The PR Crisis of NNPC indebtedness

The best story tellers for news media could be found among public relations practitioners who are creative in generating newsworthiness from events and statements that could even be inconsequential or belated. Most cover stories and exclusive reports have the imprint of those hidden publicity persuaders whose identities are frequently shrouded in anonymity. They are the ‘impeccable insiders’ and ‘reliable sources’ without by-lines.
 
Not that the media could not have their ways in getting stories, they use the PR sources to authenticate and validate their reports. While some of those image makers have succeeded in enhancing the profiles of their bosses as well as their organisations, others, due to slight misgivings become sacrificial lambs that are crucified and banished from their beats.
 
There is currently an intense controversy over a seeming harmless piece of news that has some elements of PR on the insolvency of Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) which put a top public officer and even the federal government in an embarrassing situation.
 
The man in the storm is Remi Babalola, the Finance Minister of State who is also Chairman of the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC). A young man in the cabinet, who has remained in that position serving under three full ministers in the Finance Ministry: Dr. Shamsudeen Usman, Dr. Mansur Mukhtar and now the current minister Dr. Olusegun Aganga. He only had a brief stint as Acting Minister of the Federal Capital Territory while late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was alive.
 
Babalola has vibrant and efficient PR teams who crafts and flashes his actions and utterances to make lead stories. The strategy of the team led by Oluyinka Akintunde, an award winning investigative reporter succeeded in ensuring that their principal is recognised as spokesperson of the administration on economic and financial matters. The team uses all new media techniques, not only via email and text messages,  to ensure press releases, features, pictures and exclusive backgrounders are picked by newshounds.
 
While other Ministers of State, play second fiddle, the publicity campaigns make Babalola to be outspoken, independent and visible in his portfolio. Not that his senior colleagues are not doing anything, they may be too busy working behind the scene to address policy issues. He seemed to be enjoying their full confidence until the recent PR statement that went awry.
 
His dilemma started at the FAAC meeting in July 2010, when he disclosed that President Goodluck Jonathan had directed the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) to henceforth generate monthly oil production statistics for reconciliation in the second month after the month of data gathering. The directive became necessary to address the problem of recoveries for overpayment and underpayment to State from the 13 per cent derivation computation.
 
He then went further in the statement to confirm that NNPC had written the Ministry of Finance to explain that it was experiencing financial difficulties as a result of the disequilibrium between costs and cash inflow streams. The NNPC, according to him also requested for a reimbursement of N1.156 trillion from Ministry of Finance in order to repay its debt of N450 billion to the Federation Account.
 
Immediately after the statement, which as customary was timely issued by the PR team, the first reaction strangely came from NNPC Spokesperson Dr. Levi Ajuonuma who is always cautious in issuing rejoinders chose his word appropriate declaring that the corporation could not be classified as insolvent when it had a healthy cash flow and could pay for its crude and product importation obligations. He further claimed that NNPC was being owed N1.156 trillion naira by the government as a result of petroleum subsidies which if reimbursed would enable the NNPC to offset the N450 billion naira debt being owed the FAAC.
 
After weekly Ministerial meeting, like a cowed bull, Remi was led and chastised before the media at a Press Conference in the Presidential Villa, where Minister of Information, Professor Dora Akunyili lambasted his claim saying that it did not reflect the true position of the Corporation and that “NNPC is not insolvent. Given the nature of NNPC, there are regular transactions between the Government and NNPC and as a result there are always outstanding balances between them.”
 
The new Finance Minister, Dr. Aganga then joined in the rebuke by stating that “We have so many different transactions between the NNPC and the Federal Government, in some form of the balances it maybe a daily balance and in another it may be a trade balance. You need to make all of these things up, if you are worried about NNPC that is a different matter”.
 
In a twist with contradictory disclosure, few weeks after, an independent body, the Nigeria Extractive Industry Initiative (NEITI) reconfirmed that NNPC owes federation account N654 billion and threatened to sanction oil and gas companies that fail to remit oil revenue and taxes to the federation account as recommended by the 2005 industry audit. The Executive Secretary of agency Mallam Haruna Yunusa Sa’eed said the NNPC is yet to remit some of the money discovered in the 2005 audit and is among the top debtors of the federation account. Chairman of the NEITI, Professor Assisi Asobie re-echoed the same position, promising to lodge complaints to appropriate authorities on the oil companies that refuse to comply with NEITI’s Act for appropriate sanction.
 
Looking at the facts and dramas, one may wonder what actually put Remi Babalola, a former Executive Director in some of big banks into trouble? Is Remi Babalola growing wings and undermining his superiors in government? Is he an overzealous publicity freak who would rather seek media limelight than engage in government business without attracting attention? Or could he be playing to the gallery with hidden agenda, typical of politicians, for immediate or future ambitions?
 
The fact is that the position of minister of state is not recognised in the Constitution. In most cases they take orders from full minister who earns high salaries. They are more like directors in Ministries. Special Advisers with designated portfolios are often more powerful and influential than Minis
ters of State.
 
The unnecessary imbroglio, a national shame and PR crisis could have been averted through consultations in the spirit of team work. Some may argue that the young minister was taught the hard lesson to check his outspokenness and visibility from taking shine off his senior colleagues.
 
The PR team should now realise that they need to thread softly especially on a position whose tenure is not constitutionally guaranteed from arbitrary removal. Had it been that the office is typical of independent and autonomous bodies like RMAFC, CBN and INEC, one would have expected an exciting fire-for-fire that could be laced with propaganda. There is no crime in being very efficient in PR campaign, but definitely something could be wrong by overdoing it, especially in a system where there are other players seeking recognitions.
 
Yushau A. Shuaib
University of Westminster,
Harrow Campus, London

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