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OPEC’s First Lady Alison-Madueke Grapples With Reform

Diezani Alison-Madueke will take her seat as the first female oil minister in OPEC when the group meets in Vienna next month. A far tougher role may be the one she’s playing at home in Nigeria.

Appointed in March as petroleum minister of Africa’s biggest oil-producing nation, Alison-Madueke will spearhead President Goodluck Jonathan’s struggle with international companies that pump the country’s oil and insurgent groups whose armed attacks have slowed investment in Nigeria for five years.

One challenge is to see through parliament an oil and gas industry bill criticized by energy companies for giving too much profit and control to the state. Another is to manage a government plan to hand 10 percent of petroleum wealth to communities in the oil-rich delta, her home region, to appease the militants. Within OPEC, which marks its 50th anniversary today, she will also argue Nigeria’s case for a larger oil quota, the source of 80 percent of government revenue.

“It comes with a great onus of responsibility,” Alison-Madueke, 49, said of her new role in an interview in London. “It’s the responsibility that rests on my shoulders, for Nigeria and for sub-Saharan Africa as well.”

Being the first woman among the ministers of the 12-nation Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries may be an opportunity to change attitudes in a male-dominated environment, Alison-Madueke said. “I am hoping it brings a certain more nurturing focus to OPEC, and the way we do business.”

Fast-Changing Business

Though OPEC “has done very well over the last 50 years,” the energy business is fast changing, particularly its effect on the environment, she said in the July 30 interview.

The daughter of Fredrick Agama, a former manager at what is now Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Alison-Madueke spent part of her childhood in an oil company compound in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. She studied architecture at Howard University in Washington and received a master’s degree in business administration from Cambridge University in the U.K. After working in the U.S., she returned to Nigeria in 1993 to join Shell’s local unit, where she became the company’s first female executive director.

Nigeria has Africa’s second-biggest crude oil reserves of 37.2 billion barrels, after Libya, and the continent’s largest gas deposits of more than 185 trillion cubic feet, according to BP Plc’s Statistical Review. The West African nation is the fifth-biggest source of oil imports to the U.S., where its light, low-sulfur crude is valued for its gasoline yield.

OPEC Conference

OPEC meets in Vienna on Oct. 14 to determine production quotas for coming months. While women, including Kuwait’s Siham Razzouqi, have sometimes led national delegations at meetings, Alison-Madueke will be the first to join the group as a fully fledged minister, according to OPEC.

An immediate challenge will be to increase Nigeria’s OPEC quota, which she says was set at a time militant attacks had cut the country’s production. Nigeria’s official quota is 1.673 million barrels a day, though it pumped about 2 million barrels a day last month, Bloomberg estimates show.

“We would in fact like to review those levels,” she said.

No OPEC member has officially asked the group secretariat for an increase in its oil-output quota, Secretary General Abdalla El-Badri said at a press conference in Vienna today.

A more difficult task may be how to pass a proposed law to change the way Nigeria’s oil and gas industry is regulated and funded without alienating foreign energy companies. Shell, Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. say that the law would increase taxes and royalties to the government, making it unprofitable to invest in Nigeria’s deepwater fields.

Bigger Profit Share

A final version of the bill, first submitted to the legislature in September 2008, will be voted on after lawmakers, currently on recess, resume on Oct. 12, Lee Maeba, chairman of the Joint Senate Committee on the Petroleum Industry Bill, said in Abuja on Sept. 7.

No less daunting will be the implementation of a plan, announced by the government in October, to give delta communities a 10 percent stake in oil and gas investments and profit in their area to reduce hostility to oil companies.

The government hopes that as an Ijaw, the predominant ethnic group in the oil-producing region from which the militants have drawn much of their membership, Alison-Madueke will address popular demand for more local control of oil wealth, while her experience at Shell gives her credibility in negotiations with oil companies.

While Shell is “pleased” that a former employee is serving in cabinet, it “doesn’t seek nor expect any preferential treatment,” Tony Okonedo, the company’s spokesman in Nigeria, said in an e-mailed response.

Delta Militants

Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Total SA and Eni SpA run joint ventures that pump most of the country’s oil. The state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. has an average 59 percent stake in those ventures.

The insurgency in the Niger River delta cut more than 28 percent of the country’s crude output from 2006 to 2009. While the attacks have subsided since thousands of fighters disarmed following a government amnesty last year, the main armed group in the region, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, remains critical of the country’s leaders.

Alison-Madueke is too “elitist” to empathize with the militant cause, MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo said in an e-mail. “She has no clue what our struggle is all about.”

Breakdown in Communication

The Nigerian government’s attempts to reorganize the oil industry, started by former Oil Minister Rilwanu Lukman, had damaged relations with its foreign partners, according to Antony Goldman of PM Consulting, a London-based adviser specializing in West African oil states.

“There had been a breakdown in communication,” Goldman said. It’s now up to Alison-Madueke “to push through reform and at the same time salvage the partnership which has been under strain.”

Environmental Rights Action, the Nigerian affiliate of Friends of the Earth, says her connection with Shell makes her appointment more than a coincidence.

“It is curious that a product of Shell was chosen to oversee the passage of the reform bill after Shell had criticized it,” Nnimmo Bassey, the head of ERA, said by phone from Benin City, Nigeria.

First appointed to the cabinet as transport minister in 2007 by former President Umaru Yar’Adua, she was moved to Mines and Steel Development in December 2008. Jonathan, who took over as Yar’Adua lay ill and succeeded him upon his death, this year appointed Alison-Madueke to the Petroleum Ministry. Her husband, Admiral Alison Madueke, is a former chief of Nigeria’s navy.

Nigeria will engage the international oil companies in “constant discussion” until they “feel part of the bill,” Alison-Madueke said of the new law she expects to be passed within weeks. Though she understands the views of oil companies, the national interest remains her focus.

“I can see things from both sides of the spectrum,” she said.

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