Friday 10 July 2020
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Oloibiri Oil Discovery: The Story Untold — By Prof Teddy Adias


…while this story of the discovery of crude oil in commercial quantity in Oloibiri seemed well placed at the time, for political and administrative convenience, it nevertheless led to a significant distortion of not just reality, but also created a skewed benefit system, where the real owners of the oil fields enjoyed the disincentives of crude oil exploration directly and the political as well as administrative owners benefited historically and economically.

Please permit me to start by extending a warm gratitude to the organizers of this event. Indeed, I am very humbled to be found worthy to discuss a subject that touches on the history of oil
discovery in Nigeria. This is because, issues on the petroleum industry in Nigeria continually top the chart in academic and policy discussions. Needless to tell us why this is so because I am quite
sure we all know. I promise that this lecture will not be a long and boring one.

Let me start by pointing out that researchers have proven that after every fifty years or at worst, a century some existing knowledge that we hold as truth or facts will turn out to be lies as more facts begin to unfold. This trajectory of making and breaking knowledge underscores the beauty of science. What we are about to hear today may seem rather offensive to some people, but the strong need to distill myth from reality concerning the history of crude oil discovery in Nigeria is built on facts that were historically distorted for administrative and or political reasons.
The literature on crude oil discovery in Nigeria is so robust that one only needs to press a single button on google or any other search engine on the Internet to be confronted with a whole library
on the subject matter. While there is a clear sanity in the convergence of knowledge concerning the historical timeline of crude oil discovery, the spatial understanding of this history has been contrived or deliberately flawed. This has led to some kind of misinformation or miseducation of the world concerning the story of crude oil in Oloibiri or Nigeria in general.

Distinguish audience, this lecture follows Chimamanda Adichie’s logic of “The danger of a single story” as we go down memory lane to re-educate us on the salient facts about where crude oil
was first discovered in Nigeria as a way of proving the power of duality of analysis to distill myth from reality. To do this, we must first present the static (i.e. the story as we know it) before presenting the new facts that ultimately makes the old story a myth and the new one a reality.

If we decide to go through the history of crude oil discovery in Nigeria, you would agree with me that we may never leave this event as scheduled. However, I have carefully sieved what I consider useful to this discourse. Before going into specifics, it is noteworthy to mention, that the petroleum industry then and now, represents the largest economic sector in Nigeria in terms of its place in the foreign exchange value chain of the country. Hence, any discussion on the static and dynamics of crude oil and gas production in the country is considered very topical.

Permit me therefore, to state that the literature on the history of crude oil discovery in Nigeria all have similar narrative. Hence, the timeline is traced back to 1907 when the Nigerian Bitumen Corporation conducted unsuccessful exploratory work in the country which terminated with the wake of the First World War. Similarly, records have it that D’Arcy and Whitehall Petroleum later secured license for the same purpose which terminated in 1923, though they were unable to find crude oil at least not in commercial quantity. Further literature evidence suggest that the license was later granted to Shell D’Arcy, this time covering more geographical space than the previous licenses. Ladies and gentlemen, at this juncture, history was about to be made as the company began more aggressive search for crude oil in 1937. However, full drilling activities started in 1951 with the first test crude oil well drilled in Owerri in present day Imo State.

Permit me to point out that before the supposed Oloibiri crude oil discovery, crude oil was discovered in non-commercial quantity at Akata, near Eket in 1953. After this non-commercial discovery, the great myth otherwise the single story concerning our petroleum history at least from the perspective of how this discovery was documented began. The literature has it that Shell BP in the pursuit of commercially available petroleum found oil in Oloibiri Nigeria in 1956 with the first oilfield starting production of crude oil in commercial quantity in 1958.

Distinguish audience, while this story of the discovery of crude oil in commercial quantity in Oloibiri seemed well placed at the time, for political and administrative convenience, it nevertheless led to a significant distortion of not just reality, but also created a skewed benefit system, where the real owners of the oil fields enjoyed the disincentives of crude oil exploration directly and the political as well as administrative owners benefited historically and economically.

Permit me to say without fear of contradiction that the story of Oloibiri as the first place where crude oil was struck in commercial quantity is to say the least false and misleading if not intellectually insulting. There is the widespread understanding that the so called Oloibiri Oilfield is an onshore oilfield located in Oloibiri within the Ogbia LGA of present day Bayelsa State. Oloibiri oilfield is about 13.75 square kilometres (5.31 sq mi) and lies in a swamp within OML 29. As we shall see later, it is traditional or conventional practice to name oilfields after the places where crude oil was found. However, somehow, for the purpose of administrative or political reason as it then was, the crude oilfield was named after Oloibiri.

Moving from Myth to Reality
Having discussed the historical trajectory leading to the discovery of crude oil in Nigeria, and the spatial knowledge associated with this discovery which we consider a myth in the petroleum history of the country, it is important at this juncture to present a new narrative on the subject matter. Permit me to point out therefore, that in distilling reality from the myth of crude oil discovery in the Niger Delta and Nigeria in general, it is necessary to first justify the position above that oilfields were ordinarily named after the host communities. The Wikipedia in an article titled Oloibiri Oilfield categorically stated that “In Nigeria, oilfields are usually named after the host community where it is located or a local landmark. Sometimes, oilfields are also given names taken from indigenous languages”. Ladies and gentlemen, in the case of Oloibiri, these indicators were not taken into consideration before naming the supposed oil-wells after it. In fact, Oloibiri as a distinct community from others such as Otabagi, Otuogidi and Opume, never hosted and still does not play host to any oil well. Its designation as the first place where crude oil was discovered was politically contrived.

In a bid to bring truth to this historical lie, let me clarify that the so called Oloibiri Oilfield Well 1 (Oloibiri Oil Field) was discovered on Sunday 15 January 1956 by Shell D’Arcy. It was Nigeria’s and
indeed West Africa’s first commercial crude oil discovery location. The discovery ended 50 years of unsuccessful crude oil exploration in the country by various companies and launched Nigeria into the limelight of Petro-State. However, this first Crude Oil Well is currently located in Otabagi and not Oloibiri as over 99 per cent of historical documents on the subject matter have it.

Distinguish audience, like I said in the introductory section of this paper, it is not new to see drastic alterations in existing knowledge about certain narratives considered as facts. Thus, while conventional literature evidence has it that the first oil well leading to export of petroleum in commercial quantity was struck in Oloibiri, this lecture provides the other side of the story which is that the first oil well (Well 1) was in reality spudded and drilled vertically to a total depth of 12008 feet (3660m) in Otabagi. The well was tested, and it flowed at the rate of about 5,000 barrels (790 m3) of oil per day and it was deemed to be a commercial discovery. Some quantity of gas was also discovered with the crude oil.

Gentlemen and ladies, I had earlier stated that the first crude oil well and subsequently others after it were named after Oloibiri for political and administrative reasons. At this juncture, I want to categorically say that the Oloibiri Oilfield as we know it in the literature, was so named because Oloibiri at that time was the District Head Quarter of Ogbia. It was akin to calling Oil well discovered in Sagana – Brass Oilfield. By virtue of the fact and tradition of playing host to oil facilities as a way of naming oilfields, Oloibiri town and her land never hosted any Crude Oil Well nor tangentially had proximal boundaries with any Crude Oil Well that constituted the Oloibiri Oilfield. So, being the district headquarter, the naming of crude oil wells found in Otabagi, Otuogidi and Opume as Oloibiri Oilfield, were carefully contrived to fit whatever purpose that necessitated such naming in the first place. This wrong historical act did not only generate misinformation or miseducation of the world, but also defined the character of socio-economic benefits associated with communities who host oil facilities within the Ogbia Kingdom. The chart below shows the number of crude oil wells and their locations by communities in Ogbia Kingdom.

Distinguish audience, the pie chart above shows the frequency distribution of all the crude oil wells associated with the so called Oloibiri Oilfield and it is easy to see that out of the 21 crude oil wells, 18 of them are located in Otabagi community, 2 in Otuogidi community and 1 in Opume community. As a result, none of the 21 crude oil wells is located in Oloibiri as a distinct community.
In fact, going by the specifics, out of the 21 Oil Wells associated with the myth of the so called Oloibiri Oilfield, Otabagi plays host to the following oil wells – Oloibiri well 1,2,3,5,7,8,9,10,11,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20 and 21. Otuogidi community plays host to wells Oloibiri – 6 and 12, while Opume community hosts Oloibiri well-4. However, there are additional
8 wells referred to as the Blue Peg located in Otabagi that were discovered but never developed.

Ladies and gentlemen, we can now see the historical injustice associated with the naming of the above Crude Oil Wells that make up the so-called Oloibiri Oilfield. The falloff of this myth, is that
Oloibiri has remained in the international discourse on crude oil discovery in Nigeria with little mention of the direct host communities of these Crude Oil Wells making these communities to be disproportionately linked to benefits associated with playing host to such facilities, despite the environmental, social and economic disincentives that they have experienced over the years.

As a result, the most common feature of the three Landowners (Otabagi, Otuogidi and Opume) linked to the so called Oloibiri Oilfield are relics of oil activities that left the communities as shadows of their former selves. Other common features are distraught old men and women dazed by the damage done to their farmlands as a result of the discovery of crude oil. Land and waters of the areas have been destroyed, no more fertile soil; aquatic life too has been significantly undermined. However, Oloibiri town which under the new truth can now be tagged an indirect host community presents a different case from those of the direct landlords of these facilities.

Permit me to say, that in the first place, fate offered Oloibiri fame as the petroleum history town of Nigeria and indeed West Africa. SPDC and indeed Government Institutions have equally continued to propagate this myth to the detriment of Otabagi, Otuogidi and Opume people.

Similarly, the Oloibiri people found it worthwhile to ride on this gratuitous impetus to claim medals against natural courses. This adverse historico-spatial scenario associated with the so called
Oloibiri Oilfield, represents the bane of distrust between Otabagi people, SPDC and indeed the people of Oloibiri.

Let me conclude by pointing out that there is nothing wrong to propagate a myth as truth especially when such a myth is amenable to change based on new realities. Like I said in my introduction, this underscores the beauty of science. At this juncture, kindly permit me to state, that as hearers of this new truth on the discovery of crude oil in Nigeria, we should endeavour to propagate it.

I want to once again express my heartfelt gratitude to the organisers of this event and the opportunity to speak on a subject that is very dear to my heart. Perhaps, this will spur me to veer out of my academic field to write a book on the subject matter.

Ladies and gentlemen, I wish you all a healthy engagement. Thank you all for listening!

Professor Teddy Adias is the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Federal University Otuoke

This is a Transcript of the Paper presented by Prof Adias as part of the Ogbia Oil Discovery Day celebration 2017.

SAYELBA TIMES is an independent news group that focuses on original investigative reporting about critical issues facing all Niger Delta States including other parts of the world. Our contents are positive, creative, truthful and relevant.

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