Italian oil firm Agip said yesterday it had struck a new partnership deal with state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp to bid for oil concessions outside the West African country. This would be the latest in a series of moves by the NNPC to diversify its investment portfolio by acquiring stakes in oil and gas operations abroad.

An Agip spokesman told Reuters the deal was part of the company's total package offered to NNPC, in Agip's bid to win a share of Nigeria's promising deepsea oil blocks due to be awarded next month.

"We are carrying the NNPC outside Nigeria in exploration and production," the spokesman said. "This is part of the total package we gave for acquiring oil prospecting licence (OPL) 91 and in our bid for deep offshore block 244."

The spokesman said under the accord, entered into with NNPC's crude oil prospecting arm, the National Petroleum Development Co (NPDC), Agip would pay 12 per cent of NPDC's contribution to the total cost of developing the oil blocks.

This arrangement, he added, would apply in developing an oil block won recently by Agip in a West African country. He declined to name the country. Agip currently produces about 150,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil in a joint venture with NNPC.

It also holds a five per cent stake in a joint venture operated by Royal Dutch/Shell, as well as a 10.4 per cent slice of Nigeria's Bonny LNG plant. Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer and Opec's sixth, has begun moves lately to secure participatory interests in oil businesses abroad, particularly in refineries.

NNPC's Group Managing Director Jackson Gaius-Obaseki told Reuters early this month the corporation wanted to buy into Kenya's only refinery in the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa and Canada's North Atlantic Refinery.

An NNPC team is also into negotiations with Venezuelan officials for investment opportunities in the South American country. Yesterday Namibia announced it would hold talks with Nigeria today on the possibility of setting up a joint refinery in the southern African country.

Nigerian oil industry analysts said the moves were to shield Nigeria from the vagaries of the international crude oil market. Despite the recent boom in world oil prices, Nigeria has had to spend heavily on massive imports of refined products to supplement dwindling output from its own poorly maintained domestic refineries.

NNPC said imports would be reduced drastically from the end of this year when rehabilitation of the refineries would have been completed. The Nigerian government is currently reorganising the NNPC, which supervises the country's lifeblood oil industry, in readiness for privatisation of its downstream assets. These include four domestic refineries, petrochemical and natural gas plants.

In line with this commercial focus, the NNPC published its audited accounts for the first time last April. Industry analysts said they did not expect an continuing parliamentary investigation of the corporation's operations to affect its new commercial orientation.