Oil Thieves Blame Government for Stealing Crude

16 Jan 2013

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An illegal refinery

The wooden fishing boat navigating Nigeria's mangrove swamps is powered by a generator balanced above its volatile cargo.

Shimmering crude oil fills its hull, almost indistinguishable from the polluted water in the creek.

Here and there on the banks, people coated in oil wade through greasy mud in patches of landscape blackened and stripped of the thick vegetation that makes Nigeria's oil-producing delta so hard to police.

As Reuters observed, plumes of grey or yellow smoke fill the air as men who will give only their first names go to work in an illegal industry that the government says lifts a fifth of Nigeria's output of two million barrels a day.

Illegal oil 'bunkering' -- hacking into pipelines to steal crude then refining it or selling it abroad -- has become a major cost to Nigeria's treasury, which depends on oil for 80 percent of its earnings.

Major General Johnson Ochoga, who leads a military campaign against illegal bunkering that was stepped up last year under orders from President Goodluck Jonathan, told Reuters nearly 2,000 suspects had been arrested, with 4,000 refineries, 30,000 drums of products and hundreds of bunkering boats destroyed in 2012.

Yet the complicity of security officials and politicians who profit from the practice, and the lack of alternatives for those who undertake it, cast doubt on the likelihood of success.

Forty-year-old Goodluck, who shares his name and tribe with the president, says he would much rather have got a respectable job, except that, despite the billions of petrodollars coursing through the region's creeks over decades, there aren't any.

"This refinery is the only thing I know that can ensure my survival, at least for now," he told Reuters, sitting under a small makeshift iron roof shelter from the boiling sun, his hands sticky with crude.

"Doing this you can make up to $60 in a day," he said, gesturing with a nod towards oil drums full of homemade diesel shaded by smoked-blackened palm trees.

Most of the stolen crude is shipped offshore, with the remaining 10 percent refined locally. There is plenty of demand for the diesel, kerosene and gasoline Goodluck makes by boiling up stolen crude in a steel drum over a wood fire.

Goodluck gets up at dawn in the traffic-choked city of Yenagoa, in Bayelsa State, a humid labyrinth of creeks, swaps and mangrove forests that is home to two million people, mostly subsistence fishermen.

After breakfast Goodluck makes for the jetty where his boat is tied. On his way to his secret refinery, he also uses the boat to run a part-time paid ferry service.

"Though it is illegal, the oil belongs to all of us. This is our own share," he said, echoing the justification given by many locals who feel they have been left out of the oil riches flowing from underneath them.

Thieves often tap unguarded pipelines in broad daylight, hacking into them and connecting a hose to pump the oil onto a barge. They then sell it either to international criminal networks or to local refiners like Goodluck.

Decades of oil production have poisoned the waters of the delta, driving fishermen deeper into poverty and leaving some with few options for making a living.

"We know the crude oil theft is bad but we have been pushed to the wall to do it ... if not for the oil bunkering, we would have no shelter in this community," said Sudouwei Eris, 51, adding that the government had not even provided a school to his village of Baberagbeme.

While many senior militants have received lavish payouts to end rebellions aimed at securing a fairer sharing of the delta's oil wealth, many youths face long term unemployment and poverty.

An amnesty for some 26,000 militants in the Niger Delta in 2009 ended an overt campaign of violence and sabotage against the oil industry that at one stage shut down nearly half of its production. But attacks on pipelines for theft have increased.

Tags: News, Nigeria, Featured, Oil Thieves, Government, Stealing Crude

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