A High-Wire Act for Nigeria's Oil Minister

Diezani Alison-Madueke will take her seat as the first female oil minister in OPEC when the group meets in Vienna next month. Far tougher, though, is the delicate dance that she's performing at home in Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan, up for reelection in January, appointed Alison-Madueke his Petroleum Resources Minister in March. She has the unenviable job of negotiating with the foreign energy companies that pump most of the country's oil while also dealing with insurgent groups, angry about the distribution of oil profits, whose armed attacks have slowed energy investment in Nigeria.

Her first task is to guide a bill through Parliament that would increase taxes on overseas oil companies and take a bigger share of profits from the country's joint ventures with big oil companies. Another government initiative, announced last October, will allocate the equivalent of 10 percent of the nation's petroleum wealth to the Niger River Delta region (Alison-Madueke hails from that area) to appease the militants.

Looking after the country's all-important energy sector—Nigeria has Africa's second-biggest crude oil reserves after Libya and its largest gas deposits—"comes with a great onus of responsibility," Alison-Madueke, 49, says in an interview in London.

The daughter of an oil executive at what is now Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA), Alison-Madueke studied architecture at Howard University in Washington and received an MBA from Cambridge University in the U.K. In 1993 she joined Shell's operation in Nigeria, where she rose to become the company's first female executive director. (Shell has been criticized for its business practices and environmental record in Nigeria, and its facilities have come under repeated attacks from armed rebels.)

When OPEC meets in Vienna on Oct. 14, Alison-Madueke will push to increase Nigeria's OPEC quota, which she says was set during a period (from 2006 to 2009) when militant attacks cut the country's oil production by 28 percent. Nigeria's official quota is 1.673 million barrels a day, although it pumped about 2 million barrels a day last month, according to Bloomberg estimates. "We would in fact like to review those levels," says Alison-Madueke, who thinks the quota should be increased to reflect a rebound in oil production as fighters have disarmed in response to a government amnesty program.

A more difficult task may be implementing the energy legislation, expected to pass Parliament in the coming weeks, without alienating foreign oil companies. Shell, Chevron (CVX), and ExxonMobil (XOM) say the new law would make it unprofitable to invest in Nigeria's deepwater fields.

Alison-Madueke is an Ijaw, the predominant ethnic group in the oil-producing region from which the militants have drawn much of their membership. So far that hasn't proven much of an advantage. Alison-Madueke is too "elitist" to empathize with the militant cause, Jomo Gbomo, a spokesman for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, wrote in an e-mail. "She has no clue what our struggle is all about." Environmental Rights Action (ERA), 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. For its part, Shell is "pleased" that a former employee is serving in the Cabinet, but it "doesn't seek nor expect any preferential treatment," Tony Okonedo, the company's spokesman in Nigeria, wrote in an e-mail. Alison-Madueke says she is confident she can deal effectively with foreign oil companies and look after Nigeria's national interest. "I can see things from both sides of the spectrum," she says.

The bottom line: Nigerian Oil Minister Alison-Madueke hopes to keep foreign energy companies happy while shifting more oil wealth to the government.

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