Benue ethanol plantations: How far?

By James Shim

The administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo started the drive to link the oil sector with the nation’s economy and in particular, the agricultural sector in 2016. Towards this, a fuel ethanol programme was put in place by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The programme predicated on the development of large scale cassava and sugar cane plantations led to the creation of a renewable energy division by the NNPC to midwife the programme.

According to the NNPC Group Managing Director, then, Engr Funsho Kupolokun, the objective of the programme was to explore sources of bio-mass that can be used to produce fuel ethanol. Ethanol is produced as a petrochemical through the hydration of ethylene.

The Nigerian ethanol programme favours cassava and sugarcane, making Benue State, which is the agricultural hub of the nation suitable in the programme.
Towards achieving this, the NNPC under Engr Kopolokun worked out plans to acquire farmlands in Benue, Anambra and Cross River for large scale cultivation of cassava.

Nigeria’s ethanol initiative was built on four components – specific cultivation project, formation of partnerships, policy creation and the seeding of initiatives across stakeholders.

The programme 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 and position Nigeria for the development of ‘green fuels’ in the long term; and to save the country between 100 and 130 million dollars annually from importation of fuel.

According to the Group General Manager (GGM) in charge of the NNPC’s Renewable Energy Unit, Anochie Anyaoku, the ethanol initiative, a private-sector driven initiative, had local and foreign investors, as well as multi-nationals engaged. Sadly, the Obasanjo administration could not drive the programme through but ended up laying foundation for its growth and development.

As a critical component programme of redefining the Nigerian ailing economy, President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, upon assuming office, directed NNPC to resume oil exploration activities in some of the nation’s inland basins including Chad Basin and the Benue trough.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) officially commenced oil exploration in the Benue trough with the mobilisation of its data services department to acquire seismic data.

During a courtesy visit on Governor Samuel Ortom at the Benue People’s House, Makurdi, the Group Managing Director of the NNPC, Dr Maikanti Baru, said  the biofuel project, would attract benefits like the creation of one million direct and indirect jobs
(Benue has a population of about 5 million people).

He said the programme would also attract 20,000 hectares of sugarcane feedstock plantation, cane mill and raw/refined sugar plant which would produce 126,000 tons per year and fuel-ethanol processing plant which would produce 84 million liters every year.

Governor Ortom was excited and extended the people’s appreciation to Buhari for considering Benue for the two projects. The governor prayed God to make the two projects a reality and expressed his administration’s commitment towards ensuring that adequate security was provided for the workers and equipment.

While acknowledging the fact that there would be massive employment opportunities for the people, Ortom said the implementation of the anti-open grazing law would enable farmers work year round and feed the plants with desired raw materials.

The governor 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 the establishment of an energy renewable plant in Benue State 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, said the project, which was to gulp about $300 million, would be financed through a joint venture with foreign partners. He further revealed that the corporation had already secured the technical partners.

Suleiman commended the Benue State government for providing land for the project’s take-off, 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 where ethanol would be extracted as a renewable energy source.

He stressed that the success of the Benue plant would determine the take-off of the others. “We expect that this plant, when built, will be producing at least 65 million litres per annum of fuel ethanol that could be blended into our petrol and will be used in Nigeria and neighbouring countries when exported,” said Suleiman.

He further disclosed that the biofuel project would be fitted with a 40 megawatts electricity plant that would also supply power to the host communities, and allayed fears of any possible negative impact of the plant on the supply of cassava-based foods for human consumption.

Years down the line, there seems to be no significant effort both on the plantations and the construction of the FG ethanol plant in the state. The lands donated by the State government in Guma and Otukpo have remained unattended to. Most worrisome is the fear that such a wonderful initiative which has the capacity to change lives and impact heavily on the economy might have been aborted.

Benue, however, is opportuned to attract an ethanol production plant in Makurdi, called Pure Biotech Company which is purely a private sector initiative with Chinese partners. This makes the demand for the plantations more critical.

Meanwhile, other similar ethanol plantations and projects in Nigeria such as India-headquartered Sona Group in Sango-Ota, Ogun State; the Unicane Industries Limited which announced its completion in Jamata, Lokoja, Kogi State, have all been realized and are doing well.

Similarly, The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has cultivated  hectares of cassava plantations for the processing of bio-ethanol in Kebbi State. Indigenes of the areas with these establishment stand the golden chance of benefitting by way of economic and social growth.

Benue indigenes, therefore, would want to know the state of the plantations and the efforts of the federal government in making good its avowed commitment with the people. They are worried that this may turn another campaign bait as others.

In the line of consideration among local governments were: Katsina-Ala, Buruku, Guma, Agatu andTarka.

Findings, however, revealed that what the federal government demanded from the Benue State government as its stake in the execution of the project was 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.

Partnership for the ethanol project was between the NNPC, Benue State Government, BNSG/ Ministry of Agriculture and the host community.

According to investigations, a consultant was eventually engaged and was to survey the lands in Guma and Otukpo. He was also to value the lands and conduct advocacy and sensitization with the locals.

The consultant, it was gathered delivered on his responsibility and in specified time. He also found Guma most suitable for sugar cane while Otukpo was found arable for cultivation of sugar cane.

In Guma, investigation revealed that the land which is situated stretching from a point immediately after crossing the River Benue at the Gbajimba axis, has been beaconed. A visit to the site however, revealed no sign of government activity.

Villagers around the place were skeptical to divulge information on the project.The state of insecurity in the area makes every stranger a potential threat in addition to government bureaucracy.

Our investigations nevertheless revealed that no compensation has been paid but the community members agreed to donate the land with the hope that the community will be open for accelerated development and job opportunities for the youths.

It was further revealed that the traditional rulers who was coordinating the programme in the area, Chief Uwouku Abanka died and no specific traditional rulers has been reassigned to coordinate issues on the land with the attitude of the FG towards the programme.

Some of the youths expressed the feeling that the FG may have jettisoned the programme due to differences existing between the state government and 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 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, development of their area, and to free them from incessant herdsmen attacks. He explained that part of the land which belongs to him is in Mbashor, Buruku Local Government and borders Logo and Guma council areas.

The situation in Upu, Otukpo Local Government was different. It was not possible to trace the land. The only available land which many assume could be the site, according to information gathered had since been transferred to the Lower Benue River Basin Development Authority. The purpose for the transfer could however, not be ascertained.

Indeed, most villagers that the investigative team interacted with could only confirm they heard something about government bringing a company to the area but were not specific on the nature of company.

Chairman of Otukpo Local Government Council, Bako Ejeh also denied knowledge of such project in the area. However, a personnel 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 survey was 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.

The consultant on the projects, an indigene of Benue State, Mr Hurordoo Nambativ, when contacted confirmed certain developments but said he will only speak with clearance from either the deputy governor.

Meanwhile, the NNPC, which was the actual owners of the projects equally denied knowledge of such existence during investigation. The Human Resources Manager, Administration, Mabel Akogwu, who was approached in the course of investigation, however, promised to go into findings, adding however, that the NNPC has been privatized and nothing of such to her knowledge has been handed over.

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