Wed | Sep 19, 2018

Daniel Thwaites | The oilfields of Wakanda

Published:Sunday | June 24, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Energy Minister Andrew Wheatley and Juliet Holness, the prime minister's wife, pose with characters at a Wakanda-themed party hosted by the energy ministry in May. Shorn Hector/Photographer

Watching that movie about Wakanda, I would have never guessed it would manifest right away in likkle Jamaica. But we are a very stoshuss set ah people, so it shouldn't have been a complete surprise when Hollywood dreams became Kingston reality in the aftermath of the energy minister's Budget presentation. Remember the Wakanda fairy tale is prefaced on a virtually unlimited supply of valuable vibranium, a little like the Venezuelan oil reserves, innit?

It began when Wheatley exploded out of a green Mercedes-AMG GT Coupe on to Duke Street to be guided into Gordon House by some plump beauties. I saw a picture of it on the Internet and I was like, "Dem man ya run tings now... He will divide Shechem, and mete out the valley of Succoth. Gilead is his; Manasseh is his; Ephraim also is the strength of his head; Judah is his lawgiver; Moab is his wash pot; over Edom will he cast out his shoe; over Philistia will he triumph."

Then the post-Budget celebration party was, it is reported, a plush and ostentatious Wakanda-themed affair. Again, Wakanda royalty were on display. How it all was being paid for? One can only speculate:

"Tonight Black Panther feeling to pawty! Tonight Black Panther feeling to Petrojam! Jam! Jam! Jam! Jam!"

Yah! Petrojam seemed to be at the centre of it all. Now I know you can't judge history by current disputes, and this Wakanda partying was all sooo last month - ages and ages ago - when the oilfields were pumping out crude non-stop and it was all strawberries and champagne.

Now tings change. The ministry is scandal-plagued, with pretty much every vocal civil-society grouping and the Opposition, clamouring for further investigation. And since we're fassin into Wakanda's business, fassten the seat belts, because with all that's goin' on, the Universal Access Fund hasn't got any attention yet. Who is in charge? Where's the other guy? Where have they been deploying networks? Who have got the contracts? How is the money being spent? All that's coming up. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

 

ENORMOUS IMPACT

 

Petrojam, which is owned by the governments of Jamaica and Venezuela, is a massive $200-billion company with an enormous economic impact. To put that into perspective, the mighty GraceKennedy is about half its size in revenue terms. On top of straight money, it directly impacts our overall energy security and is an emblem of successful international diplomacy. So keep that in mind when you read my next sentence.

Of the six board members, it turns out that five live overseas (Your eyes should be bugging out right now, unless you already forgot the $200-billion part). Perhaps that single fact explains the fallout we're witnessing, as it was being run like a barrel pickney without adult supervision.

I note and applaud the new finance minister's aspirational criteria for competent public board membership. But here, now that the Jamaican board appointees have resigned and been replaced, is the first test. Where are the technical skills and competencies? None of the three persons named has experience in the petroleum industry.

But let's look at the just-resigned board, with the overseas chairman. In keeping with the fairy-tale approach, he seems to have sought reimbursement for travels not taken. We're not talking about M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled here, but Bahado-Singh's The Road Not Travelled. Meaning, somehow the Government seems to have been invoiced, and dollars reimbursed, for travel and expenses that weren't 'bursed' in the first place. I suspect that's why MOCA, which still sounds to me like a delicious chocolatey drink, but really is about major crime, has been called upon to investigate.

It has also emerged that a magnificent wall, the likes of which would make Trump envious, has been built at extraordinary cost, some 60-odd million dollars over estimate. And, staying with our oil theme, dollars from Petrojam's very generous social spending provision seem to have leaked into Wheatley's constituency like the Exxon-Valdez pouring gallons into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

And what's a good Jamaican fairy tale without likkle bun-and-cheese? Allegations of concubinage have, shockingly, been made public. Not shocking because it's happening, but shocking because it's being reported. What's Wakanda coming to? Back in the day that sort of thing would have been kept hush-hush. Not anymore. Dem jus' buss it. Note to self: "No man is safe anymore." Damn! Ahhhm, Sophia! Wi dunnn!

 

NECESSARY UPGRADE

 

Then there's the Vacuum Distillation Unit that has not been installed. It's a necessary intermediate upgrade, which takes the company part of the way towards a long-planned full upgrade. That complete upgrade is a pressing national concern, given that a full one-half of Petrojam's sales are to JPS, which is rapidly switching to LNG. Petrojam, therefore, needs to quickly position itself to do further import substitution and expand its satisfaction of demands for energy in transportation, the other half of its current market.

In other words, the very viability of this precious national asset is at stake, and now the board change, staff resignations, various probes, and the overall disruption in governance will certainly mean additional delay.

A quick word on how this refinery project has got caught up in some ham-fisted handling of geopolitics. Suffice it to say that the Venezuelans are hugely pissed off at how certain Wakandaistas have been handling them. The deep problem is that we have not so far been able to articulate a coherent policy that manages to walk the chalk line to escape the fireworks when our two friends, the US and the Venezuelans, are fighting. But know that our OAS votes are being closely watched, and Venezuela ah bun fyah.

So when Wheatley announced that Jamaica wants to buy out the Venezuelan shares, that was just more Wakanda fairy tales. Because Venezuela isn't playing ball, our local governance is focused on siphoning benefits, and our top man is missing in action and billing for trips he didn't take.

And that, fellow Wakandaists, is the gross and oily scandal that goes beyond the petty veniality of (Desmond's voice) 'prassssperity'. For when you understand that this massive national asset is staring down a crisis, and then you learn that this overseas board hasn't bothered to meet in nine months, you realise the scale of governmental malpractice at work in Wakanda's oilfield.

Is it not, therefore, a perfectly legitimate question if Wheatley still ah keep? Put it another way: How long Bredda Andrew, how long before we hear (Pastor Gino Jennings' voice now): "All right, securridy! Usher him out! Usher him out! Usher him out! Usher him out! Take his microphone and usher him out!"

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.