The man with a plan: NJ Ayuk on the challenges facing African oil and gas

NJ Ayuk is no stranger to problems in oil and gas, and he’s putting forward African solutions.

For the last two decades, the African energy lawyer and author NJ Ayuk has been doing deals in the oil and gas sector. Despite his success, it has not been all smooth-sailing.

This is especially true today with key players in the international energy sector, not least Iran and Saudi Arabia, going through difficult times. ‘Global instability is a problem,’ NJ told veteran South African journalist Freek Robinson in an interview. ‘We don’t want a crisis, we don’t want wars.’

‘I think that this industry can be a strong force for good where we can work together, knowing that our resources are at stake,’ he added.

Looking to the problems on his home continent more specifically, he said: ‘The challenges in Africa sometimes have come with the sanctity of contracts,’ which he described as ‘just an agreement between you and me where our word is our bond.’

This is an issue NJ knows much about, as he is the CEO of Centurion Law Group, a pan-African energy law firm. He made his comments while talking about his latest book, Billions at Play: The Future of African Energy and Doing Deals. If Africa is going to have any future doing deals in the energy sector, or any other sector for that matter, then the rule of law must be upheld.

That oil companies have sometimes behaved in less than exemplary ways in Africa is a known fact. At the same time, governments must actively hold them to account.

‘It’s time for us Africans to say we want you to have contracts, and agreements, and operate in a way that is fair, just, and equitable,’ NJ said. ‘We have to hold ourselves to blame sometimes for some of the ills of the industry, some of the mismanagement, poor governance, corruption.’

Well-managed resources build nations, but mismanaged resources can easily lead to mass resentment and unrest. From Nigeria’s Niger Delta to Cameroon’s Anglophone area, NJ said ‘you have issues of people feeling disenfranchised, people not feeling treated well, and you’re having issues about how oil wealth is being structured.’

‘Energy security is not just putting a bunch of people or a lot of police officers on the streets, or on key energy installations, but how we take care of our people, how we share revenue. We have to find new ways of sharing oil revenue,’ he added.

This is not simply a case of handing out wads of cash to buy support; a more genuine, forward-looking approach is needed.

‘We have to start looking at how do we create community trust, which invests in education, which invests in healthcare, invests in key issues,’ NJ said. These projects would be funded by ‘part of the revenue coming out of oil and gas exploitation in these communities, whose communities have to be part of the benefits of it.’

‘A lot of oil and gas resources belong to the state not to the communities,’ he said. ‘Your politicians, your government, they should be held accountable, that has not happened in most places.’

The solution to these problems is advocacy, by Africans for Africans. That is why NJ is also the Executive Chairman of the African Energy Chamber that speaks on behalf of the African oil and gas industry.

‘We’ve been able to drive a lot of good governance issues, we’ve been able to drive a lot of transparency issues,’ he said. ‘We’re making a lot of progress, because we’re engaging… We’ve not purposefully gone out there and pointed fingers. We’ve said ‘Hey, listen. We understand there’s a problem, let’s find a solution.’ Because at the end of the day, people want solutions.’

Having discussed the real challenges the oil and gas industry face in Africa, NJ made sure to emphasize the optimism he feels towards the African energy sector, saying, ‘The Africa of tomorrow, the oil industry of tomorrow, has to be solution driven, and we have to encourage that and we have to engage in that.’

NJ is adamant that Africa’s potential can be unlocked through its bourgeoning energy industry: ‘More jobs are being created in Africa from the oil and gas industry, more people have been educated because of oil and gas, more infrastructure has been created in Africa because of oil and gas, you’ve had more people move from poverty to middle class because of the oil and gas industry.

‘The oil industry has changed the world, it has changed Africa,’ he said. ‘It has done a lot of positive things in Africa, and I think a lot of people have been blind to see the beauty of the oil industry.’

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