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Ghana's president promises disclosure of oil contracts

By Aliou Bassoum
A girl sits on an adult's shoulders to get a better view as she waits in a crowd prior to the ceremony held for the inauguration of Ghana's new President John Atta Mills in Accra, Ghana Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009.

Ghana's new president, John Evans Atta Mills, has announced that all current and future agreements with companies to develop the nation's oil and gas resources will be made public, a significant move in a sector known more for its secrecy than openness. Pres. Mills also pledged that his administration will review existing and draft legislation that would regulate the sector to ensure that public input is incorporated and that transparency and accountability principles are taken into account.

This decision, reported by the Ghana News Agency, comes a week after the release of a report by Oxfam America and its local partner, the Integrated Social Development Center (ISODEC), on the challenges posed by Ghana's coming oil boom. The report, Ghana's Big Test: Oil's Challenge to Democratic Development, recommends, among other things: transparency of payments from oil companies to governments as well as disclosure of all petroleum agreements; open and competitive licensing procedures for oil and gas blocks; the active participation of civil society; and the establishment of an appropriate legal and institutional framework for the industry.

"This commitment by the government should be commended. In too many countries, petroleum agreements governing the sale of public resources have been kept secret. The new administration should build on this step to increase openness for more citizen participation in the formulation of public policy. In the case of oil, participation on the part of the people and of civil society has thus far been limited," said Ibrahima Aïdara, coordinator of the Extractive Industries Program in Oxfam's West Africa Regional Office based in Dakar, Senegal. "In addition to ensuring full transparency and public participation in the oil and gas sector, the government should also take steps to improve the management of the gold mining sector."

Steve Manteaw, media and campaigns coordinator for ISODEC, said: "President Mills has taken an important step to preserve Ghana's record of good governance and stability by preparing Ghana to support accountable and efficient development of the oil industry and the billions in government revenue it will generate."

The International Monetary Fund has predicted that government revenues from oil (producing approximately 120,000 barrels a day by 2011) and gas could reach a cumulative $20 billion over a production period of 2012-2030 in Jubilee field alone. The field gets its name from the discovery of oil there at the time of Ghana's 50th anniversary as a nation.

The Ghanaian president's commitment is in line with the objectives of Oxfam America's Right to Know, Right to Decide campaign focusing on greater transparency and the right of communities to have a say over how and whether oil, gas, and mining projects go forward. The emphasis on transparency and public participation is also a cornerstone of Oxfam America's efforts to increase public and civil society participation in the development of a regional mining convention being developed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Since last year, ECOWAS has been in the process of developing a mining convention that would promote common social, environmental, and transparency standards in the mining region across West Africa. Civil society is participating actively in the process and is ensuring that the concerns of the citizens, especially communities near mining projects, are taken into account.

"The new government in Ghana has a chance to take a fresh look both at preparations for the oil boom as well as the historical legacy of increased conflict and social and environmental impacts from gold mining production. The agenda for reform is both broad and deep, but the commitments by the new president are an important step in the right direction," said Aidara.