INSIDE NIGER DELTA CREEKS
It is a lucrative business in the Niger-Delta and from available information, military operatives fight tooth and nail to get posted to the region to be part of the security task force. And it is no rocket science to know why many of them come back from such postings with loads of cash: bribes. For long, it has been said in hushed tones. But not any longer. Many people in the region say oil bunkering and stealing as well as illegal refineries are thriving in the Niger Delta because security agents and top officials of government look the other way when these activities take place. Sylvester Idowu in Warri and Emmanuel Addeh in Yenagoa, look at this unfortunate development which is denying oil operators and the country huge revenue and why it will require political will at the highest level of government to stem the rot
While Waiting for a Trip
Dateline: May 7, 2019. Time: 6.30 am. Venue: Concrete Jetty, Ugbangwue in Warri South Local Government Area of Delta State.
Journalists from selected media houses had converged for an onward boat ride to Escravos for a scheduled assignment slated for 10 am. The journey usually takes between two and a half or three hours depending on the tide.
Strikingly, while waiting for the boat operators, this reporter observed a beehive of activities early that morning. Hordes of youths were seen rolling down several drums filled with petroleum products, particularly diesel and kerosene, from the jetty down to their loading bay where three long trailers were stationed.
Going behind some of the stores bordering the riverbank filled drums were discovered being discharged from a big Cotonou boat that arrived from one of the creeks in Warri South-West and Warri South Local Government areas.
The products were to be loaded into the stationed trailers for movement to the northern part of the country where buyers were already waiting without any concerns over scrutiny by security agencies.
Wondering how the illegally acquired products passed through multiple military checkpoints along the creeks was not farfetched to reporters that witnessed the scene because, at the only entry and exit point to the jetty, were stationed several police patrol jeeps with Area Commander’s office, B and A Divisions with several police teams led by an Assistant Superintendent of Police. It was apparent that they were already compromised since they were obviously allowing the trailers to load.
A soldier wearing camouflage top and trousers was also sighted apparently haggling ’with one of the illegal oil refinery operators. Attempts on further investigations were unsuccessful as the boat that would convey THISDAY reporters was set for Escravos.
Ready to do business with me
The following day, there was a repeat of the activities of the previous day. Disguising as an oil dealer, one of THISDAY’s journalists approached a ‘loader’ who promised to assist provided that N200,000 was coughed up.
Responding to the worry of the ‘oil dealer’, the ‘loader’ said: “Oga, that’s no problem. We settle them so we don’t have a problem with security. We pay N500 per drum at military checkpoints for easy passage of our products from the creeks. And those you see around the jetty are also here to collect theirs. So they won’t disturb any vehicle moving the products out on the road.”
The incident at Ugbangwue is typical of what plays out in all the jetties in and around Warri and environs. Visits to Ifiekporo, Aladja, Ogbe-Ijoh, Ughelli showed a similar pattern of military personnel collecting money from illegal refineries operators for easy movement of their products.
Heavily Compromised Authorities
It is, however, difficult to establish what happens on high seas where vessels allegedly load crude oil without requisite papers under the watchful eyes of the operatives of Joint Task Force (JTF).
Leader of the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA) and a coalition of nine other militant groups in the Niger Delta, self-styled Major General Johnmark Ezon-Ebi, aka Obama, confirmed to THISDAY that high-ranking officials of government and security agencies were the major illegal oil bunkerers, who steal crude oil from Niger Delta and sell overseas through proxies.
An activist and National President of Ijaw Peoples Development Initiative (IPDI), Austin Ozobo, corroborated the claim of the militant leader and gave insight into how the different categories of oil thieves in the region operate and settle security agents on the waterways.
A legal practitioner and President of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Eric Omare, said the connivance of security agents is a known affair; adding that his concerns were the effects of oil bunkering to the environment and the fact that due to joblessness, graduates have joined the oil bunkering business.
Wike Accuses GOC of Engaging in Illegal Bunkering
Earlier in May this year, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike accused the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 6 Division of the Nigerian Army, Major General Jamil Sarhem of promoting oil theft in the Niger Delta region.
Governor Wike made the allegation when he played host to the commander Joint Task Force (JTF), “Operation Delta Safe, Real Admiral Akinjide Akinrinade during a courtesy visit to the State House.
The Governor in a statement by his Personal Assistant on Electronic Media, Simeon Nwakudu, accused Major General Sarham of operating an illegal oil bunkering squad to enable him finance his ambition to be appointed the Chief of Army Staff. Wike said: “The GOC is doing illegal bunkering, which he is using to finance his quest to emerge as the country’s Chief of Army Staff.
“He has his own team that is making money for him through oil bunkering”.
“We will have a security meeting and he will release the details to criminals. And the Chief of Army Staff will leave the man here because he is playing their role.
“How will security of the state be with such a man as the GOC? He will compromise when fighting to reduce crime, they sent us a GOC who destroy the security architecture of the state”.
The governor wondered what the JTF Operation Delta Safe would do when they encounter the illegal oil bunkering team of the GOC. He recalled how the people of the state bravely stopped the GOC and his accomplices from imposing a Governor during the elections. “A man came to plot coup. The people resisted him for plotting coup. You want to impose a party that has no candidate for National Assembly and State Assembly elections on the people. “How will such a party win the Governorship election? A party that nobody has seen their posters? Rivers people said no.
“He has result sheets. Let him bring the result sheets to the tribunal. Army now has result sheets. That is now part of their mandate “.
Governor Wike assured the visiting JTF Commander that the State will support their operations to ensure that they defend the Niger Delta, especially the State.
He said: “Anybody who wants to help us fight crime, I will support. I will never support those involved in illegal refineries”.
Army Denies Allegations
He said through the division’s spokesperson, Aminu Iliyasu, that the governor’s claim was because he rejected his bribe to compromise the last governorship polls. Theft of crude oil by government and security officials has been escalating in recent times. Latest information shows the country loses an average of 200,000 barrels per day and about 100,000 barrels lost to shut-ins.
In a brief chat with THISDAY, spokesman for the JTF, Operation Delta Safe, said, “This connivance story has never been found to be true. We dont believe that this happens. There are rules in the military and everyone knows the implications. Once anyone is caught in such situations, he will go in for it. There are strict sanctions.”
Host Communities’ Discontent
RNDA leader, Ezon-Ebi, was emphatic in his claim.
“You want to know if oil theft has actually increased in the region, that report is 100 percent correct. Oil theft has increased, but those stealing crude oil are powerful persons in government, security agencies, and NNPC. The truth is that they have compromised.
“We are in the creeks and we know what is happening in the river, the problem of high oil theft started again because they took away the pipeline surveillance from militant leaders, who know the terrain. They worked in conjunction with NIMASA, Navy, NNPC and other security agencies and devised a new method in which they shortchange everybody, including the federal government.”
Speaking further, he said, “Before now, they gave militant leaders manning the pipelines N150,000 for each of the persons engaged to guard the pipelines a month, but they took the job away from them and now give just N50,000 each to some persons to do the same work. How can they do it? Most of the communities where the pipelines passed are not properly engaged and they are displeased.
“They took away the job from those who have the capacity to monitor what is actually happening because they want to create the room to compromise, and that is why oil theft is back. It is for a cabal, including top security and NNPC officials and nobody is there to stop them.”
But the guards paid N50,000 have a limited role to play: they cannot go to the high seas where the crude oil is trans-loaded into big vessels under the nose of security agents at night.
Ezon-Ebi pointed out: “If it was when militant leaders were in-charge of pipeline surveillance in their states across the region, they patrolled with NIMASA, Navy officials and they were able to reduce crude oil theft because they confronted and arrested illegal vessels and the people they found onboard. Who is doing that now? Nobody.
“We are offering ourselves; RNDA is offering itself. We know what is wrong. The Federal Government should contact us and they should discuss with us and give us a contract to stop crude oil theft because we know those doing it and how they are doing it. I can tell you that with NIMASA, Navy and other security agencies, we will patrol (because) we know the flash-points and where they do the dirty business. We will plug the loopholes with government officials and you will see oil theft reduce drastically in the region.”
Business for High and Mighty
Ozobo told THISDAY that illegal oil bunkering is carried out by five entities: the poor, the rich, government officials, NNPC and oil companies staff and the military. He said he poor are the labourers. The rich are wealthy businesspersons. He disclosed that the government officials are those working in state and federal governments. Some of them are lawmakers and others are political appointees and top government officials past and present. The military comprises the army, navy, police, civil defence corps, and others.
The military, some of them are past and current top military officials, NNPC and oil companies’ staff are equally involved in the bunkering. They help to load vessels that do not have loading license and make additional money.
They are in involved in the lifting of oil through vessels, illegally, through Escravos, Bonny, Forcados, Brass and other rivers.
The business is in four phases: loading point operators, local bunkering operators, suppliers of raw crude and the buyers of the finished products. In each of the phase, the military is seriously involved. The local refinery operators are the refiners of the crude to finished products.
The suppliers collect crude from illegal points and supply the refiners at a moderate cost. The loading point operators are the people, who alter major pipelines to drill crude and load per boat at modest cost.
He said army, navy, police, customs, police and civil defense officials collectively carry out oil bunkering. They are either involved directly or indirectly.
Oil bunkerers have a union across the Niger Delta region. There is an amount every operator pays which they use in settling the military officers around their operational areas. The appropriate officers get their kickback every month from the union. They destroy and burn bunkering facilities when the operators fail to pay may be due to the high demand placed on them by the military officers or they settle army and fail to settle navy or vice versa, Ozobo explained.
He added that police DPOs also get their ‘cut’. All security operatives in Warri, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, and other states get their ‘cuts’.
“It will interest you to know that all the illegal loading points operated, there is a fixed amount they pay to the military and naval heads every month. When you talk about big-time oil bunkering, the military is not exempted. Any military officer that comes to the Niger Delta region is coming to do oil business and make much money. Both military officers and regular members lobby to come to Niger Delta to taste oil money.”
Ozobo noted: “To me, the business is a good one. Many military officers have turned millionaires overnight. It helped create more than 50,000 jobs among jobless youths, women, and men. I am the pioneer of legalization of oil bunkering and modular Refinery. No vessel can load illegal crude without the knowledge of top military officials or those on patrol around oil facilities in the region. They take their settlement before you can load freely.”
Bayelsa: Hotbed of Bunkering
In Bayelsa, regarded as one of the hotbeds of the activities of illegal crude oil refining, the military has been alleged several times of aiding and abetting the seemingly intractable phenomenon in the entire Niger Delta region.
At a point, the leadership of the Joint Task Force, the special task force designated by the federal government to fight the menace, was accused by youth groups of direct involvement in bunkering, stirring protests at the time.
In the end, oil concerns which pay huge sums, sometimes running into several millions of dollars to the military, for the protection of their assets, are caught in double jeopardy: not getting value for these monies and losing their products to the illegal refiners. Just before he was recently redeployed, Commander, Operation Delta Safe, Rear Admiral Apochi Suleiman, was in the eye of the storm when Aiteo, one of the major operators in the oil business in Bayelsa, pointedly told Nigerians that it had lost confidence in the ability of the military not only to secure its platforms but also for their alleged active connivance with the oil thieves,
How is it that vessel movement of the oil thieves occurs unnoticed in the region despite heightened activity in large scale illegal bunkering? Was the question asked by Aiteo in 2018 and it remains without an answer to date.
At the time, the company claimed that despite paying the military over N1 billion in three years to guard their facilities, there was no result of such investment.
Tochukwu Ohazuruike, leader of a protest to force the JTF Commander to step down, said their action was informed by the worsening case of economic sabotage, oil bunkering, vandalization of oil facilities as well as stealing in the region.
“Under the watchful eyes of Rear Admiral Apochi Suleiman, more illegal refineries and bunkering hubs have sprung up and continued to be operated by oil criminals in Bonny, Nembe, Kula, and Bille communities in Bayelsa and Rivers states who have continued to unleash economic sabotage and environmental problems in the Niger Delta. Things have worsened in the region and as we address you now, the Igbomorotu corridor in the Southern Ijaw as well as the Akasa flank on the Atlantic fringe of Brass have continued to be a major hub of the illicit operation and is now virtually taken over by crude oil criminals,” he said.
He alleged that the military chief had turned a blind eye on the sabotage because he was benefitting from it.
Subsequently, the ex-JTF commander said he had personally petitioned the defence headquarters to look at the allegations by the company, which wrote back to clear him of any blames following an investigation by the military leadership in Abuja.
Another incident that analysts say confirms the complicity of the officers and their men was that concerning an inferno from an illegal refinery camp in Kolo Creek, Ogbia Local Government Area, which killed tens of people. The soldiers fighting oil theft were said to have known about the camp but refused to stop its operation, because the camp was reportedly owned by a powerful cartel and had the backing of the men in uniform.
Before the disaster, the police command said they had earlier appealed to security agencies, especially the JTF, to shut down the site and arrest its operators, but were ignored even after a formal letter was written to the military.
Probe Panels Won’t Do
He added that raising probe panels had never solved the illegal bunkering as such bodies set up in the past never succeeded. During Obasanjo’s time, a probe panel was established chaired by Theophilus Danjuma to look into the activities of these characters, but the report was buried because it indicted some top security and government officials.
Secretary-General of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Alfred Kemepado, also weighed in on the matter.
“This is true and its a fact that for anything that happens in the Niger Delta, the military and other security agencies are in connivance. If not, this would have stopped a long time ago. You heard what just happened in the north; I mean the confession of Wadume on how he was taken to the military headquarters and his handcuffs were cut off. Even Henry Okah, during his trial, said the ammunition he sold to the boys at the time was from the military.
“So, these are not farfetched. These are truths. There has to be a major sanitization of the entire military because as it is right now, its a whole pool of mess from all angles. However, that’s not to say that there are no clean and proper officers in the Nigerian armed forces. There are. The problem is that of the Nigerian state. We shouldn’t run away from the truth.”
Continuing, he pointed out: “The implication of all these is the sustenance and the legitimization of crime, with a few petty ones used as scapegoats. The environment suffers, the economy suffers. This will never stop until something serious is done.”
Time for Action against Those Involved
With billions of dollars lost to illegal bunkering and pipeline vandalisation, observers of the view it is time for action. Wondering how long this can be allowed to continue when the country is in such dire need of revenue. It is time to take firm and sustained action against security operatives either providing protection and cover, or they directly in the criminal act, for what may appropriately be termed economic sabotage, by prosecuting all those directly and indirectly involved.
In 2018 AITEO took the unprecedented step of raising the alarm about security forces involvement in illegal oil bunkering and breaking of pipelines. The company is a participant in Nigeria’s crude oil production, with nameplate output capacity (90,000BOPD), which is over four per cent of the country’s total export. “We are one of the biggest victims of oil theft in the country,” the company laments.
AITEO operates the Nembe Creek Trunk Line (NCTL), a crude export pipeline with capacity to pump 200,000 barrels of oil per day throughout its 97km length, starting from Nembe Creek, to a manifold at the Cawthorne Channel field on OML 18. From here, crude is evacuated the short distance to the Bonny oil terminal. NCTL is clearly one of the four largest crude oil to export pipelines in Nigeria.
The company’s statement last year reflects the frustration and key challenges faced by operators in the Niger Delta and reiterates the facts of huge losses of revenue that otherwise would have accrued to the Nigerian government, which is struggling with a large debt burden and borrowing billions of dollars to finance its budget.
In December 2016 alone, the company explains, 45.46 per cent of AITEO’s total net crude injected into the NCTL was lost on the basis of crude oil theft “resulting in significant pressure reductions on the trunk line, theft points identification as well as illegal refineries, and corroborated by several joint investigative visits constituted by various regulatory bodies and the applicable host community”.
“Third party interference with the line has often resulted in oil leaks which ultimately culminate in shutting down the NCTL to undertake emergency repairs. This in itself has resulted in the NCTL being shut down for about 145 days and an approximate deferment of 50.386 million barrels of crude oil (net) for the six injectors into the NCTL since Aiteo took over the operatorship of the trunk line in September 2015.”
As recently as May 1, 2018, there were a total of 24 illegal bunkering points identified along the NCTL. AITEO has successfully repaired nine of these illegal bunkering points during May 2018 at a huge cost to the company. These illegal bunkering points also contribute to the huge losses on the volumes injected across the NCTL by the six OMLs and the volumes actually received at Bonny Terminal.
Due to the continued vandalism of the NCTL and resulting oil theft, AITEO has written to the federal government, through the Chief of Army Staff, General TY Buratai on two occasions (April 17 and 23, 2018), requesting the involvement of the Armed Forces in reinforcing existing security arrangements to the pipeline as the incessant security breaches were resulting in losses amounting to billions of Naira for the country. “We have made similar efforts to various other arms of the security apparatus of the country.”