Oil bunkering in the Niger Delta, has been a perennial problem. The country is to have lost oil estimated at $10.9 billion or about 136 million barrels to crude oil thieves. Also 10 billion barrels of oil valued at $894 million have been lost to pipeline vandalised in the downstream sector.
This represents 7.7 per cent of total revenue that accrued to the country within the period to crude oil thieves. Being heavily dependent on crude oil for its foreign exchange earnings, the country’s economy has suffered a serious decline following large scale theft in the oil industry.
This is not withstanding the zero tolerance of the menace always declared by security agencies. Though, in recent times, such nefarious activities have reduced compared to some years back, illegal oil bunkering, some experts predict, would be difficult to curtail.
This is because of the huge financial rewards it accrues to perpetrators and the high profile of those involved. Apart from the enormous loss of revenue to the country, oil theft has brought along social consequences on coastal communities where the activities are carried out.
For instance, the menace has brought serious setbacks and under-development to the communities. It has also caused environmental degradation and untimely deaths, destroying aquatic lives, as well as exposing the communities to danger and constant fear. Unquantifiable and incalculable property, including buildings, illegal refineries, drums and oil tools had been destroyed, when security operatives carry out raids.
Those involved in the operations
Checks by Sunday Sun showed that oil bunkering in the Niger Delta region is shrouded in secrecy and is operated by a powerful clique involving several interests. According to a native in one of the communities in Rivers State, the foot soldiers, who are usually caught, are used by influential individuals in the society. But, those who are more pronounced in the illegal business, he said, are the ex-militants who hitherto held the region to ransom.
A scenario played out in Bonny where a particular vessel earlier arrested by the Navy and subsequently handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for prosecution, was, in less than a year, arrested again on the same waterway by the Navy for the same offence. During handover and interrogation, the captain of the ship was asked why he was arrested again. He replied that he could not answer the question because he was neither the owner of the vessel, nor of the product.
Some kingpins in the Niger Delta struggle have been identified in the bunkering business. According to a man simply identified as Boma in Okrika, one of the communities where a lot of illegal refineries were destroyed, the ex-militant leaders were influential in their respective communities and could go the extra mile to ensure that they thwarted efforts of government to curb the menace.This, he said, is because of its huge financial rewards.
He indicted some security operatives, who he said, connives with the “creek boys” to perpetrate the crime. According to him, those involved in the business pay huge amount of money to security operatives. He further alleged that even the security agents usually shield the oil thieves, adding that insistence to arrest occurs when negotiation fails.
The source also fingered traditional rulers and community leaders as abetting the crime.He alleged that some chiefs give protection to the boys, while some community leaders and chiefs, out of fear of the boys, are silent because there is no other option than to be silent, while the operations thrive.
Complex web of crude oil theft in Bayelsa
Investigations in Bayelsa State, regarded as the hub of the Niger Delta region, also shows that the state is sadly the epicentre of crude oil theft which has brought the Nigerian economy to its knees. Intelligence officers of the Nigerian Navy attached to the Central Naval Command (CNC), Yenagoa had identified Brass River, Nun River, St Nicholas River, St Barbara, Sambreiro River, Middleton River, Akassa and Furoupa community as beehive of oil theft operations.
The massive theft of Nigeria’s crude in these area has forced the Federal Government to change the operations of the Joint Task Force (JTF) from Operation Rescue Mission to Operation Pulo Shield. The aim is to protect the country’s oil assets and secure the crude oil in the pipes. Also, the Central Naval Command (CNC) of the Nigeria Navy was created and its headquarters moved to Bayelsa State because of the rate at which crude oil was being stolen in the rivers of Bayelsa.
Investigations by Sunday Sun revealed that between January and November 2013, JTF arrested 245 suspected crude oil thieves and destroyed 250 illegal refineries. In the same period, the Navy arrested 115 suspected crude oil thieves and impounded 15 vessels. In the first five months of this year, JTF has already arrested 120 suspected crude oil thieves while the Navy has also made a series of arrests.
The oil industry watchers are, however, of the view that the oil thieves stealing oil to refine in the various camps they have established are small time thieves which the JTF and Navy can use as scapegoat leaving out the big time thieves whose power and influence make them untouchable.
According to the Chairman of the Oil and Gas Committee in Nembe Kingdom, Chief Nengi James, crude oil theft is an organised crime involving oil workers, oil companies, officials of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), high placed Nigerians, foreign businessmen, retired and serving military personnel. He categorised the steal-ing of Nigeria’s oil into two, noting that there is a crude oil theft tree which include all the actors.
“There is what I call the oil theft tree. It starts from the Presidency annex, which is the NNPC and its subsidiaries, which are branches of the oil theft tree. They connive with the military and security apparatus, oil businessmen and foreign counterparts, who give out their ships because very few Nigerians own a ship. They move these ships to the sea where they have partners in oil workers, aggrieved oil workers that have been sacked, retired oil workers that acts as mercenaries with active involvement of operatives of JTF and Navy.”
James explained that one of the ways they steal oil is through the oil terminal where oil workers and security operatives connive to steal oil.
“The business is also run through what is known as toping from oil well terminal and sales point. This is done between oil workers and security agents. There are military men at terminals where oil workers are stationed to open the valves for loading crude oil into ships. In the course of loading, like a tanker is expected to load 200,000 barrels, there is always an opening to load more. They induce those on duty with cash and they would load more than what is approved.”
The second way crude oil is being stolen is through the oil companies at the point of production where they declare a different figure of barrels of oil they have produced from what was actually produced.
“Another point of stealing is from the oil companies. They have a figure which they declare as what they are producing at sales point and this is different what they are actually producing.
They just give the figures they like to the government. For instance, in Nembe creek, if Nembe 1 is producing 100,000 barrels, Shell would declare 50,000. So, before you blame the small operators of illegal refineries, the big time thieves have stolen enough from the terminals’ export sales,” he said.
The project officer of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Mr Morris Alagoa also believes oil companies are culpable in the theft of crude oil.
“While oil theft should be condemned by well meaning people, there should be no discrimination as to the big boys and small boys in the business right from the NNPC, oil companies and security agencies. All those in the act should be sen¬tenced to death according to the law. There is massive stealing of crude oil at the loading point and the terminals by oil companies.
This also happens at the off-shore and this is why the Federal Government does not real¬ly know how much is produced per day.”
Another method of stealing is through pipeline vandalisation where crude is stolen for sale to ships stationed at the sea, and illegal oil bunkers also steal from the pipeline to refine locally and sell to boat drivers.
A field officer of the Ministry of Environment who has visited several oil communities in the state explained that pipeline vandalism is more rampart in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of the state where crude oil thieves have a field day with active connivance of the locals.
“Most times the oil theft is carried out by natives of oil communities. It is very common in Southern Ijaw communities. We have found out that there is no security for most of the pipelines. Agip has their pipelines in swamp areas and there is no security.
If a point is busted and the oil company clamps it as you are leaving these illegal oil bunkerers would go back there. There is a par¬ticular place in Gbarau, they do JIV twice a week. It is a snake like creek. The way the pipes run is not possible to have security at every point.
They use welders with valves, they bust the pipeline, put in their own valve and tap oil with a hose. The ones that are involved in massive oil theft can connect pipes to about 2-3 kilometres and people would not know.”
According to James, the security personnel only play to the gallery by destroying illegal refineries when ships are loading crude in the sea.
“It is a well organised crime that is going on with very few people in charge. They carry very few in the community along who see to it that the pipelines are busted or through the well head. They only arrest those who are not ready to play ball and parade to the public as suspected oil thieves.
It is the local refinery people our security operatives use as scapegoats. How many Niger Deltans own oil blocks, how many own ships they bring in to load oil?
A senior staff of Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) Mr Funakpo Funfeyi speaking at an engagement with journalists in Yenagoa on the topic: Niger Delta Enviroment: Challenges of Crude Oil theft said crude oil thieves breached over 90 points at Nembe Creek Trunk Line making it possible for them to steal 150,000 bpd.
“We also have been putting out our biggest worry and concern which is crude oil theft, illegal refining and oil bunkering into public domain. We have shut down Nembe Creek trunk line of 90 kilometres of pipeline. In the 90 kilometres of pipeline we have up to 90 points that have been breached by crude oil thieves.”
Another way devised to steal Nigeria’s crude oil is through the forging of signatures of approving officials for loading of crude from one point to the other. James explained that where there are approvals for some people to load crude from one point to the other otherwise known as legal bunkering, criminal minded people would forge the signatures of naval authorities for bunkering permit and use it severally to steal crude moving it outside the shores of the country.
James pointed out that it is an organised crime that would be difficult to stop because of the involvement of military personnel.
“The business is not the way people are seeing it. It is an organised crime involving high placed Nigerians. There is the theft with pen and documents, theft at the terminals, theft on ship loading and theft at the creeks in the mangrove. Even if you curb the operators of illegal refinery, can they stop the big thieves? I have said it times without number and JTF have also admitted that they have bad eggs. I was aware of an incident where military men provide cover for those stealing oil.
They were arrested and taken away but nothing was heard about the issue again…
The postings in the Niger Delta is influenced by top military officers to ensure they get kick backs. Military operatives live a life of affluence not with their salary.
The involvement of retired military officers was reinforced by Joshua Orupere who disclosed that the two vessels arrested for alleged stealing of crude oil was given to him by a retired Air force officer from Bayelsa State who later provided him a link and whom he used in his attempt to bribe a top ranking officer of JTF.
Incidentally it is the case of Orupere whose bribe money a JTF officer rejected that the JTF cites to defend officers of the security outfit over allegation of conspiracy in crude oil theft.
A youth leader from Sangana community, Mr Uroh Omekumo Kiani described the stealing of crude oil as an international business run by powerful people that the government cannot move against.
Hear him: “On the issue of crude oil theft, no local person can buy crude oil, no local person has vessel. The vessel business is an international business and if there are no buyers, there won’t be sellers. If you move into the Atlantic Ocean by Sangana community, you would see vessels lined up waiting for suppliers.
The question is who owns those vessels? None of the natives own the vessels, those vessels are owned by high placed persons and internationally connected businessmen. This business is a multi-billion dollar business. No poor people from the community can afford a vessel.
The President of the Ijaw Youth Council ( IYC), Mr Udengs Eradiri said the council is collating the names of influential Nigerians whose vessels have been fingered in crude oil theft.
The list he said would shock Nigerians, noting that until those behind crude oil theft are exposed, there is no end in sight to bleeding of the Nigerian economy.
JTF denies involvement
But, authorities of the JTF Operation Pulo Shield had severally denied involvement in the crime. In fact, one of the outfit’s former commanders had, in an interview with reporters in the state, reiterated their vow to deal with any of their personnel caught abetting bunkering in the state.
Nigerian Navy, on its part, had, since threatened to go after traditional rulers, landlords and community leaders found encouraging criminality, especially in illegal oil bunkering in the Niger Delta region. The force also said it had declared 24 hours patrol of the waterways to checkmate the operations of illegal oil bunkerers.
Consequently, recently, it vowed that its sledge hammer would land on chiefs and landlords, who encouraged oil theft and pipeline vandalism in their localities. The NNS Pathfinder, Port Harcourt, gave the threat after the Base had carried out operations in the creeks, raiding five camps, and over six illegal refineries.
The raided places were One Man Camp, Bille, Km 45, Idama, Kii, Ikpokri and Ele Creeks all in the State. Several local tank farms containing products suspected to be illegally refined petroleum products and accessories were destroyed.
The operation, which started at about 4:00 pm, lasted for several hours. The then Commander of the Base, Commodore Deju Effedua, warned them to avoid whatever that would link them with the nefarious activities of oil bunkerers in their areas, or face the music. He added that this would be the last warning for them.
He said: “The Base once again is warning landlords, village heads and community leaders that anybody whose house is co-located with the illegal tank farms or refineries and fails to report, should consider such houses as collateral damage as they would be destroyed alongside these illegal facilities. This warning will not be repeated.”
He told Sunday Sun that the raid was in its efforts to rid the state in particular, and the Niger Delta region in general, of illegal oil bunkering, and to declare the creeks unsafe for the perpetrators.
However, the successes recorded by security agents in the fight against oil theft in the state had been attributed to the robust synergy existing between all the security agencies in the state, which had immensely contributed to their efficiency in combating oil theft on the waterways. Some communities also contributed with useful and timely information, which aided security operatives to function effectively.
Also, multinational oil companies operating in the state had been accused of frustrating JTF’s anti-oil theft and illegal bunkering operations. The outfit once came up with this allegation in a statement it issued in Port Harcourt.
Sector 2 JTF Operation Pulo Shield in that statement said that Shell Petroleum Development Company’s (SPDC) inability to repair or even clamp over 70 illegal loading points already discovered in the state, adversely affected the fight against oil theft due to continued use by oil thieves.
“This is highly frustrating to the JTF operations. Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) should cause SPDC management to repair or clamp all identified illegal loading points,” the statement read.
How to curb it
Former Commander, NNS Pathfinder, Port Harcourt, Commodore Oyetunji Fadeyi (rtd), once said that the worrisome aspect of the fight against oil theft was that, the law enforcement agents were not saddled with the responsibility for prosecuting the culprits. To this effect, according to him, after they suspects were arrested and charged to court, no adequate penalty was given to them by the court. He advocated a stiff penalty, as the only panacea to curb the menace.
Commodore Fadeyi pointed out that loopholes in the judicial system had hampered adjudication of cases, thereby causing upsurge in criminal activities in the society.
He argued further that, if suspects were charged to court and their cases fast-tracked, as well as punishments meted out to the offenders, they would serve as deterrent to others.
“If after investigation, they are charged to court, and prosecuted, they will serve as deterrent to others. But, if after they are charged to court and nothing is done, tomorrow, you see them walking on the streets; you encourage others. So, it should be improved”, Fadeyi advised.
The Navy’s strategy to combat menace
Nigerian Navy (NN) in a reply to Sunday Sun enquiries on what the Navy is doing to curb oil theft in the country said they has introduced a new strategy called the Total Spectrum Maritime Strategy to address the menace of maritime crimes in the nation’s waters. This, it said is complemented by the Nigerian Navy Transformation Plan.
These two initiatives have led to the establishment of new coastal radar stations called Regional Maritime Awareness Capability Centres (RMAC) from 7 to 10 in the past 15 months. The Navy has also established new Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), outposts, Coastal Observation Posts and Flying Base/Stations/Units among others for increased reach to combat crude oil theft and other criminalities in the maritime areas of interest.
In the same period, the Navy in collaboration with the Joint Task Force, Operation Pulo Shield and other security agencies has arrested over 84 vessels and their crew. Furthermore, over 120 illegal oil refineries, 29 barges, 93 large wooden boats and 1,259 auxiliary equipment were destroyed.
The Navy said it has adopted a double-edged strategy towards acquiring ships to boost naval presence. The success of the 2-pronged approach was the commissioning of four ships on 19 February 2015. It said it also received five interceptor boats (K-13 boats) early in the year.
Additionally, six Navy ships are currently undergoing refit at the NN dockyard, Lagos. The Navy said it is confident that when the ships come on stream, its capacity to checkmate the crude oil theft would be greatly enhanced.
The Navy said its task is restricted to arrest of oil thieves when caught in the act and handing them over to government prosecuting agencies adding that since the Navy does not prosecute, it would be difficult to state reasons why prosecution takes long time than necessary. The situation, it said does not augur well as the deterrence purpose of prosecuting offenders are not being achieved, thus emboldening these group of people.
The Navy said the success of its effort at curbing crude oil theft can be attested to by the fact that in 2014, 1,438 crude oil tankers successfully loaded a total of 122,401,270.94 metric tons of crude oil safely from Nigeria’s maritime domain on behalf of the Federal Government without any incidence of attack
The NIMASA angle
However, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), the nation’s apex regulatory and promotional maritime agency is charged primarily with the pursuance of developing shipping and regula¬tory matters relating to merchant shipping and seafarers.
This thus insulates it from the responsibility of tackling illegal bunkering and oil theft in the nation’s oil and gas domain. However, as an agency also charged with the responsibility of carrying out air and coastal surveillance of the country’s waterways, NIMASA said it at times, runs into illegal bunkers and alert relevant authorities, which in this case, is the Nigerian Navy.
NIMASA Deputy Director and Head of Public Relations, Mr Isichei Osamgbi in reaction to Sunday Sun’s request for the agency’s efforts towards curbing oil theft in the Niger Delta region said the agency’s target is not oil thieves but pirates who attack vessels and kidnap crew for ransom.
He said in doing this, NIMASA engages the services of the Nigerian Navy andthe Nigerian Air Force via an MoU it signed with them.
“NIMASA staff are not allowed to carry guns but the pirates are usually armed to the teeth. So, it means anyone tackling them must also be armed. That is where the military comes in because they have the statutory responsibility of safeguarding the nation’s territorial integrity. So, we merely provide the vessels and they (the military) install their weapons on them.
The military man these vessels. So, in the course of patrolling the nation’s waterways, we may run into oil thieves and apprehend them where we can or alert relevant bodies. This synergy with the military has yielded results and we are still recording more successes.”