22 July 2014, Yenagoa – Crude oil related crimes have continued to rise in the Niger Delta despite efforts by the nation’s security agencies, including the Joint Task Force,. codenamed Operation Pulo Shield, to curb the menace.
This sad turn of event is gradually turning the lush vegetation of the troubled mangrove swamp of Bayelsa into a brown field.
Sometime last year, no fewer than 53 break points caused by suspected oil thieves were discovered on the 97-kilometre Nembe Creek Trunk line causing SPDC to shut in production to enable its personnel effect repairs on the damaged points. Agip was forced to suspend crude oil production activity in Bayelsa State, due to the activities of vandals and oil thieves.
The Nigerian government estimated crude oil theft and associated deferred production of over 300,000 barrels of oil per day. According to a Shell Petroleum Development Company SPDC bulletin, due to intentional third party interference with pipelines and other infrastructure, around 75 per cent of all oil spill incidents and 92 per cent of all oil volumes spilled from Shell facilities between 2009 and 2013.
Nigeria is said to be losing about $5m annually to oil bunkering in the region where oil theft syndicates have continued to increase and inflicting irretrievable damage on the environment.
While pipelines belonging to the oil majors suffered habitual breaches by vandals and oil thieves, the illegal business of local cooking of crude oil has inexorably attracted the local population, including the aged. Most youths of school age are dropping out of school and relocating to the deep mangrove to indulge in the illicit but lucrative trade. Many of them now see education as a waste of time, especially when a successful deal could fetch them big money and command the respect of their community folks.
A trip to the hinterland of the state through the maze of creeks revealed a booming business of illegal oil refining from stolen crude oil.
Illegal oil bunkering
The Igbomotoru corridor in the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area and the Akassa flank on the Atlantic fringe of Brass have been identified as the hub of the illegal refining and illegal oil bunkering trade.
Though armed security agencies, including the JTF and its component units, have been working assiduously to stem crude oil-related crimes in the mangrove creek, the oil thieves are still smiling to the bank.
A security source who spoke anonymously said: “The JTF alone cannot monitor the 6,000km network of flow-line and pipeline in the delta.
Some of these pipelines are buried in the thick set of the mangrove where even Air force reconnaissance flight cannot easily pick out the barges used in siphoning crude oil by the oil thieves.” There is also the allegation of connivance on the part of the security operatives in the creek who after catching the oil thieves, collect gratification from them, and allow them passage with their illicit consignment.
Sometimes those handed over to the police for further investigation were let off the hook simply because sacred cows were involved, only for such persons to be arrested again by operatives of the JTF.
Pained by the environmental despoliation in the delta caused by the heinous activities of the oil thieves, renowned environmentalist, Comrade Alagoa Morris, lamented that though the law provides for life imprisonment for anyone stealing crude oil or petroleum products or vandalising the pipelines, hardly has anyone caught been prosecuted successfully.
His words: “Actually, I have heard of several such arrests and detention. Sadly, we are not hearing any successful prosecution and punishment in line with the law.
”Again, I was at the Federal High Court, Yenagoa when some youths facing trial for the offence were set free because of what the Presiding Judge referred to as lack of seriousness on the part of the prosecuting Police Officer. According to the Judge, the court was to do justice to all.
And, since the Prosecuting Police Officer has intentionally avoided appearing in court to continue the case for three straight times, it would be doing injustice to the youths if the court sent them back to prison as persons awaiting judgment.”
The oil thieves, it is obvious, have powerful allies in corridors of power just as it is clear that the security agencies are involved in the illicit business.
According to him: “Government needs to step up to the fight and summon the required will to combat this dangerous phenomenon that is not only bleeding the nation’s economy but also destroying our environment.” The environmentalist warned that for crude oil theft to stop in the country, the Federal Government must apply stiffer penalty on suspected oil thieves such as life jail term.
He added that the oil barons are taking advantage of the current economic hardship to recruit unemployed youths as field workers to break pipes and siphon crude oil for them. He, however, called on the government and the oil majors to carry the communities along in the scheme of things to enable them see the facilities as their own and protect same from external forces.
A former Commander of the Joint Task Force, Major General Ilyasu Abbah, had during his brief stint in the Delta declared that the current effort to stamp out crude oil theft and illegal refineries in the region can only be achieved with the active cooperation of all stakeholders in the region. In spite of the JTF taking the fight against crude oil theft and illegal bunkering to the camp of these economic saboteurs, he said nothing can be achieved maximally without the cooperation all stakeholders, especially the community folks.
Troubled by the widespread injury on the environment, Governor Seriake Dickson recently called on all stakeholders in the region to check the problems of pipeline vandalism, oil theft and the rising incidence of illegal refineries.
He said: “Quashing the illegal bunkering syndicate will be mutually beneficial to both government and the oil companies. While the oil companies will have a safe and secure operating environment, the state government’s revenue accruing from oil will increase just as it will reduce the pollution and destruction of the ecology.”
Accordingly, the state government has re-launched the Bayelsa Volunteers, a community based intelligence-gathering unit as part of its youth empowerment programme as well as help curb criminality in the communities.
About one thousand youths were recruited as initial intake to kick-start the programme. According to the Governor: “The volunteers and their coordinators are expected to engage in community based intelligence gathering to aid the other state security agencies in stemming criminal acts such as crude oil theft, pipeline vandalism and piracy on the waterways.”
The volunteers were selected through a rigorous process, which was community based. An orientation course, it was learnt, will be organised for them since they will be based in their communities. If they perform well and have good conduct and work with all leaders respectfully, then we will be encouraged to increase the number. So, you can see that this government is committed to welfare, but it must follow due process,” he said. The use of the Bayelsa Volunteers, made up of the community youths, to complement the efforts of the security, stakeholders argued, will go a long in stemming crude oil theft and illegal bunkering given their vast knowledge of the terrain and also being able to identify strangers in their communities.
Also, the chairman of Southern Ijaw council area, Chief Remember Ogbe, recently instituted a committee to rid the council area of illegal refinery camps and the committee in conjunction with the security agencies has destroyed several illegal refining camps in the Southern Ijaw council area.