Orobosa Omo-Ojo

For days, I pondered on how to approach this topic. Just then, I realised that the Parable of the Talents in the Holy Book of Matthew provides a helpful framework to illustrate the media circus that has been on the road for a while now. The Parable of the Talents is not about salvation or works righteousness, but about how we use our work to fulfil our earthly callings. It is about whole-life stewardship or “Stewardship with a capital ‘S.’

The unfaithful steward in the parable did not so much waste the master’s money – he wasted an opportunity. As a result, he was judged wicked and lazy. We are responsible for what we do for God with what we have been given, and one day we will be held responsible.

‘Talent’ usually refers to ability. But in this parable it is used as a measure for money. Greek sources state that one talent was equivalent to the monetary worth of 20 years of labour done by a common person or helper. This parable discusses the trusting nature of a master towards his servant and the responsibility of a servant towards his master. It also highlights the need for faithfulness and obedience, not only when the master is around but also when he is not.

We are told the story of how a chief executive assigned responsibilities to his agents while he was away on a trip. Upon his return, he assessed the productivity of each servant or, if you like, the caretakers. He evaluated them according to their faithfulness and creativity in protecting his investment.

It is clear from the story that even the rich Pharisee was interested in making some profit from his investment. A gain indicated faithfulness on the part of the servants. And this gain could be possible only if the servants played their caretaker role diligently. The measure of reward was based on how each handled his assignment. He judged two servants as having been “faithful” and rewarded them positively. The unfaithful servant got a query and was not compensated.

According to theologians, another version of the parable of talents was provided by Eusebius of Caesarea from a “Gospel written in Hebrew script.” In that gospel, Eusebius wrote that, while the man who had hidden the talent was rebuked for his wasteful approach to business, the man who had received two talents had invested and gained a return on his investment and the recipient of the five talents instead “wasted his master’s possessions and trust with harlots and flute-girls.” The Hebrew Gospel also revealed that this ‘prodigal man’ was sent into the darkness, and Eusebius expressly identified the darkness as being imprisonment.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) aptly fits the role of the rich Hebrew man in the ‘Parable of Talents’. It is the statutory responsibility of the company to manage Nigeria’s natural resources on behalf of the government. NNPC, in turn, employs the services of individuals and corporate entities to ensure service delivery. Bearing this truism in mind, Nigerians became curious and confused with the imbroglio that has trailed the award of the contract for the Trans Forcados Pipeline security surveillance to the preferred company, Ocean Marine Solutions (OMS).

Unlike the characters in the ‘Parable of Talents’, three principal actors are in the ongoing ‘black gold thriller’,  Eraskorp, Ocean Marine Solutions and the NNPC. At the heart of the contest is the Trans Forcados Pipeline (TFP) surveillance contract. According to the management of Eraskorp, the company was contracted by NNPC to provide security and surveillance services for the pipelines and the resources they convey, until recently when the contract was terminated by NNPC due to poor service delivery.

The corporation had stated in a press statement signed by Ndu Ughamadu that the nation lost 11 million barrels of crude oil, worth $800 million, while the TFP was placed under the watch of Eraskorp when their contract subsisted. But in another release, Eraskorp dismissed NNPC’s claim as “redundant falsehood,” insisting that its effort was geared towards making positive impacts in the Nigerian oil industry.

Eraskorp also challenged NNPC to provide Nigerians with cogent evidence of the “spurious claim.” The company then distanced itself from the responsibility of safeguarding the TFP, just as it claimed, “a surveillance contractor cannot be held liable for production shut-ins due to technical hitches.”

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It said, “The NNPC is fully aware that the so-called losses have nothing to do with the performance of our contract and is just a convenient excuse for their own misconduct.”

The narratives so far point to a situation of no going back, with the ‘fight-to-finish’ attitude of Eraskorp against the management of NNPC, who they also accused of failing to follow due process in re-awarding the surveillance contract for the protection of TFP to OMS.

Several questions beg for answers from Eraskop and NNPC. Principal among is the status of the former contract that was terminated. Was there a determination clause, based on performance? Did Eraskorp deliver on its mandate to protect the TFP? Is it true that NNPC and Nigeria lost 11 million barrels of oil worth $800 million under the watch of Eraskorp? Conversely, NNPC’s management had backed its claims with verifiable documents that the TFP was a major waste conduit during the period they contracted Eraskorp to protect the pipelines. The corporation was short of accusing Eraskorp of economic sabotage. Like the man who was given a single talent, in my opening story, the Eraskorp management has safely distanced itself and laid the losses squarely on the Operation and Maintenance (O&M) division of NNPC. This attitude is completely wrong and goes against good business and ethical values.

But how could this be? From the understanding of the workings in the NNPC, the failure or inability of the O&M division is the primary reason Eraskorp was contracted to watch over the TFP in the first instance, and for this the company admitted to have been paid $1.5 million each month. Eraskorp’s argument is merely an attempt by an inefficient contractor to evade responsibility.

By the way, NNPC’s decision to discontinue with Eraskorp and enter a new contract with a more technically-oriented company is based on the “Proof of Concept,” basically because OMS has successfully prevented oil thieves from bursting the Escravos-Warri and Bonny-Port Harcourt pipelines since they entered into surveillance agreement with the company. This is the basis and justification for the use of “Proof of Concept” methodology for the re-award of the TFP surveillance contract to OMS, after the failure of Eraskorp to protect the TFP.

Like the rich Hebrew merchant, NNPC can only reward her performing contractor, not the ‘servant’ that went frolicking and wasted his master’s trust. The ineffective servant was sent into the darkness, which has been interpreted by theologians as imprisonment. Today, the only place fit for economic saboteurs in Nigeria remains the prison.

But what may be the real reason for Eraskorp’s objection to the discontinuation of the TFP surveillance contract? Could this be because of their proclaimed “national interest”? Or, is the fight akin to the unnamed Hebrew woman who wanted the newborn child butchered, if she could not claim ownership of the baby?            

In economic disputes, the phrase “splitting the baby” describes a compromise somewhere in the middle of the opposing parties’ (requested) demands. The phrase comes from a dispute in which King Solomon faced a challenge where two women claimed the same infant child as theirs. Both women had given birth to a child in the same house and, sadly, one of the babies died in sleep. The allegation was that the mother had switched the dead child for the living one, while the other mother slept. Solomon’s proposal was to cut the baby in half with a sword so that each could have half, as a solution to the dispute. However, when the real mother gave up her demand to save the child, Solomon knew who the mother was and handed the child to her.

The Trans Forcados Pipeline is Nigeria’s baby that needs to be protected from perilous attack from oil thieves and vandals. Eraskorp must reconsider their present uncooperative stance with NNPC to prevent the continued loss of crude and revenue from the TFP. It is the responsibility of NNPC to select technical partners and vendors that they consider qualified to provide services to the corporation, including the TFP surveillance that is aimed at safeguarding the resources of Nigeria. A failure to do this may amount to deliberate acts of economic sabotage.

• Hon. Omo-Ojo, a journalist and former Commissioner for Oil and Gas, writes from Lagos