Chiemelie Ezeobi who was recently embedded in a four-day highly specialised operation in the heart of the Niger Delta, reports on the massive scale of pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft, and the efforts of the Operation Swamp Buggy of the Nigerian Navy in tackling the menace
It was highly secretive operation which explained the number of gun-toting personnel of the Nigerian Navy (NN). If those were well armed, then the operatives of the Special Boat Services (SBS), which are easily likened to the highly specialised Israeli navy seals, were doubly armed, which came in handy much later in the operation.
The operation wasn’t for sight seeing, rather it was targeted at exposing defence journalists to some of the daily routines of the navy and the terrain its personnel work in. Noting that the armed forces were being funded by tax payers, the Director Naval Information (DINFO), Commodore Suleiman Dahun, said the navy understands the need to make people understand the complexities of what the service does towards security and safety in the maritime domain and on land.
So as the entourage approached the areas of operation, it became clearer about the extra security the navy had; it was the den of militants, pipeline vandals and crude oil thieves- a brigand that carries out their illegal activities, crushing anything on its path.
Massive Scale of Illegalities in Delta
After a short briefing on the operational activities of the Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) DELTA, the team left the jetty at 10.03am in a convoy of five patrol boats. Soon after, we crossed the Chanomi River, a journey that took over 30minutes from the NNS Delta jetty, the first port of call was Gbaramatu community, then Igbafa creek, as well as Nana creek, which connects to Sapele, Koko, Gele Gele in Ondo State and even connects to Lagos too, which perhaps explains why there are two houseboats performing as choke points to prevent illegal passage of illegal products siphoned from vandalised pipelines.
The next rendezvous was at Escravos then onward to Yeye creeks characterised by crude oil spillage. Here, the oil pollution was denser, thicker and blacker. The massive devastation caused by the spillage was heartbreaking. From Yeye creeks to an illegal refinery site, but this time around, we left the comfort of the covered patrol boats and boarded the open speed boat. Then the heavens opened, but that was not a deterrent. At 2.50pm, we got to the site and it was then the real journey began. The dirty swamp soaked in crude oil, burnt wood and dirt clogged our feet as we watched the swamp buggy destroy one of the illegal refineries.
At 3.32pm, we got out of the creeks but on our way out, the tide had risen and the stressful journey became more tortuous. Some fell into the mud water mixed with crude. At a point, the naval men had to go ahead and use sticks to poke the water to guide our footsteps. On getting back to the houseboat, another walk to the Focardos pipeline was embarked on before all rendezvoused at the jetty of the houseboat for onward journey back to the base, signaling the end of a stressful, yet revealing day.
The second day saw the entourage move to Benet Island, where a massive illegal refinery running into millions of naira, was situated. At the different creeks where the defence journalists were taken to by the Executive Officer, NNS DELTA, Captain Festus Adewuyi, a massive and well coordinated operation of crude distillation processes were being carried out. Despite continuous efforts by the navy to destroy such illegal refineries, more keeps sprouting up especially at Benet Island, where over 50 of 10,000 litre metal tanks were found.
In sites visited, the destruction of the illegal refineries were being done with the use of swamp buggies, an excavator used in swampy areas to crush metallic substances and render them unusable, thereby avoiding further pollution of the land and surrounding water.
Already, the navy has identified over 900 illegal refinery camps within NNS DELTA’s area of operation (AOO) with the bulk of it located around Ughelli and Warri South.
Like Delta, Like Rivers
Moving on to Rivers State from Delta, the destination was NNS PATHFINDER. It was even worse in Rivers as a visit to Bakana creeks revealed hundreds of metal tanks of about 10,000 litre-capacity each. On ground also were tents with makeshift beds and kitchen utensils, owned by the vandals. On sighting the navy gunboats advancing towards the murky waters, they abandoned their refineries and fled into the thick mangroves.
NNS PATHFINDER CO, Commodore Sam Bora said there were 700 identified illegal refinery camps, which the base was also destroying with swamp buggies. He said this became a necessary approach giving the resilience of the operators of these illegal sites to regroup. To aid the operation, two new swamp buggies were acquired for the base by the naval headquarters.
Prior to the patrol, Bora said: “Operations against crude oil theft, illegal bunkering and other maritime criminalities in the last six months has witnessed the deployment of an average of 10 gunboats and 18 private maritime logistics support company vessels for sustained patrols monthly.
“This led to the arrest of eight vessels, 18 barges, 42 wooden boats and 38 suspects within the period under review. Similarly, 70 illegal refinery sites with several storage tanks and dugout pits laden with over 4,300 litres of suspected stolen crude oil as well as over 2,191 litres of illegally refined AGO were destroyed. Additionally, 21 fibre boats, three trucks and tankers, 18 outboard engines, 16 generators, 12 welding machines and 36 pumping machines were recovered within the same period.”
There have been allegations that these criminals work in cohorts with top staffers of indigenous and multinational companies, political elites, community leaders and traditional rulers thus making it almost impossible for security agencies to contain the situation.
From what was observed, these illegal refineries have pipes running through the backyards of some houses close to the jetties from where the criminals load these products into waiting boats.
There were underground pipes connecting crude oil reservoirs suspected to have been siphoned from wellheads along Trans-Forcados by the criminals, who run other pipes to various tanks and dugout pits, such that diesel, kerosene and the waste products go into different channels from their heat ovens through hoses and metal pipes.
Consequences on the Environment
Man is often a product of his environment. In both states visited, it was miles and miles of deforestation caused by the illegal disposal of distilled crude remnants. Also synonymous with both states were crude oil on the surface of the rivers, polluting the entire environment.
This was reminiscent of the 2011 Ogoniland report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which revealed an unprecedented concentration of benzene, a carcinogen and hydrocarbons occasioned by oil spillage that has polluted air and water in the Niger Delta.
In some instances, UNEP’s study showed benzene concentrate in outdoor air were 900 times higher than Wolrd Health Organisation’s (WHO) benchmark, while the contamination of drinking and ground water, it noted, posed serious threat to human health and distortion of the ecosystem and would take up to three decades to clear.
Although the federal government had approved the establishment of modula refineries as a way to checkmate crude oil theft, the syndicates involved in the crime have continued.
In one of the reports done by Shell, a multinational oil company, they said: “Oil spills due to crude oil theft and sabotage of facilities (referred to as third party interference), as well as illegal refining, cause the most environmental damage from oil and gas operations in the Niger Delta. The number of sabotage-related spills of more than 100kgs. In 2018, the volume increased to 111 compared to 62 in 2017.”
Swamp Buggy Operation
To bring this menace to an end, the Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, with the approval of President Muhammadu Buhari has commenced the swamp buggy operation to consolidate the gains recorded by the chokepoint regime. This operation, according to the Commanding Officer, NNS DELTA, Commodore Ibrahim Dewu involved the deployment of armed personnel to dislodge the militants, station armed personnel on the recovered site and then ferrying swamp buggies to the location to crush, bury all the equipment used by the criminals.
He said this strategy was adopted instead of setting fire on the camps to avoid a further pollution of the environment and also because the metals used by the criminals were fire resistant.
“The criminals know that fire will not destroy their tanks and so, sometimes, they even set traps for our personnel. They will spray the place with petrol and once they sight our personnel advancing, they will light fire and then jump inside the water to prevent the navy from destroying their camps.
“So, what we do now if ensure that men are stationed in advance before the swamp buggy is deployed. In a camp, you can have more than 50 structures of illegal refineries.
“This is one of the menace the navy has been fighting in our back waters. In April 2019, we carried out an operation in this very Bennet Island and we destroyed most of the illegal refineries with the swamp buggy. Just three months after the criminals have reconstructed and commenced their nefarious activity again.”
Although some of the suspects jumped into the polluted rivers and swam to the comfort of the thick mangroves, upon sighting the naval formation, many more were caught right in action.
In Delta, the navy had destroyed 50 illegal refineries, seized 85 wooden boats used by criminal elements for alleged illegal bunkering of petroleum products siphoned from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) pipelines and crude oil well heads, as well as six ships- MT AYSU, MY INTERIM, MV MAMA ELIZABETH, MT MIRACLE, MV NIPAL and SD WATERMAN-in just 32 days around Yeye, Burutu and Ibafa creeks.
At NNS PATHFINDER, the arrests were real time as the entourage patrolled the creeks and rivers. Leading a convoy of five boats to the creek for on-the-spot assessment of an illegal refinery camp destroyed by the navy last December, the DINFO and Base Operation Officer (BOO) Commander Muritala Rogo patrolled adjoining channels of the river where some of the boats were recovered.
In that singular patrol, the navy arrested 19 suspects, recovered five boats and 168 drums of 250 litres of AGO, just as it destroyed illegal refineries in Bakana Creeks. The operation which lasted well over six hours saw the crew plunge through the deluge of wasted crude to access the large scale illegal refinery sited at a secluded area of the creek. After destroying the refineries, the crew began patrol of the channel and successfully intercepted several boats conveying the stolen crude with the perpetrators, including two women.
Among the suspects were Okechuwkwu Echelonu, Gift Emmanuel, Justina Patani, Moses Elijah, Emmanuel Manase, Joshua Ahi, Lucky Sam and Iliyasu Ibrahim. Although three of the suspects in two different boats dived into the river unclad, abandoning their boats and cargo upon sighting the naval gunboats, others surrendered without a fuss.
In an interview with the suspects, 14 of them including the two women claimed that they were working for one ‘madam’ based in Port Harcourt, whose identity they only know as Madam Joy.
As expected in such operations, the challenges were inherent- from funds to rent the necessary work tools to safety of personnel, intimidation of local support by the communities.
THIDAY gathered that it cost the navy N250,000 to rent the swamp buggies each day. It also cost them N100,000 to rent the barge and N200,000 to rent the tugboat. In the instance of the recent Operation Swamp Buggy, which they had spent as much as 35 days before the journalist’s entourage joined up, the total cost of hiring such equipment is mind bugling and this amount does not take into cognisance the payment for the drivers, the cost of feeding of personnel at the respective houseboats, the cost of diesel and allowances for the local support on ground. From reports gotten by THISDAY, to ameliorate the cost of renting the swamp buggies, they need at least a minimum of 10. This is also expected to reduce time spent at the creeks because sometimes they spend as much as 35 days or even more, which is not just time consuming, but also money consuming.
Another major challenge they experience is the intimidation by these militants and vandals on those that they rent the buggies from. It was gathered that often times, when navy goes aborrowing, the owners often refuse on the premise that the vandals had promised retribution.
On whether the navy has the manpower to address the situation, Dewu said the service was collaborating with sister agencies.
“If you say the navy should station personnel on all the sites how many will we do? This is just one camp site and you have over 50 illegal refineries scattered across this over seven acre. Then, across the state, we have identified 900 of such. So, how many men are we going to deploy? Another thing is that once you discover and destroy it, they move to new locations. This is what is happening these days. We will continue to do our best,” he stated.
According to Dewu, several persons have been arrested for various maritime offences and handed over to prosecutorial agencies, while the vessels were being kept in trust for the agencies in line with the Harmonised Standard Operation Procedure (HSOP).
Lamenting the delays in prosecuting the cases, the commander noted that it was costing the NN so much money to maintain the vessels to avoid their going aground. He said some of the vessels have been in the jetty for up to seven years, while the recovered 185 outboard engines, hoses and other equipments recovered from the suspects or sites were littering the base.
In NNS PATHFINDER, the commanding officer said one of the challenges facing the base was the prolonged stay of arrested vessels in its jetty which poses threat to mariners along that channel, adding that Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) had been contacted to evacuate products from some of the vessels arrested since 2015 to no avail.
The Nigeria Natural Resource Charter (NNRC) commissioned a report on Crude Oil Theft in Nigeria and at the end, its findings revealed that the country lost about N3.8 trillion within the last two years – 2016 and 2017 to the phenomenon. Painting a graphic image of the quantum of loss through crude oil theft, the report pointed out that the estimated financial value of what Nigeria lost through crude oil theft in the Niger Delta was higher than the current combined allocations of the country to health and education in the 2018 federal budget. Breaking it down, it stressed that the combined allocations for health and education amounted to N189.4 billion, which translates to a mere 8.4 per cent of the estimated value of losses from oil theft two years ago.
At the end of the respective operations, it was the general consensus that the solution to the myriad menance of crude oil theft, pipeline vandalism and illegal refinery requires the collaboration of all stakeholders.
Also, there was continuous call for speedy dispensation of justice and forfeiture of vessels used in committing such acts. To this Dewu appealed to the judiciary and prosecuting agencies to fast-track the trials to save the service the cost of maintaining, securing the vessels and other exhibits the prosecution agencies do not have facilities to keep. He added that the cases of more than six ships apprehended by his command over alleged stolen oil in the last six months were yet to be resolved in court, noting that the criminals were being emboldened as a result of the slow pace of justice.
The navy also believes one of the solutions is partnership. According to the CO NNS DELTA, “we understand that it is not a fight for the navy alone. It is something that requires all hands to be on deck. We are currently partnering sister security agencies in the state in order to deploy more hands and have more stations closer to such illegal camps so that the criminals will be prevented from coming in.
“We have brought the issue up at the state security council meeting and approached the local and state governments to hold meeting with traditional rulers and community leaders in order to bring an end to this problem.”
Recently, he said the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Eastern Naval Command, Rear Admiral David Adeniran, visited the Olu of Warri and other monarchs in Delta and advised them to talk their youths and community members on the dangers of illegal refining of crude oil.
He added, “there is no way such things can go on in communities and the members of that community will not know. We need people to understand the danger these activities pose to their health and those of their loved ones. They should also understand that these criminals rob the country of resources that would have been used for development for the good of everyone.”
Corroborating, NNS PATHFINDER CO said the menace cannot be completely eradicated without the traditional rulers, community leaders, state and local governments and traditional rulers.
Will the navy and other agencies be able to curb this ugly practice of crude oil theft, pipeline vandalism and militancy in the Niger Delta? Although only time will tell, the end of these vices can only be near if all the aforementioned challenges are tackled and the solutions listed, embraced.