Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that the war against pipeline vandalism in the Lagos area by operatives of the Nigerian Navy Ship Beecroft, has yielded tremendous success with the recovery of stolen products and the arrest of several suspects
“I am a fisherman by trade. It was my elder brother who bought the petrol. He asked me to carry them in my canoe to meet buyers. That was when the navy arrested me.” Those were the words of Agbotou Firmin, a Beninnois fisherman, whose stock in trade was to transport stolen and vandalised petroleum products belonging to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corperation (NNPC) to the end users.
Firmin was one of the five Beninnois, alongside Sohe Soule, Gbenou Daniel, Dosspu Vigor and Sodohe Olivier, who were recently arrested by the Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Beecroft and handed over to Lagos Commandant of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Mr. Tajudeen Balogun.
Established as the operational arm of the Western Naval Command of the Nigerian Navy (NN), Nigerian Navy Ship Beecroft, under the command of the Commodore Abraham Adaji, has taken the war against pipeline vandalism to the creeks and islands where these acts are being perpetuated with alacrity.
Until recently, the vandals held sway from Badagry Creeks in Tongeji Island to areas and islands like Ilado, Akaraba, Solou, Kamoru and Imola communities Robot, Ilashe and Abule Glass villages, which is between Takwa Bay and Badagry Creeks. But now, the centre no longer holds for them as they have been decapacitated and their hideouts raided.
For Adaji, this war signals that it is no longer business as usual for the vandals, given the zero tolerance of the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, to pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft, amongst other maritime crimes.
In fact, during the recap of stewardship of the immediate past Flag Officer Commanding of the Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Raphael Osondu, it was revealed that the command had arrested 221 persons, 25 vessels and boats and recovered 150,000 litres of stolen products over the course of seven months. This was excluding the recent arrests made in the month of May by NNS Beecroft operatives.
While the ships arrested by the command were of various makes and sizes, the 221 suspects were arrested for various offences including pipeline vandalism, piracy and illegal bunkering of petroleum products.
Creditably too, aside the robust policing duties, some of the successes recorded were greatly enhanced by the provisions of Regional Maritime Awareness Centre (RMAC) and FALCON EYE, an Israeli-installed mass civil surveillance system, two facilities that have reinforced NN’s presence at sea.
The Navy’s Stance
Without a doubt, the body language of the leadership often rubs off on the followers. Same holds true for the NN. Owing to the CNS vision statement which is to, “To develop a credible naval power in fulfillment of the Nigerian Navy’s constitutional roles towards enhancing national prosperity and security,” the entire naval force has been tilted towards achieving just that.
Upon assumption of office, the CNS, Vice Admiral Ibas with a mission “To deploy a naval force that is well trained, organised and highly motivated to discharge its constitutional roles professionally and efficiently for the defence of Nigeria in ensuring her economic prosperity,” had sworn a zero tolerance for crude oil theft, pipeline vandalism, piracy and other maritime illegalities.
According to a recent statement by the Director of Naval Information (DINFO), Commodore Chris Ezekobe, the navy has sustained its dominance in the waterways with extensive patrols and increased surveillance activities in line with the directives of Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibas.
He said between March 21 and 28, 2016, the anti Crude Oil Theft (Anti-COT) drive of the Nigerian Navy received a boost with successes recorded in raids conducted against illegal crude oil thieves, illegal refineries, smugglers and other criminalities along the waterways and creeks.
Reiterating the stance of the CNS, he said the navy has resolved to ensure that maritime criminals and operators of illegal refineries are decisively dealt with, as a deterrent to others wishing to sabotage critical national economic assets. Also sending a warning to the criminals, he said, “They are therefore warned to desist from their acts of economic sabotage or face the full wrath of the law. This is because there will be no hiding place for them in our maritime environment.”
A Harvest of Arrests
If dubbed the month of arrests, May will certainly take the lead given the several successes recorded by NNS Beecroft in that particular month. Stolen products worth millions of naira were recovered, suspects arrested and handed over to the appropriate authorities for prosecution, just as raids were conducted on their hideouts.
In the middle of May, the navy arrested and handed over five suspected pipeline vandals with hundreds of 25 litres jerrycans laden with stolen petrol and handed them over to the NSCDC.
The suspects, Agbotou Firmin, Sohe Soule, Gbenou Daniel, Dosspu Vigor and Sodohe Olivier, were handed over to NSCDC Lagos Commandant, Tajudeen Balogun, alongside one Yamaha 40HP outboard engine, one wooden boat and several other recovered products. THISDAY gathered that they were nabbed along Badagry Creeks in Tongeji Island by naval personnel, while conveying the suspected stolen products on a wooden boat towards Benin Republic.
Before the handover, Commander NNS Beecroft, Commodore Abraham Adaji in an interview with THISDAY said the products were believed to have been gotten from a vandalised pipeline. He said during interrogation, the suspects claimed they were fishermen based in Port Novo, Benin Republic and that it was their boss who called them out for the business.
He said the suspects were later transferred to NNS Beecroft for custody and further investigation before being handed over to the appropriate authority. He said, “They claimed that it was their boss who asked them to convey the product to Port Novo, where it would be sold to buyers.
“Petrol imported by the Federal Government is meant for local consumption in Nigeria. There is no known agreement between Nigeria and Benin Republic for the supply of petrol. In view of the above, I was directed to handover the five suspects, one Yamaha 40HP outboard engine, one wooden boat and unconfirmed number of products to NSCDC, Lagos command for further investigation and prosecution.”
Receiving the suspects, NSCDC Commandant, Balogun, who said he was elated by the confidence which the Nigerian Navy reposed in them by deeming them worthy to judiciously investigate and prosecute the suspects, said other suspects handed over to them by the navy were at different stages of investigation and prosecution in court.
In another incident in May, the navy also intercepted and smashed a cross-border syndicate, and recovered 50, 000 litres of stolen products.
The navy in one of its midnight patrols at Tongeji Island, off the boundary between Benin Republic and Nigeria had stumbled on the suspects attempting to smuggle over 2000 kegs of 25 litres each of stolen products, containing approximately 50, 000 litres of fuel. THISDAY gathered that the syndicate specialised in smuggling either vandalised pipelines or buying from other vandals, before sailing across the border to sell at a higher price to their respective customers.
Speaking with THISDAY at the naval base in Apapa, Lagos, NNS Beecroft Commander, Commodore Adaji, said these recent arrests came at the heels of the recovered 218 kegs of 25 litres each, which were handed over to the NSCDC on a Friday.
He said, “You will recall that we handed over 218 kegs of 25 litres each of stolen products. Today (Saturday), we offloaded three wooden boats and we recovered about 2000 kegs, each of 25 litres capacity fully laden with Petroleum Motor Spirit (PMS). The products were recovered from Tongeji Island, around the Badagry axis on the fringes of Nigeria’s Western border with Republic of Benin.
“No suspect was arrested because the occupants of the boat who were moving towards Badagry fled and abandoned the products with the wooden boats upon sighting the navy patrol boats. They jumped into the water and swam to safety.”
On why the navy hasn’t stationed some personnel to man the area given the propensity for such illegalities in the area, he said, “Our men are stationed there and that is why we have been able to make these recoveries. They arrested the boats and sent them to the base here in Lagos.”
Speaking on why the suspects escaped, Adaji said, “It’s not a question of not being there, what happens is that no matter how close a navy boat is, once they sight it, they have two options- wait with what they are carrying and get arrested or abandon the products and jump into the water, which most of them do.
“This is because they know that their enterprise is illegal. The recoveries were made at the wee hours of Friday at about 12.25am. It is premature to say where the products are from but they have no basis to transport these products in that quantity and that is why they always abandon the products and flee whenever they come in contact with law enforcement agencies.
“We have had issues with pipeline vandalism and illegal refining of crude oil and the navy is all out to make sure that this is brought to an end. That is why we have intensified our patrols not just in the immediate Lagos area but also to the fringes of our borders.”
Explaining what the cartel does Adaji said, “Nigerians are not aware that there is a very big price difference between the cost of petrol in the nation and at the neighbouring countries. Petrol sells much higher at neighbouring countries and this price difference is enough incentive for criminals who want to evade the law and appropriate channels to smuggle petroleum products.
“I wouldn’t say directly that these are products of pipeline vandalism, but these products are most likely meant for local consumption in Nigeria, which people (suspects) have gotten and taken out to sell at high cost without passing through appropriate channels.”
Still in May, the navy handed over four pipeline vandals and 218 kegs of stolen products to the NSCDC for further investigation and possible prosecution. The suspected vandals were identified as 20-year-old Francis Agbaje, 24-year-old Erum Jack, 23-year-old Mathew Apaton and 24-year-old John Honfo.
Adaji, who handed over the suspects, said they were arrested at the Suntan Beach in Igbologun Community in Badagry, Lagos State. He said, “The suspects were arrested with 218 jerrycans of 25 litres each of petrol by the soldiers of the 9th Brigade of the Nigerian Army attached to the Operation MESA (OP MESA) following a tip-off.
“The vandals were arrested along Badagry waterways for illegally dealing in petroleum products suspected to have been scooped from vandalised pipeline.”
He said although the navy was responsible for maritime security including areas of pipeline protection and vandalism, prosecution can only be carried out by the NSCDC. He said, “We have always been working hand-in-hand with the NSCDC and other prosecuting agencies for the prosecution of people that were arrested in the course of vandalism of pipelines.”
The navy, in another major operation in May, intercepted a 10-man gang of pipeline vandals, and seized two wooden boats carrying 649 drums of stolen products, as well as other equipment at the Badagry area of Lagos. Adaji, who coordinated the operation said although the suspects evaded arrest, said the operation and the seizure was carried out by Sub Lieutenant Godwin Enefu.
Enefu, while speaking to journalists said the vandals, numbering about 10, on sighting the naval team fled into the bush to evade arrest. He said ”During our routine patrol, we got information about the vandals. On getting to Badagry area to make the arrest, the vandals ran away. When they saw us coming, they fled and abandoned these two wooden boats alongside their equipment. Unfortunately for them, we intercepted these two wooden boats from them.
Meanwhile, Adaji said the navy would not rest on its oars to rid the country’s waterways of oil thieves and vandals. He said, “649 drums each of the capacity of 250 litres which altogether gives over 162 metric tons of products that these vessels would have been carted away from national supplies. What you see today is the testimony of our ongoing efforts to ensure that all matters of vandalism and pillage of our common wealth are arrested.”
He said the crime was an organised crime, adding that “there were nine outboard engines. Some of the items that were recovered were four pumping machines, engines, petrol to power their boats, food items. Several hoses, few lube oils /engine oil, pumping machines were recovered from the boat. The boats have already been destroyed. Also, the navy is fully equipped and ready to fight to an end, pipeline vandalism and oil theft.”
In April, another group of pipeline vandals evaded arrest when the navy stormed Atlas Cove. They evaded arrest by jumping ship, when personnel of the NNS Beecroft, stormed the notorious hideout of the vandals at Atlas Cove.
Although all seven suspects successfully escaped, the operatives however impounded their wooden boat and recovered 27 jerrycans fully loaded with stolen products. The vandals who were heading to an unknown destination in their boat had on sighting the navy, turned and headed for the shore before they jumped into the water to escape.
Led by Adaji, the operatives also carried out operations at Ilado, Akaraba, Robot, Ilashe and Abule Glass villages, which were between Takwa Bay and Badagry Creeks. Adaji who reiterated the navy’s determination to rid the nation’s waterways of oil thieves and vandals, said all measures are being explored to ensure pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft come to an end.
He said, ”One of the measures the NNPC is also exploring is, partnership with local authorities that are closest to where these assets are and it is in that sense that we have the men of the Kings Guard. They are men with some root in the community who live in the area and they will be the first to know if anything is going on.
“These men have just been brought onboard to work with other security agencies mainly to provide intelligence and presence which has a very significant deterrence value. You can see that when we got there, they submitted to our control and direction so they have been very organised and disciplined.
“As a formal security agency, we take a lot of processing when we talk of arrest particularly when it emanates from the men of the Kings Guard. It is not everything that they bring up that we consider as arrest. For us to prosecute, we must present evidence and that will include the offence that was committed, the persons involved and the instruments of that crime and possibly other witnesses that may have observed.
“If in the course of our interaction, we cannot provide any of these elements, we do not go ahead and just take people for the sake of recording the number of people arrested. But indeed we have worked and made arrest together. We have handed over some people for prosecution and the processes are ongoing at the appropriate government agencies.
“Today, we went on land but you will recognise that land is not the primary area of the navy. So, we do patrol at sea predominantly but that does not mean we will be oblivious of what is going on land. That is why we go there also, because at the end of the day, some of the activities end up being transported on water. So, we are interested in knowing the source of the activities that spill to some of the crimes that we see on water.”
Warning perpetrators to seek legitimate means of livelihood, Adaji said the navy is always ready to fight pipeline vandalism and oil theft in line with the zero tolerance for maritime offences of the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibas.
In another development, operatives of NNS Beecroft foiled vandals operations in Solou, Kamoru and Imola communities in Lagos, forcing them to abandon over 20,000 fifty litres kegs, which were to be used to siphon stolen petroleum product from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation pipelines.
Some of the kegs filled with siphoned petroleum products were recovered in an abandoned wooden boat in Ilado-Odo area. With that recovery, it sums up to a total of over 8000 litres of products recovered from vandals along that axis, in two days.
Led again by Adaji, the navy led personnel of the NSCDC to raid the communities and it was extended beyond the waters as operatives stormed communities around the creeks. It was in that process that a route which links the farewell buoy, a location on sea where oil tankers wait for clearance from relevant authorities, was discovered. This route, it was discovered had pipes that were connected from the oil tankers to a wooden boat in which were over 200 drums.
Some of the drums were discovered to have been filled with siphoned products from one of the oil tanks. The pipes were subsequently disconnected and the boat in which were over 200 drums, seized. Although no arrest was made, however, in the creeks over 20,000 abandoned jerry cans marked with different initials such as MX, VTN, SNT were sighted at different locations.
In that raid, at around Ilado-Odo, the operatives stumbled on some suspected vandals who were apparently returning from an operation and on sighting the navy, the vandals fled, abandoning their boat at the shore of the sea and the navy recovered 27 (250) litres kegs of stolen petroleum products.
Speaking at the end of the six-hour patrol, Adaji who warned vandals to desist from such illicit acts, said strategic measures were being explored to ensure pipeline vandalism, crude oil theft come to an end. He said, “One of the measures the NNPC is also exploring is partnership with local authorities that are closest to where these assets are. They are men with some root in the community who lives in the area and they will be the first to know if anything is going on.”
Ordinarily, the navy’s resolve to rid the nation’s waterways and maritime domain of pipeline vandalism amongst other criminal acts, occasioned by its recent successes should serve as deterrent to the criminal elements but they keep devising new routes to beat naval patrol and arrest. Notwithstanding, the navy said they won’t rest on their oars until all creeks and waterways are safe for legal economic activities to thrive.