Gombe State Commissioner for Information and Culture, Meshack Lauco, speaks with CHIMA AZUBUIKE on the controversy surrounding the discovery of oil in the North-East region

Kolmani recently became prominent following the discovery of crude oil in the area. What’s the situation since the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), performed the inauguration?

Of course, some of the oil wells and possibly majority are in Gombe State. Kolmani (the name of a river) stretches up to Bauchi State from Gombe State, and that is where the inauguration was done; that’s the location. We went there through Pindiga; we passed through two other places and we saw soldiers there. Those ones are in Gombe State. The important thing is that oil has been found in the Kolmani area comprising Gombe and Bauchi states.

At what time did the government discover oil there?

For a long time, there have been attempts to try and see whether oil is available from the geological surveys and in what quantity because it is not just about the availability of oil; is it in commercial quantity? This is so because oil drilling is capital intensive; so, you don’t drill. Before you do the survey, you will pass through a lot of processes. You must make sure that the oil is in commercial quantity before you proceed to the drilling process, so that you will be able to break even and that explains why it took a long time to be sure that the investment was worth it, whether it was private sector investment or government sector investment.

Some have alleged that the North knew it had oil but wanted the wells from the South to dry, especially to play the checkout card when agitation for resource control heightens. What do you make of this?

For long, the North has been trying to say, ‘Look, if there’s oil, get it’. Nobody will have something and wait. If we have oil in the North and the South and there’s refinery, if you ask those who supply fuel to the filling station, they will tell if you want to sell a litre at N140 in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Warri areas, you will say, ‘No, we can’t come to Gombe and sell at the same N140. What about the cost of bringing it from here to there?’ So, if there’s oil in Gombe State and there’s a refinery nearby, then the cost will be the same, including the neighbouring states. The important thing is service to humanity and to the people of Nigeria.

For how many years do you think the wells will last?

It is not just the oil itself, but the gas reserve there is another source of income because gradually, if you look at the international arena, you will see that people are gradually moving into the gas sector. We have a lot of the gas; 500 billion cubic feet of gas in the Kolmani area, more than the oil. More or less, you cannot just get the gas and leave the oil. So, the availability of it matters, the emphasis is more on the profit that will be derived from gas than just the oil. Yes, oil is the black gold, but people are now gradually moving from the exhaustible source of energy to things like solar; but for gas, if you observe even in Nigeria, many families are using gas to cook. It is gaining acceptability, especially on the issue of climate change and all these things. So, we are gradually but certainly moving on to the use of gas and therefore focus will also be on the gas quantity available.

Who indeed owns the oil wells?

Drilling of oil is the responsibility of the Federal Government wherever it is located; it is the Federal Government that has the right to drill it. However, there are benefits derivable to the state where the oil wells are located. For instance, in revenue allocation and sharing, you will find 13 per cent derivation to the oil producing states. This is one of the benefits that will come to the state, but the right of drilling is that of the Federal Government and presently, it is the NNPC that is exercising that right. Therefore, Bauchi and Gombe states stand to benefit; we are not having any argument about it between Bauchi and Gombe states, the oil reserves are available in both states.

 Are you saying there won’t be any need to go to court any time soon as some have claimed that Gombe State owns four oil wells, while Bauchi State owns only Kolmani?

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If I should go by your words, since they have one, they still have. Those with the claims cannot say there’s no oil being produced in Bauchi State. So, Bauchi becomes an oil producing state just like Gombe State, because the 13 per cent derivation is not based on the number of wells that you have.

Are you not afraid that the joy of oil discovery in the North may be marred by controversy because the North-East region is already talking about insurgency, banditry and kidnapping?

Things happen and as human beings, that is why we are superior animals. We learn from experience. We know what has happened in the Niger Delta; we know the clamour, the loss of lives, the degradation of the area and the agitation by the people there, which led to the amnesty granted by the Umaru MusaYar’Adua government. We are trying to take care of all those things right from the outset between Bauchi and Gombe states, so that we don’t have such challenges. We have learnt from history. By the grace of God, we don’t intend to have any controversy. You see, controversy comes in when the two parties refuse to come together to discuss.

Already Bauchi and Gombe states, at the top government level of the chief executives of the states, have been interacting and I don’t see any problem that will come up between Bauchi and Gombe states. People outside the government may be misinformed, but I am telling you this from the position of the government that we do not envisage problems. When you see such problems happening sometimes, it is when the government didn’t pay attention. But in our own case, our governor from the outset has paid attention and said he would not want anything like that and it would not happen by the grace of God.

When will both state governors meet on the matter?

When governments meet at certain levels, there are some details that we don’t make public. The two governors have been meeting and discussing even at the instance of Mr President; that is the highest level of an interaction.

What do you make of the thank-you visit of the Gombe State Governor, Muhammadu Yahaya, to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), alongside political leaders from Gombe State?

In Gombe State, we must be thankful to Mr President; he has put in place a lot of resources from the Federal Government, a lot of energy and a lot of commitment to ensure that the discovery becomes a reality. Remember, this attempt to discover oil did not start today; it took several years. However, with the coming of Mr President, having seen some report showing that there is the likelihood that there is oil in those places, he became very committed to say, ‘Look, let us know the quantity; let us know what level and let us know the total value of it’. That commitment alone is enough for Gombe State at the highest level led by the governor to pay him a thank-you visit. Even the Bible teaches you to appreciate when somebody does something that is good and that is not out of place; it is for our good for somebody at whatever level to show commitment to your state on an issue that will benefit the state and it is only right and proper for you to say thank you, and that is what the governor has done.

The Gombe State Commissioner for Finance last year pleaded with his southern counterparts to be their brother’s keeper as it relates to the famous VAT discourse. How buoyant do you think the state will be, especially in playing the big brother role?

If we are brothers that were being kept at least by the oil-producing states and now that we are going to be an oil-producing state; not all states are oil-producing, so, there are still brothers that we need to keep. We will also be our brother’s keeper to other states whether the states are in the North or South. For as long as it is not an oil-producing state like the other oil-producing states, we are their keeper; we will also be our brothers’ keeper.

Just about three weeks after the inauguration of the wells, both states have started bickering. What’s the way out?

People should not go into speculation about issues that don’t exist. Gombe and Bauchi states, right from the Northern Region era when it was a division in status, there was the Bauchi Division and the Gombe Division. Then, we came to the north-eastern states; some of us that were in school during that time knew we had 12 states in Nigeria. Then we came to Bauchi State; as of 1976, Bauchi and Gombe states were still one state. So, we have been brothers with Bauchi State; oil cannot separate us now.

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