When some communities in Guma and Otukpo local government areas in Benue State were promised improved livelihoods through a federal government ethanol plantation project that was to provide jobs and an economic boost when sited in their communities, many residents were so elated that some even gave out their hectares of land for the kick-start of the project. However, as time passed, their initial optimism gradually faded away, and seven years have gone by without any clear signs of the project's takeoff.
Investigation showed that there are no activities on the project sites in Guma and Otukpo. Some villagers who spoke to SMI confirmed that one of the lands that was earmarked for the project stretched from a point immediately after crossing the River Benue at the Gbajimba axis; despite being beaconed, it showed no sign of government activity. Neither has compensation been paid to the community members who donated their land.
The government had said the project was an effort to reduce the nation’s dependence on imported gasoline and environmental pollution as a result of consumption of wholesale fossil fuels, as well as create a commercially viable industry that can boost sustainable domestic jobs.
But this has seemed to be coated in lies and broken promises by the government. The hope that the communities will be open for accelerated development and job opportunities for their youths is now being dashed.
The administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 kicked off the drive to link the oil sector with the nation’s economy and, in particular, the agricultural sector. The then NNPC Group Managing Director, Engr. Funsho Kupolokun, stated that the program would explore sources of biomass that could be used to produce fuel ethanol. Ethanol is produced as a petrochemical through the hydration of ethylene.
Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava in the world; however, studies show that post-harvest losses of these crops are as high as 51%, driven by a lack of appropriate technology for transportation or storage, amongst other issues.
The initiative was built on four components: a specific cultivation project, the formation of partnerships, policy creation, and the seeding of initiatives across stakeholders.
The program was expected to, among other things, address the inadequate refining capacity of the nation, maximise carbon credit opportunities, reduce domestic use of petrol and, by extension, free up more crude oil for export, position Nigeria for the development of ‘green fuels’ in the long term, and save the country between 100 and 130 million dollars annually from the importation of fuel.
It would also attract 20,000 hectares of sugarcane feedstock plantations, a cane mill, a raw or refined sugar plant that would produce 126,000 tons per year, and a fuel-ethanol processing plant that would produce 84 million liters every year.
According to the Group General Manager (GGM) in charge of the NNPC’s Renewable Energy Unit at the time, Anochie Anyaoku, the ethanol initiative, a private-sector-driven initiative, had local and foreign investors as well as multinationals engaged.
Sadly, the Obasanjo administration could not drive the program through but ended up laying the foundation for its growth and development.
Buhari Renewed the Deal
In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari directed the NNPC to resume oil exploration activities in Nigeria's inland basins, including the Chad Basin and the Benue Trough, as part of his administration's efforts to revitalize the Nigerian economy.
This directive cannot be dissociated from the reinvigoration of the collaboration between the NNPC and the Benue ethanol project, which aimed to produce biofuels for energy sufficiency.
The partnership for the ethanol project was between the NNPC, Benue State Government, BNSG/Ministry of Agriculture, and the host community. The corporation had secured technical partners for the project and commended the Benue State government for providing the land required. The plant was expected to cultivate sugarcane, cassava, and palm kernels for ethanol production, stimulating economic growth and creating employment opportunities.
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) reinvigorated their collaboration on the ethanol project, which is geared towards the production of biofuels for energy sufficiency.
Baru noted that ethanol, when blended with Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), otherwise known as petrol, ensures excellent vehicle performance, stressing that energy sufficiency and proficiency are part of the cardinal objectives of the NNPC.
The NNPC GMD revealed that President Muhammadu Buhari had also directed the Corporation to commence hydrocarbon exploratory activities in the Benue Trough as part of efforts to guarantee the country's energy security.
Massive employment through the ethanol project
While acknowledging the fact that there would be massive employment opportunities for the people, Benue State former governor Samuel Ortom said the implementation of the anti-open grazing law would enable farmers to work year-round and feed the plants with desired raw materials.
Ortom said the projects needed to be speedily executed and constituted a high-powered committee headed by the Deputy Governor, Engr. Benson Abounu, to ensure their success.
According to him, the cassava that would be used for the biofuel project would be a special breed that would not be in competition for human consumption or interfere with the activities of farmers cultivating other breeds of cassava or other crops.
Consequently, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) announced in 2016 the establishment of an energy renewable plant in Benue State with an estimated cost of $300 million to be financed through a joint venture with foreign partners using agricultural products as part of efforts by the Federal Government to diversify the nation’s economy.
The NNPC’s Group General Manager in Charge of Renewable Energy Division, Rabiu Suleiman, commended the Benue State government for providing land for the project’s takeoff, assuring that it was the state’s equity share in the project.
According to the NNPC chief, the plant, when completed, would boost economic growth and create employment for the people of the state, even as the land would be used for the cultivation of sugarcane, cassava, and palm kernel, from which ethanol would be extracted as a renewable energy source.
He further disclosed that the biofuel project would be fitted with a 40 megawatt electricity plant that would also supply power to the host communities, allaying fears of any possible negative impact of the plant on the supply of cassava-based foods for human consumption.
Our findings revealed that what the federal government demanded from the Benue State government as its stake in the execution of the project was the provision of land and employees, who were to be drawn for both direct and indirect jobs. The federal government requested 50.000 hectares from the state partners, in which case Otukpo and Guma were finally selected for the pilot phase.
Some of the youths who spoke with our reporter expressed the feeling that the FG may have jettisoned the program due to differences that existed between the state government under the Ortom administration and the Buhari-led FG, which appeared to have set the two tiers of government on a coalition course.
A youth in the area who claimed to have been part of the survey team, Mr. Aondofa Avaa, disclosed that the community gave approval for the project and even earmarked an area for the commencement of work.
Also, the Kindred Head of Mbashor, Zaki Mbaadega Mbatsavzenda, who said part of the land belongs to him, confirmed that they donated the land with hope for compensation, job creation, the development of their area, and to free them from incessant herdsmen attacks.
He explained that part of the land that belongs to him is in Mbashor, Buruku Local Government, and borders Logo and Guma Council areas.
SMI also gathered that the traditional ruler who was coordinating the program in the area, Chief Uwouku Abanka, died, and since then no specific traditional ruler has been coordinating the relationship between the community and the government.
A different situation in Otukpo
In Otukpo, the situation is even more perplexing. The supposed project site could not be located, as the available land had been transferred to the Lower Benue River Basin Development Authority without any clear explanation for the transfer.
Most villagers in the area mentioned hearing about a government-sponsored project but lacked specifics.
Chairman of Otukpo Local Government Council, Bako Ejeh, also denied knowledge of such a project in the area. However, a personnel member of the Ministry of Agriculture, Makurdi, who participated in the land survey but would not want to be identified, confirmed the locations at Guma and Otukpo.
He explained that surveys were completed on the sites, and it was left to the federal government to come in and commence execution of the projects.
The Chairman of Guma Local Government Council, Mike Ubah, could not be reached for his side of the story as efforts to meet with him proved abortive.
Consultant, NNPC declined to speak
Efforts to obtain information from the NNPC, the actual owners of the projects, proved futile.
The consultant on the projects, an indigene of Benue State, Mr. Hurordoo Nambativ, confirmed certain developments when contacted but said he would only speak with clearance from either the then deputy governor, Engr. Benson Abounu, or the then governor.
Meanwhile, the NNPC, which was the actual owner of the projects, equally denied knowledge of their existence during the investigation. The Human Resources Manager, Administration, Mabel Akogwu, who was approached in the course of the investigation, however, promised to go into the findings, adding, however, that the NNPC has been privatised and nothing of such to her knowledge has been handed over.
This report is produced by Safer-Media Initiative with the support of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under The Collaborative Media Engagement for Development, Inclusivity and Accountability Project (C-Media Project) funded by the MacArthur Foundation.