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Editorial: A Message to the Petroleum Policy Retreat

Stakeholders are beginning today Monday, April 2, 2012 meeting in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County for a two-day Petroleum Policy Retreat under the auspices of the National Oil Company of Liberia. The retreat is basically aimed at embarking on a sustained process of reforming Liberia’s oil sector with the goal of managing potential revenues for the benefit of Liberians, according to a press release issued by NOCAL.

It is expected to bring together members of the Hydrocarbon Technical Committee, which include the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Labor, National Investment Commission, the Legal Advisor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the National Oil Company of Liberia. Several civil society organizations and local watch dog groups are being invited to the retreat.

The Hydrocarbon Technical Committee is the institution set up under the 2002 Petroleum Law to collaborate and coordinate activities in the sector. The retreat could not have come at a better time than now when there seems to be serious controversy over the structure of NOCAL and high level public interest, rightly so, in its functions, particularly how it intends to manage future revenues from the sector.

Generally, Liberians have very limited knowledge of the oil business, but the population is greeted with anxiety on whether a future oil revenue will help in transforming their lives or they would remain a spectator to money from the natural resource being exclusively held and expended by state authorities without they having a say or experiencing an impact of utilization of the revenue.

This concern was reinforced about two months ago when the international watch dog group Global Witness published an insightful and revealing document on the oil business in Africa and how state authorities squander revenues and bath in wealth with specific highlights on Angola where a body established to preside over oil money becomes God unto itself, expending what supposed to be a national pie at will, while the entire country sinks in poverty.

Global Witness even cautioned the Government of Liberia in exclusively placing the management of oil revenue in a national body such as NOCAL, which could become very detrimental to development and long-term economic growth, and called for a review of its structure or reduction of its powers to ensure a balance for the sake of transparency and accountability.

We are somehow disappointed that NOCAL is beginning such a crucial retreat on a very sensitive sector of our economy without the involvement of the local media that is responsible to not only inform and educate the citizenry, but to manage and drive expectations in such a way that there would be no room for suspicions. Even the Ministry of Information is being left out of such a critical national process as exemplified by the current composition of the Hydrocarbon Technical Committee.

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As if that was not enough, some members of the Liberian 53rd Legislature, particularly from the House of Representatives have already expressed concerns over the composition of NOCAL itself, accusing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of acting contrary to the Act that created the National Oil Company of Liberia.

Suspicions have further intensified after the President removed the head of NOCAL Christopher Neor and appointed her eldest son Robert Sirleaf to chair the Board of the institution amidst serious public criticism. But President Sirleaf has defended her action, insisting that her son is qualified for the position, and as a Liberian, deserves a right to be appointed in government. 

As the Buchanan retreat kicks off, we believe these debates and concerns are healthy and should therefore, be brought on the floor for discussion to trash out all doubts in making sure that a truly representative and inclusive body evolves at the end of the day that would win both local and international confidence in managing future revenue from our ‘black gold’ for the benefit of all Liberians instead of an elite segment of society.

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