Can new oil bid become investment lifeline?
The Government of Liberia has announced hosting of a Bid Round in 2019 for the Harper Basin Exploration. According to an Executive Mansion release, President Weah’s decision is informed by the desire to reawaken the confidence of the international community and the larger business world to have faith in his government’s ability to confront the problems in order to put the economy back on the trajectory of growth. The Executive Mansion further noted the President has been working tirelessly with partners to identify and develop frameworks to revive the economy and eventually bring relief to the Liberian people.
“In the view of the President, one area of significant interest and relevance in reviving the economy is Liberia’s oil and gas sector, which remains largely untapped and has the potential to rekindle and brighten the path to prosperity.
It is in keeping with this conviction that the government resuscitated, through a thorough review process, the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), by appointing a new management team, and restructuring the Liberia Petroleum Regulatory Authority (LPRA).
In view of this development, the President has accordingly mandated relevant institutions to work out necessary modalities for a successful reopening of the Harper Basin for oil & gas exploration,” the statement from the presidency declared, noting that the President has directed and advised the relevant institutions to develop appropriate frameworks to enhance and facilitate the successful hosting of the 2019 Bid Rounds.
Stinking NOCAL Corruption Albatross
Government’s 2019 Bid Rounds pronouncement, while good-intentioned, comes against the background of nagging concerns about the March 29, 2018 Global Witness investigative report that showed how key government officials of the erstwhile Ellen Johnson Sirleaf regime received bonuses in 2013 following Exxon’s controversial purchase of Oil Block 13. According to the international transparency watchdog in a special report titled: “Catch Me If You Can: Exxon Complicit in Corrupt Liberian Oil Sector”, Finance Minister Amara Konneh, Justice Minister Christiana Tah, Mining Minister Patrick Sendolo, National Investment Chairman Natty Davis, NOCAL CEO Randolph McClain and NOCAL Board Chair Robert Sirleaf each received $35,000. Surprisingly, Robert Sirleaf, son of then-President Sirleaf, informed Liberians that he was working pro-bono at the time.
The report created such an uproar, the presidency on April 17, 2018 commissioned a Special Presidential Review Committee to probe into the Global Witness Report on NOCAL. When the committee finally submitted its findings to President Weah on May 16, 2018, key among its recommendations was the conduct of a forensic audit on NOCAL financials before any appointment of a new administration. The committee also recommended that all government officials who received the bonuses be made to pay back.
Since receiving the Review Committee’s report, President Weah is yet to ensure that those who received the bonuses return the monies into government coffers. As regards the recommendation for the Weah government to launch a detailed forensic audit of NOCAL before setting up any new administration, it is just the opposite that has happened. President Weah has appointed a new NOCAL president along with a corps of officers, while constituting a new board of directors, all in glaring disregard for the Special Presidential Review Committee’s recommendations.
It remains to be seen how investors’ confidence will be boosted in the wake of these anomalies, even as President Weah has announced a bid round for the Harper Basin Exploration. Of equal concern to prospective oil speculators is the bad run of explorations that occasioned the discovery of non-commercial levels of oil which caused almost all of the oil companies shutting down operations in Liberia by mid-2016.