By Adetokunbo Abiola
At last, the bitumen project is taking off in Ondo State, going by the assurance of the state government.
The project has dragged on since the Adebayo Adefarati administration, which put it in the front burner of its programmes, committing enormous human and material resources to its implementation.
That administration went as far as floating a company, BEECON, dedicated exclusively to the project, in partnership with a string of companies from the private sector.
For the record, Ondo State is reputed to have the second largest bitumen deposit in the world and the largest in Africa, with over 42 billion reserves of the highest quality. Experts even say that the mineral has the potential of overtaking crude oil as Nigeria’s highest revenue earner, loaded also with the promise to rapidly transform the economic fortunes of the country.
But successive administrations post Adefarati did not demonstrate much verve and zeal towards the project, thus its consignment to the background until the Akeredolu administration decided to resuscitate it.
Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu had made relentless efforts to attract the attention of world class firms to the natural endowment available in the state. Akeredolu hosted diplomatic communities to a dinner in Abuja last year to showcase the various investment opportunities in the state to the outside world.
In May 2017, in what could be described as relocation of seat of government from the state capital to Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria, the Ondo State Governor, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, the Deputy Governor, Agboola Ajayi and the entire cabinet members of the state met with the representatives of the governments of Britain, Australia and Algeria and some multilateral agencies and donor organizations on how to tap into investment opportunities that abound in the nook and crannies of the state.
The discussion was focused on issues such as the reactivation of Olokola Free Trade Zone, refortification of Owena Oil and Gas Limited and Owena Energy Ltd, and the resuscitation of moribund companies such as Oluwa Glass, Igbokoda; Ifon Ceramics, Ifon; Bolorunduro Timbers; Bolorunduro; Okitipupa Oil Palm Mills; Okitipupa; Cocoa Processing Company, Ile-Oluji; Arigidi-Akoko Tomato factory, Arigidi etc.
Other issues focused on were refurbishment and re-privatization of Idanre Hills Resort and Idanre Golf Course, Bitumen exploration.
Evidently, it was clear then the Akeredolu administration meant business about improving the fortunes of the state through its bitumen deposits.
By May 2018, eleven private firms had shown interest to partner with the Ondo State Bitumen Exploration and Exploitation Company (BEECON) through the State Development and Investment Agency (ONDIPA).
The indication came at a dinner organised by the state government.
The Special Adviser to Ondo State Governor on Development and Investment, Boye Oyewumi, disclosed that the state would only partner serious investors with the technical and financial capabilities to develop the sector due to its special attributes.
According to him, the event was the first of its kind in the nation where prospective investors would be brought together in an open competitive presentation. Expressing delight over the quality of participants, Oyewumi who also doubles as the Vice chairman/Chief Executive Officer of ONDIPA, admonished the participants to prepare for another detailed technical session with the consultants and evaluators who are seasoned academia in the field.
Among those high commissions and embassies that were present at the dinner included Britain, China, Australia, India, Japan, Korea, Ghana, Ethiopia and South Africa. Other multi-lateral agencies like the World Bank, UNICEF, Africa Development Bank (AfDB), United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), US Public Health Service (USPHS) were also there.
Some of the investors present at the event for presentations included, Energy & Mineral Resources Limited; BML energy; CRCC construction group; Global oils and Liquefied Resources (LR) USA Ltd. Others were Zenilum Company Ltd; CCC Snirand Technologies Ltd, and Drichels Technologies.
The Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Development and Investment, who doubles as Director of Business Development and Investment Management at ONDIPA, Femi Akarakiri, said bitumen exploration will provide not less than 30,000 direct jobs in the state.
According to him, bitumen was discovered in the state in the year 1904 but nothing has been done on it due to the expensive cost of exploration, which the government could not invest on it alone.Akarakiri, who said there was dire need to invite investors to partner with the state, explained that the BEECON partnership is aimed at fashioning out modalities to mine bitumen product and to make the process transparent.
“The purpose of this programme is to bring partners to Ondo State to partner with BEECON. We want to allow private organizations invest on bitumen exploration, we have the licences and we are calling on private sectors to partner with us, to bring their finances and expertise to explore the product.”However, one of the evaluators, Prof. Idowu Odeyemi, faulted most of the presentations made by the bidders for relying on old data, charging them to go to the field and do more practical jobs.
Oduyemi, a Professor of applied Geology from Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA), noted that the current reserves of 42 billon barrel being circulated over the years could not be relied on because it was a guess work.He underscored the need for government and investors to undertake independent research over a wide area of the bitumen belt so as to have a near accurate data of the bitumen proven reserves, saying it will aid effective investment decision.
In July 2018, Akeredolu assured that the mining and exploration of bitumen in the state would start before the end of the year. He made this promise in Akure while receiving the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr Paul Arkwright, who had paid him a courtesy visit.
He explained that equipment for the exploration and mining were already being shipped while Southwest Bitumen Company would undertake the project.
He said: “We also want any British company to show interest because we have so much,” adding that the Internally Generated Revenue, IGR, of the state would be better when various economic activities pick up.
His words: “We are trying and the IGR has improved a little, but it could still be better. We are trying to make the best of what we have.
“This state is a civil servant state. We are just trying to bring in one or two industries to shore up our IGR,” he said.
Earlier, the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr Paul Arkwright, had stated that he was in the state to discuss some of the economic opportunities and ways in which the British Government could invest in the state and help boost Ondo State’s economy.
He pointed out that creating jobs, especially for the youths, would go a long way at developing the state and boost its economy.
“Now that more young Nigerians are fast coming up in the job market and bearing in mind that population and economic growth are divergent, creating jobs and investing in employment opportunities for the teeming unemployed youths is a priority for me.
“Bringing British expertise and British companies into the state are the ways through which we can help reduce the rate of unemployment in the state and the county at large”, he said.
The High Commissioner categorically stated that the British Government would also assist the state to revive its cocoa, with a view to improving the market value of its chocolate production for economic buoyancy.
That same month, the Nigerian Government announced the award of an oil bloc license to Ondo State Government for bitumen exploration.
The then Minister of Mines and Steels Development, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, who made this known at the 1st Ondo State Investment Forum held at the International Event Center (DOME), Akure, the state capital, said that the license was granted to the state as part of the efforts of the federal government to diversify the economy and boost the country’s foreign exchange.
Represented by Engr. Mohammed Amate, the Director of Mining License in the Ministry, Fayemi said the bitumen reserve in Ondo State could serve the whole of Africa, hence the federal government’s decision to explore the opportunity towards economic development of the country.
Fayemi said, “Nigeria currently imports over 600,000 tons of asphalt per annum and the nation spends billions of naira on importation of asphalt every year. The naira is weak now because of much demand for dollar and less demand for naira and the poor export policy in the country.
“With bitumen being produced in Ondo State, the federal government will ensure that none of its road contractors imports asphalt and I am sure that many state governments will prefer to buy from Ondo State, because it will definitely be cheaper here than imports from outside the country,” the then minister said.
Responding, Governor Akeredolu thanked the federal government for finding his state worthy for partnership; stressing that for the initiative to function optimally, Federal Government prioritize and patronize the mining industry.
“In addition to Oil and Gas, Ondo State boasts of possessing one of the largest reserves of Bitumen and Tar Sands in the world; about 42 billion barrels,” Akeredolu said.
“Whilst attention over the years has been on Oil and Gas; this Government is willing and ready to exploit its bitumen reserves in a sustainable way particularly in the area of providing asphalt for road development. It is estimated that over 90% of the minerals in Ondo State are unexploited and unutilized.
“Ondo State as one of the nine oil and gas producing states has abundant oil and gas reserves that remain undeveloped, even though we produce about 12 % of the daily oil production in the country.
“However, gone are those days that any government will be reliant on oil and gas alone. I am happy to inform you that in Ondo State, we are aggressively driving our non-oil related industries.”
In December, the administration disclosed that equipment for the exploration of bitumen had arrived the state.
Akeredolu expressed optimism that the exploration of the huge deposit of bitumen in the state would contribute in no small measure to tackling unemployment and further boost the economy of the Sunshine State.
In February this year, the governor urged bitumen host communities to cooperate with the state government, as the exploration of the natural resource would soon begin.
Akeredolu advised youths in bitumen communities to shun violence and vandalism of exploring companies’ equipment.
The governor was represented by Prof. Bayonile Ademodi, the Commissioner for Regional Integration and Special Duties, at a programme tagged: “Interactive Session with Bitumen Host Communities” in Okitipupa, Ondo State.
Akeredolu promised that all host communities would benefit immensely through rapid development as well as direct and indirect employment.
“We are appealing to our youths to shun all forms of violence and vandalism of equipment of exploring companies that will come to our community to explore bitumen.
“We have concluded necessary arrangements to ensure that all host communities with bitumen benefit immensely from the exploration,” Akeredolu said.
Also commenting, a monarch, Oba Michael Adetoye, urged the government to ensure that due process was followed, and ensure that all affected communities were taken care of.
The royal father urged youths in the various communities to cooperate with the government, to enable them to benefit from the exploration.
“I have heard about this bitumen since I was in primary school; I only urge the government to be sincere with the exploration and develop the communities as promised.”
A stakeholder, Chief John Oyedeyi, said that the government must sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on how royalties would be paid to all communities, if their cash crops and farm produce were affected by the exploration.
Mr Gbenga Olowokanga, a stakeholder, said that government should ensure that the youths were given rewarding employment, to avoid the recurrence of the Niger-Delta youth’s restiveness over crude oil exploration.
Sure there are challenges, but the administration is taking huge strides towards bitumen production.
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