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NNPC’s Health Sector Intervention: Straightening the Issues

By Babagana Haliru

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country when the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) rallied its partners in the Oil and Gas Industry to make some strategic interventions in the Health Sector in support the Federal Government’s efforts to curb the spread of the disease, it has been largely accolades and commendations for the corporation and the entire Petroleum Industry. Appreciative Nigerians, private and corporate, have hailed the intervention which is in the form of donations of medical consumables, in-patient support equipment, and permanent medical infrastructure, as a stride in the right direction and a mark of responsibility.

Unfortunately, lately it has become the preoccupation of certain elements in the Nigerian media space to twist the narrative by turning the laudable act of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) into a weapon of attack against NNPC. The attacks have been in the form of news stories and opinions articles insinuating that NNPC was meddlesome, dissipating its time and energies in investing in the health
sector by building 12 hospitals across the country rather than face its core responsibility, among which they considered maintaining and running refineries.

A reading of the concerned stories under reference, shows that either the writers genuinely misunderstood the raison d’etre of the corporation and partners’ intervention in the health sector or they are just being mischievous. The latter conclusion appears very plausible, considering the diction explicit in one of the articles, depicting untainted bias and deep-rooted hatred.

Although I do not hold brief or work for the NNPC, I follow events and happenings in the industry which makes it so nauseating and insulting when people who should know and who claim to report the industry chose to stand the truth on its head to serve their selfish purposes.

To clarify the issues, it is pertinent to state that the reports alleging that NNPC has budgeted the sum of N21billion to build health facilities across the country is not true. What is true is that NNPC and its partners in the Oil and Gas Industry made donations of medical consumables, equipment and facilities worth N21bn to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. In several of the corporation’s press releases, ditto in interviews with the Group Managing Director of NNPC, Mallam Mele Kyari, the corporation has made it clear that the donations were in kind and that no component of the donations would be given in cash. When asked in one of the interviews why the donations were being made in kind, Mallam Kyari explained that the various companies involved in the intervention, including NNPC, were doing so within the ambit of their Corporate Social Responsibility as their corporate governance regulations do not support cash donations. He also disclosed that 53% of the total value of the donations was devoted to the construction of permanent health facilities with two in each of the six geo-political zones. So far, the foundation laying ceremonies of the medical facilities have been conducted in three states – Bayelsa, Borno, and Katsina. The facilities are meant to support government’s efforts to upgrade the health sector which most people agree is in urgent need of such intervention.

Mallam Mele Kyari, in Delta State recenrly for the commissioning of COVID-19 Isolation Centre, courtesy of the Oil & Gas Industry intervention Initiative

In spite of these explanations so copiously made across the media, there have been attempts to spin the narrative and make it look like NNPC was single-handedly bank-rolling the Oil and Gas Industry intervention in the health sector at the expense of its core businesses and responsibility. Nothing can be further from the truth. That erroneous assumption was what obviously gave rise to the acerbic criticism in one of the articles in which the writer tried to pitch the National Assembly against NNPC by asking if the N21bn was appropriated by the legislative arm of government. But to those behind the scurrilous reports, it does not matter that the projects are meant to serve the public good, they must vilify NNPC and make it look bad at all costs.

Another aspect of the mischief by those behind the mission to discredit the corporation is in their attempt to conflate the donations by NNPC and its Petroleum Industry partners to the health sector with the corporation’s business plan of upgrading its clinics across the nation to provide optimal healthcare services to Nigerians. Again, the corporation has been very upfront and clear about its communication of the plan to reposition its non-core businesses to become profit-centres as part of efforts to diversify and boost the National Oil Company’s revenue base.

In one of the spurious reports published in a foreign medium based in New York City, the reporter who described the business plan of the corporation’s Ventures and Business Development Unit as “shift of focus” stated that NNPC plans to “build health institutions in 12 of the country’s 36 states at the cost of 21 billion naira ($54 million)”. He cited a recent interview by the corporation’s Chief Operating Officer, Ventures and Business Development, Mr. Roland Ewubare, in which the COO tried to explain his role in the Ventures unit and deliberately slanted it to create the impression that NNPC was abandoning its core business of refining after failing in it and incurring huge losses. Again, nothing can be further from the truth.

Right from the days of the erstwhile NNPC Group Managing Director, Dr. Maikanti Baru (of blessed memory), the plan to upgrade and commercialise the corporation’s clinics as one of its non-core businesses in order to stem the shameful trend of Nigerians flocking hospitals offshore in search of qualitative healthcare services has been on. It was well communicated to the Nigerian public with commendations from various quarters.

Indeed, the erudite and irrepressible human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, once openly applauded the move, describing it as a deft move capable of saving the country billions in dollars that would otherwise be spent abroad on medical tourism.

But to those in the business of campaign of calumny against NNPC, there can be no merit in the initiative. They conveniently forget that one of the hallmarks of successful corporations all over the world is the ability to identify opportunities in their operating environment and promptly tap into them. They also conveniently forget that NNPC has put in place an elaborate plan to rehabilitate its refineries which they cite as an emblem of the corporation’s failure. All that matters to them is that NNPC must be discredited at all costs. What a pity!

One of the allegations raised in the string of negative reports that clearly shows the depth of the writers bias is that NNPC has failed to produce report of its audited accounts in years. For experienced journalists whose roots are in business reporting, one would expect them to be aware of the fact that the corporation’s audited accounts up to 2018 are in the public domain. The corporation recently announced that its 2019 audited account would be released any moment from now. Even at that, the corporation publishes its financial and operations reports MONTHLY. The reports give insight into its financial position for those whose minds are still open to truth. This unprecedented step in deepening transparency and accountability in the corporation would naturally not mean anything to anyone who has made up his mind to see nothing good in the corporation. They would rather dredge up a history that has long been overtaken by current concerted efforts to reposition the corporation to justify their unwarranted attacks. No amount of explanations could mean anything to people who have made up their minds about NNPC’s culpability even in initiatives for which it should be praised.

For pushing out its financial and operations reports monthly, Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) as well as its Nigerian offshoot, Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) had at various time praised NNPC for opening its books for the world to peek.

If there is one lesson the world has learnt from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the fragility of existing healthcare systems not only in Nigeria, but also in the so-called developed economies. Nations all over the world have been receiving donations from agencies and corporations to fill the gap, if only in the interest of the public health. Many of the donors have received commendations for rising up to be counted in times of need. Why the donations by NNPC and its partners should attract virulent attacks and criticisms from supposedly enlightened minds instead of accolades remains a puzzle.

Like a colossus, the new NNPC is a rising power in the Oil and Gas Industry. Those who still live in the past concerning the health of the corporation would sooner than later have themselves utterly disappointed.

Babagana Haliru, a journalist and public affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja