Oil Theft, Nigeria’s Familiar Foe, Back in the Saddle

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Chineme Okafor reports that large-scale theft of crude oil from Nigeria’s heavily militarised Niger Delta waters has resurfaced, leading to recent communities’ protests and blame games by stakeholders

Nigeria is perhaps the only country in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)  notorious for large-scale theft of oil from its oil-bearing Niger Delta region.

Despite existing military measures complemented with several unconventional security measures, the country disgracefully suffers from theft of crude oil produced from her field and sent to export terminals through a web of pipelines that go across the tough terrains of the Delta.

Usually perpetrated by pirates and other third parties looking to make quick money by tapping from lines in the creeks, the practice of stealing oil from the Delta has persisted for many years such that data on what the country actually loses from theft are puzzling.

In 2016, for example, a US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nation, Michele Sison, who reportedly quoted a Chatham House document, stated that Nigeria lost approximately $1.5 billion monthly to oil thieves, who stole about 400,000 barrels per day (bd) of oil from the country to other regions of the world.

While illegal refineries within the areas have continued to fuel oil theft, the allure of shipping stolen crude through the Gulf of Guinea for refining and sale to other destination markets as legal oil have equally kept the business booming, even with promises made by President Muhammadu Buhari, when he assumed office in 2015, to put an end to it.

Old Habits

Before Buhari, took over in 2015, his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, had a very difficult task putting out the practice of oil theft in the region. Despite the deployment of a joint military taskforce (JTF) to secure and put out the illegal practice, Jonathan could not stop the practice, and even went as far as asking the international community to recognise and label stolen crude from Nigeria as what they are.

Through his oil minister then, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, the Jonathan government equally initiated efforts to place some sort of identification markers on oil produced from Nigeria’s fields so that when they are stolen, international buyers could recognise and perhaps act against the sellers. That plan, however, didn’t come through before Jonathan left government.

Now, in 2018, the ugly practice has reared up its ugly head again, following claims some weeks back by communities, who live along the Nembe Creek Trunk Line (NCTL) that oil thieves were now stealing through the river channels of the region to ship away large cache of oil.

After staging a protest in Abuja in which they called for the immediate withdrawal of the commander in charge of the JTF Operation Delta Safe, Rear Admiral, Suleiman Apochi, the community members   told the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, when he visited them recently, that they suspected the JTF was aiding the renewed oil theft in the region.

“I discovered a lot of illegal refineries, bunkering points, loading points all over the area of my jurisdiction. I see some vessel come in to load and go back and there is security everywhere,” said Chief Noman Atonkere, who described himself as the chairman of oil and gas Nembe kingdom, as well as the coordinator of the community security team employed by Spyer Nigeria, which has an existing security and maintenance contract on NCTL with Aiteo Group.

Expressing the communities’ frustration with the situation especially with regards to his claims against the military taskforce, Atonkere explained the military never responded to their alerts whenever oil thieves got in to work.

“We, who are civilian security cannot do anything because we don’t have arms and when we call there is no response. That is why we called on the federal government to assist us to fight this.

“That is why we are asking the government to assist us because the job of the JTF is to protect the assets and people. Not all JTF are bad. Some are good and some are bad,” he noted.

During their Abuja protest, the communities through a coalition of civil society groups, noted that 24 new illegal bunkering points were discovered along the creeks of Bonny, Nembe, Kula and Bille communities in Bayelsa and Rivers states.

They also stated that coordinates from a global positioning system (GPS) of the illegal bunkering in the region were generated and sent to the JTF in support of their security works, but the JTF allegedly ignored the coordinates.

Action

To again arrest the situation, Kachikwu stated during his visit to the creek that he will submit a report on his findings on renewed large-scale oil theft and haulage going on in the region despite the presence of the military taskforce to Buhari.

The minister who decried the practice despite the region’s waterways been heavily militarised, stated it was troubling.

Apparently gobsmacked that large crude carrying vessels could easily pass through existing security corridors in the region’s waterways untroubled, he said he will take back to Buhari what he found out for a quick proactive action to be taken.

The minister didn’t state the kind of action that would be taken by the government, but said the country’s security chiefs and National Security Adviser (NSA), Babagana Monguno, would be briefed on this with an intention to find a good solution to it.

According to him, the development was unhealthy for the economy of Nigeria and environment of the Niger Delta. He said it also signified the JTF may have been infiltrated with bad eggs who could be working with the oil thieves.

“I am here to see what is going on and how we can stop it. We will continue the tour, you can see we’ve been flying around with helicopters, trying to see where these points are.

“We are going to take words back to the headquarters to see how we can meet with the defence chiefs, and National Security Adviser. I will take words back to the president in terms of what the experience has been here,” said Kachikwu.

Kachikwu further stated: “For the fact that vessels can actually come through the security corridors and pick up oil is even much more troubling. It may not have been oil, it may have been arms. Something needs to be done in terms of security and environment as well as the economy of the country.”

Indicating the government’s discomfort with the situation, the minister said: “The president is very worried about this, he has put in a taskforce. One of the first things he did in early 2016 was that we moved out all the previous JTF personnel and moved them more towards the north and brought in new people who hadn’t been experienced in this to come here.

“And, for the large measures, I’m sure a lot of good works had been done but obviously some bad eggs are beginning to mess up the whole process. Reports that vessels actually pass through the security corridors and do this with a lot of license is very troubling and that is the report I have to take back. We will react to this very robustly.”

When asked if the government would continue to rely on just human efforts to overcome repeated theft of oil in the region, Kachikwu said: “That solution is there, it is happening. The fact that you have oil production go up shows that some of those blockages have been addressed.

“It is a mixture of security efficiency and technology infusion and obviously a very consistent engagement. At the end of the day, these individuals who do this are members of the communities, they are not falling out from the sky, and so, it is consistently engaging the traditional rulers, the youths who are involved in all these to be vigilant like what they do now because it is easier to just join the practice, benefit from it and keep quite.

“When the communities gather this way, we must recognise their resilience and courage and do something to ensure that they don’t become victims.”

Greatest Loser

On the potential impact of the development on Nigeria’s economy, Kachikwu, indicated the economy could be the greatest loser.

He said: “Whenever you have bunkering rising at this sort of pace, it means loss of income – oil is being stolen and not accounted for, the state is not getting its share. “But more importantly is also loss to the oil companies that are investing monies to do the work, then third and more importantly is the environmental degradation because a lot of these are very crude and poorly engineered. As we flew in, you could see the levels of pollution, the waters are not clean at all, and you could see the side bars and the sort of pollution that exists.”

He added that the government would be decisive in its response to the development, saying: “I can assure that within a very short time, something will be done about this and we can police this place better.”