluding my reflections, a word about the oil companies. You
will notice that I have made only indirect and passing references to
them so far. This is because I believe that as far as the specific
theme of our conference is concerned: "Making Oil and Gas Wealth Serve
the Common Good," the primary responsibility lies with us and with our
I presume that since Nigeria nationalized the oil sector of our
economy, we have taken control of, and must assume responsibility for
whatever happens in that sector. We invite the oil companies -- or
welcome them -- to exploit our oil resources for us, obviously for a
fee. We have to tell them what to do and lay down the conditions for
their operations in our land. We should therefore not blame the oil
companies for our irresponsibility. For example, if the host
communities are neglected in basic amenities, the fault lies with
government who rakes in the income from the oil sales, not with the oil
companies who are only doing their work on behalf of our government.
The oil companies are not missionaries, nor are they philanthropic
organizations. They are businesspeople here to make money, sometimes at
great risk to their very lives. They will try to make as much money as
they can, taking advantage of any loopholes in our system if necessary
But this does not exempt or absolve them from all moral responsibility
for the way they conduct their business with us. For example, they
should give us a fair deal. They should not steal our crude oil under
any pretext. Those of them who buy our crude oil should pay fair
prices. But all this will not happen through our pious exhortations and
spiritual advice. It will happen only to the extent that our government
insists on honest and transparent dealings with our oil business
We should note here that there are also Nigerian companies that have
become big players in our oil and gas business. They too have no less
moral responsibility than the foreign companies. The fact that they are
Nigerians does not give them any right to steal our oil and enrich
Often in this area, we begin to swim in very murky waters. The
allocation of the famous "oil blocks," instead of being a means of
judicious management of our oil sector, has become often a powerful
instrument of political patronage or coercion, as government fiat
creates and annihilates millionaires overnight! Besides, there are
rumors that some of the so-called Nigerian oil companies are merely
fronts either for Nigerians in power or for foreign companies or both.
To the extent that this is true, it must be denounced as the height of
moral corruption, not as political sagacity!
Finally, we note that since the second term of President Obasanjo, he
has taken direct and personal responsibility for the oil sector of our
economy, with no Minister for Petroleum. We know where the buck stops
and where the final responsibility lies.
The oil and gas phenomenon is a paradigm of the Nigerian predicament,
characterized by inept management, greed, selfishness and
shortsightedness. That is why our natural resources have hardly served
us in such a way as to bring wealth and well being to our nation. Many
have referred to our oil boom as an oil doom. We have the human
resources to ensure that this oil and gas wealth are properly harnessed
and deployed to serve the common good. In order that this may happen,
there is need for a better political management of our people and
especially of those with talents in this regard.
This is why it is important that those who are elected into office be
men and women of integrity, ready to really serve. This is why it is
necessary to have a proper and honest political environment where
rigging of election would no longer be tolerated. It is only then that
government can ensure that our experts will protect our interests in
the oil industry and defend us against the predatory tendencies of the
exploiters of oil industry, most of who are foreigners from the rich
nations out to maximize profit.
It is only then too that we can control and restrain the excesses of
many who are misusing their talents and positions for stealing our oil
resources, employing all sorts of strategies for bunkering and high sea
Many Nigerians are working for the oil companies. To a large extent
they are serving foreign interests, sometimes against the interests of
the nation. These "mercenaries" ought to be converted and brought back
to work for the good of the nation. In this connection, we should
mention that many of our talented people have completely checked out of
this nation in search of greener pastures and safer grounds. With a
good government that puts in place an enabling environment for honest
work, many of them would come back to make sure that our oil and gas
wealth serves our common good.
When we shall be able to recover the talents of our people and bring
back the exiles from their places of Diaspora, when we shall be able to
change the orientation of the nation to welcome talents, then God's
design for Nigeria as a great nation will be realized. Then would
Nigeria be home for all to live in dignity and in relative well-being.
Indeed Nigeria would become a haven for many from poorer nations to
come to look for greener pastures, like our own young men and women are
now unfortunately doing in foreign lands. May the Lord God hasten the
day when this will happen. Amen.