Aran-Orin is a sleepy community in Irepodun Local Government Area of Kwara State that stirs to life only during festive periods when the sons and daughters of the community flock back home to spend the holidays with family and relatives. But the scantily populated village caused a national stir with the recent claims by the Kwara State governor that the state government has made oil discovery in a farmland in the village.
The story of the oil find went that a farmer, Tajuddeen Babalola, after a strenuous day of hard work on his farm took his young son to the well inside the farm to drink water. But on getting home the boy developed a stomach upset. The father told worried neighbours the well from which the boy drank water and when they went to check they saw an oily substance floating at the top of the water. Suspecting something, they told the government about it and officials from the state’s Ministry of Solid Minerals came and took samples and confirmed it was crude oil.
Governor Abdulfatah Ahmad told the public gleefully: “The ministry officials did not only confirmed the substance as crude oil but identified the blend as Bonny Light, a high grade of crude oil preferred by European and American refineries due to its unique properties.”
What has yet to be confirmed though is whether the oil said to be found in the village is of commercial quantity. Just like the rest of the world, the Department of Petroleum resources (DPR) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) got news of the oil find from the announcement of the state governor who has now extended the invitation to them to come and carry out further test at the site of the oil find.
But the mood in Alan-Orin is of hopeful optimism, more so since the oil is said to have been discovered at seven different sites. The chief of the village, His Royal Majesty, the Alaran of Aran-Orin, Oba Joseph Oyeyipo Babalola says sons and daughters of the village residing abroad and in Nigerian cities who got wind of the news through the internet have been sending congratulatory messages to him and indicating their willingness to come back home to develop the oil resources found in their village.
Even among the residents of the village, the countenance on their faces indicates that they are aware that their village has become a source of serious curiosity to the outside world. But behaving more like people guarding a secret treasure, they tell Weekly Trust that they have been under strict instruction from their elders not to say anything about the oil said to be discovered in their land. Only the Oba can talk about it.
The palace of the Oba sits on the main road linking the village to the outside. In front of the palace is a cemented stone, odu, which is a mark signifying where the first ancestors of the Oba’s family staked their claim to the land. It is a practice among the people of the community to stake their claim to the land of their ancestors with a mark. With the recent news of the oil find, the claim to the land has gone beyond the personal and ancestral to become a community-wide claim.
But instead of joy, what this has created is fears and insecurity among the residents of the village who treat any inquiry about the oil said to be found in their land with suspicion. While the Oba says the reluctance of his community to take people to the site of the oil find is for security reasons other sources say the community fears the breakout of border disputes with the neighbouring Ekiti State.
But could the Oba help confirm if the claims by the state government is true? He answers: “A year ago the discovery came when a farmer Tajuddeen Babalola was in the farm and wanted to drink water from a shallow well and discovered there were particles on the top of the water. He later went to the village to inform the people who followed him to ascertain what the substance is. On getting there they saw something that resembled engine oil floating on top of the water. Samples of the oil specimen were taken to the state Ministry of Solid Minerals. The ministry later came to rejoice with the community that it was oil that they discovered. The sample was shown to us and here it is.”
At this point the Oba raised a plastic bottle he says contains the specimen of the oil to our camera. But Weekly Trust observed that while the state government and its officials have been holding press conferences telling journalists about the oil they said they have found, when our team asked to be taken to the site of the find as a mark of proof, officials developed cold feet. At a point, photos were shown to us of the place of the alleged oil find. But when we asked if we could publish, all the commissioners, permanent secretaries, press secretaries and geologists said no. A commissioner even asked for a memo to be raised before we could publish the picture. The officials seem completely unaware or chose to ignore the Freedom of Information law passed by the National Assembly recently, even when hinted.
At the palace of the Oba when we visited was the chairperson of Irepodun Local Government who says :“I am very happy for the discovery, especially as it happened during our time. The discovery will serve as a source of employment for our teeming youths and will help to develop the community, the state and the country if used wisely.” Also hopeful of a prosperous future is the Oba who says: “The discovery will assist in giving the youths of the community employment when the exploration of the oil commences.” What is clear from statements like these is the community has started dreaming of gold even though the state government says it could not verify whether the oil it found is of commercial quantity.
It is easy to understand the source of this desperate hope once one gets into Aran-Orin. It is a deserted community with no sign of economic activity. The only sign of a market are the old women who display tokens for sale inside trays kept by the side of the road. The road leading to the community is unpaved and pork marked by erosion which makes a drive into it a slow and sometimes tortuous process. The community members are hopeful that all this is set to change with their newfound status.
But would this optimism be sustained or will this be yet another futile claim that will dash the hopes of a whole community? Weekly Trust can say that in a bid to make political capital out of the find, the state government probably never gave much thought to this when they began to broadcast the find to the world. But the hurried nature of the announcement has meant that information about the oil find was managed so shoddily that even government officials from the relevant state ministries have no clue about it until it was broadcasted. It was also the same with officials from the Federal Ministry of Petroleum and its agencies. Officials from the state Ministry of Information can only point to the governor’s statement as evidence when asked to produce one. None of them have seen the site and neither can they describe its location. Even the information unit of the Ministry of Solid Minerals could not say if they have seen the site, except for references to their geologists.
Weekly Trust made several attempts, spanning from Wednesday to Friday to government officials to make available proof of their claims, stressing all the time the signal it would send to the outside world should no such proof be proffered. But the officials kept foot-dragging and referring us from one office to the other where we got nothing.
A letter from the Commissioner of Information, Prince Olatunji Moronfoye asking the Oba to take us to the site of the alleged oil find was attended to with excuses from palace officials who say it is late even though it was just around 2 O’clock in the afternoon. A chief in the palace, Chief James Jolayemi, who is said to be the one responsible for taking people to the site said we have to come the following week even though he was noncommittal about whether we will be taken to the site if we return. Then he complains he is old and tired, having led so many people to the site that day. When we wouldn’t let down, he blurted out angrily, “Do you want me to lose my job?”
The chairman of the local government, Basirat Babalola Mohammad intervened and took us to the palace with her. We only got the sample in the plastic bottle as evidence. The site visit was still not honoured. Back in Illorin, the Commissioner of Solid Minerals, Alhaji Umar Bawa Aliu who was said to have gone to the site refused to speak or allow photographs to be tendered. That is not to say conclusively that the announcement of the oil find was a misinformation to the public by the state government. Sources say the state government might have realized too late that they have bragged too much about their find when a further test by the federal government could show the oil they found is insignificant. Besides other sources say, when they were busy holding press conferences and sending out press releases about their find, they were never counting on any journalists to hold them to their claim by asking to see the site, hence the dribbling Weekly Trust was subjected to as each government official fears the consequence of journalists access to the site.
In a way, the story of the Kwara oil find embodies the hope and the difficulties faced by communities outside the Niger Delta that oil be found on their soil too, as the resource for better or worse has come to define the politics of the nation. This quest is fed further by geological surveys which have proven that states outside the Niger Delta, especially those around the Chad Basin area have good chances of discovering crude oil. But the federal government’s efforts at wider exploration have often been bogged down by politics and general administrative incompetence.
It just might be that the Kwara State government might get the Federal Government to carry out a serious exploration of their area. And it just might be that the hopes of the people of the state will not be dashed and oil in commercial quantities might be buried deep down in their soil. The possibilities are numerous. But a bigger challenge is to convince state governments, especially those in the north who dream of striking oil that that is not the answer to their problems. Just as a government source said, “A lot of states could make money from solid minerals, which they now ignore.” As the politics of the oil search continues, this is an admonition that is hoped state governments will heed. But will they?