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By Moses V. Nagamootoo
Former Prime Minister
December 20 was designated “National Petroleum Day”. I had written this article for publication last week but replaced it by a commentary on the decision from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Guyana’s application regarding the finality of the 1899 Arbitral Award on the sanctity of our border with Venezuela.
I had noted that I would be a surprise if the PPP government were to celebrate this day; and that if it did, it would do so grudgingly, without giving any credit to the former Coalition Government for its caretaker role in the delivery by ExxonMobil of first oil in Guyana.
It would vindictively erase that piece of our history that is associated with Guyana’s first multi-party/multi-racial government.
As it turned out, the PPP government did not officially recognize “National Petroleum Day”; nor did it celebrate it. A mere footnote to the occasion took the form of a vulgar boast from a new minister that “we worked hard” over the past four months to achieve production of 120,000 barrels of oil per day!
I could imagine him and his colleagues, in laughable cartoon style, rolling up their dirty sleeves and scrubbing off from their hands the heavy crude after their “hard work”.
However, this type of revisionism which is associated with the debilitating disease of nasty political spite and narrow-mindedness, cannot change the fact that this date is indelibly carved in our history whether or not it is styled “national petroleum day”.
The old guards who had sold out the country’s oil patrimony when they agreed to a one-half percent royalty when it first signed on with the oil majors, are back in the saddle after the controversial March 2020 elections.
The Coalition had agreed for a 2% royalty plus a 50% profit oil which resource nationalists and industry experts have, not without some merit, dismissed as being too little. As expected, out of office, the PPP jumped on that bandwagon by promising to renegotiate the contract for more lucrative terms.
They have already threatened to amend or remove the Natural Resources Fund Act (NRF) which came into law on January 23, 2019 as the legal framework for the use of our oil money.
Titillated by the appetising smell of a stash of fresh cash, it would inevitably pack the Commission with its cronies to advise on how to access the oil monies which, by yearend, could reach an estimated US$130,000,000 (over G$26,000,000,000), now held in an account at the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
This government will not trash from the law the powers of the Minister of Finance, which the PPP had deemed to be excessive.
I had looked forward to first oil with sincere optimism when Guyana started to commercially produce oil, tentatively at 120,000 barrel per day and potentially 750,000 per day by 2025. Our reserve is estimated to have some eight billion barrels of oil.
Though the country’s expected 86% growth rate has been downgraded due to Covid-19 production cut-back, I still tenaciously cling to my hope that two precious words – Sweet Oil – will remain on the lips of every patriotic Guyanese during my lifetime and that of the next generation.
On December 15 last year I wrote that First Oil would become Guyana’s magic moment. It will be the beginning of a promising rags-to-riches epic — a composite of Cinderella and the pauper-to-prince, surreal, fairytales.
At the time I said that the good news reverberated in my heart like the nostalgic lyrics of Ben E. King and the Drifters when they sung about “this magic moment”, being “so different and so new”, and “sweeter than wine”.
It could be made sweeter if only we could have sensible policies, stable governance and a feeling that our oil is “we ting”, not a cursed resource to be stolen by foreigners or squandered by a bunch of recycled kleptocrats.
The magic, however, was accompanied by double tragedy. The dreaded Covid pandemic descended in March. Then came the foreign reactionary horde who, with “mighty and unstoppable hands” scripted the covert interference, under threats of sanctions, for regime change.
We have, so far, avoided the worst. Yet, we hear, as we wish the old year goodbye, only hallow sentiments for “cooperation” and “unity”.
We could do better if we forged a common national platform on our oil wealth, as we need to do to combat the pandemic. Anything else would be sheer political gamble.