Nseobong Okon-Ekong explores the possibilities of Bayelsa State earning substantial revenue from its endowment in mineral resources with the State Commissioner for Mineral Resources, Dr. Ebieri Jones
In what ways would you say your background has prepared you for this assignment?
I am a chartered banker and I have been in the banking industry for years and rose to the position of a senior manager. I have worked in the insurance industry. I have a lot of experience in the banking and financial sector and aside that, I did my PhD in accounting so I am a chartered accountant and before now, I have been in a research institution. I have been a lecturer for over six years after my banking career. I lectured at Michael Okpara University of Agriculture. The Governor, His Excellency Douye Diri deemed it fit for me to be in this area. I think he went through my Curriculum Vitae (CV). I believe in his wisdom; he finds me necessary to be here and because we are having issues from revenue from the oil sector. I feel he didn’t make a mistake. I have only been here for a few months and I am beginning to realize what prompted him to make me the Commissioner and I want to thank God for it. It is a new area and it is also very challenging but for the kind of pedigree I have, it is good for me and I love challenges. I will ensure that part of his Prosperity Agenda is fulfilled within the ministry. With time, a lot of things will come and Bayelsans will see what has been happening within the ministry.
What mineral resources are there in Bayelsa State?
Outside crude oil, there is a lot of deposit of clay in Bayelsa untapped. We have a lot of silica sand, which is used in the production of glass and you can use clay in producing ceramic. We have silica sand in about six local government areas in large quantities. I recently held a meeting with the Permanent Secretary and I found out that the ministry is not having equipment and if the resources are not there, we have little we can do but I know that the Miracle Governor has written a memo so we can get that equipment. Before now the monetary value of those minerals were not known but now the Governor is aware and willing to invest in those minerals.
Bayelsa State is blessed with major revenue derivable resources like natural gas, salt and silica sand. These are largely under-utilised or untapped. The governor has directed that the state must look outside oil to grow her economy. This ministry has the ability to generate revenue outside oil.
I don’t see taxation coming in here because the petroleum profit tax is paid to the Federal Government but when we talk about gas, we hardly convert gas to liquid, you know we have a high deposit of gas across the nation, Bayelsa is one of the states having a high deposit of gas. I belong to the school of thought that government should not involve itself in business but should be able to attract investors into the state and the country. We are making interface. In Gbarien Phase3, their gas plant will soon start and we want to see how they will be able to use that to feed some other areas of the state. Also, His Excellency is aware that the Phase3 will be on soon and I have interfaced with them. They will come and brief the government on how that will be achieved, by the time that is through, I think the light situation will improve beyond what we see now.
Is your ministry involved in making sure the host community benefit from the gas industries?
There are certain things the state can not do, because the laws guiding the industry are been made by the Federal Government. Things will change with the Petroleum Industry Bill. It’s for us to influence that law to see how gas flaring will stop and how it will benefit the state because that is the only thing we can do. As a Commissioner, I have been in touch with two states but I have not spoken to Akwa Ibom and Cross River and Edo states but I have spoken to my colleagues in Delta and also in Rivers states. My intention is that we should take it as a regional thing because I don’t see one state having the weight to influence that but if we come up as a region, we can do something.
The state has to pay the oil companies for natural gas to boost for its electricity needs. Incidentally, gas is being flared and wasted daily. What is the middle ground to benefit all parties?
I have been speaking with a German. Though, he is third party but, in a position, to attract a lot of investors. As a little boy growing up in Brass local government area, I saw people cooking salt and over some days salt will come out. Now we are looking for how to mechanize it and improve on that and there is no way the ocean water will finish or go down. One of my duties is to market all of this investment opportunities. Silica sand has a wide range of usability. It is used for production of glass, filtration of water for both regular usage and agricultural purposes, ceramics, construction work, metal casting and production, paints and coatings, sports fields and golf courses, industrial abrasives and also in oil and gas.
Who needs oil when we have such a rich deposit of this natural mineral resource? If the state can just concentrate on her other resources, no doubt, we can earn enough revenue to become very prosperous. How do we make silica sand a major revenue earner for the state? I learn by observing what is happening in the world first hand and also by asking questions and getting a feedback. To set up this glass industry is not expansive.
Unlike natural resources, mineral resources in view of their non-renewable nature, overtime do suffer stock depletion and because of this finite nature concerns arise on their value mostly prior to their total depletion.
To maximize, like the Silica sand it is not just used for the production of glasses, it is also you for filtration of waters production and many more. So when you look at the multiple usage, you can be able to make an effective and efficient use of those resources. But in terms of renewing, there is a tiny bit gap between natural resources and mineral resources all of them are natural because they are all God created. Unlike the crude that has a large deposit, sand and clay may not have that. So the best we can do as a state is to maximize their use, for salt if we can tap into that because the ocean can not run dry, there is nothing like renewable, the salt is always there. The good thing that we have as a state is that those natural resources are in large quantities in various areas. And to maximize the usage is to look for investors.
Is there any need for the government to train individuals so they can start up on a small scale?
It is easier to motivate people to produce salt, but for sand and clay, we have to first consider the culture of the people we are sending for this training. We have to consider if they have entrepreneurial skills. If you look at the Silica sand, people are already into the business because we have companies that are manufacturing paints and all that but when we have foreign investors, the focus of the people will be different, they will now know that this is possible. We also have to build up the interest of the people.
It is a fact that most natural resource-based economies suffer from poor economic performance as a result of state ownership and control. The state is looking to change this narrative or norm to consolidate on her potentials for immediate and long term gain. Government participation in business and investment should be to provide ncentives, startup capital and securities for the companies to create this partnership
The government has a say in items of the number of indigens to be employed all in form of PPP but government will not be involved in the day to day management of these companies.