Confessions of Oil Thieves

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Illegal oil refineries in Nigeria
Illegal oil refineries in Nigeria

Louis Emiko and Cornelius Agada, who are both involved in crude oil theft, tell Realnews how they got into the illegal business and the mode of their operation

By Vincent Nzemeke  |  Jul. 1, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

LOIUS Emiko is a man of many parts. He is a commercial bus driver, a bricklayer and an estate agent. But skilled as he appears in these trades, it is just a decoy for what he actually does. Emiko is an oil thief! He is one of those whose actions make Nigeria to be losing millions of dollars on a daily basis through stolen crude oil. He is a member of an illegal oil bunkering syndicate in Ogbe-Ijoh, a suburb of Warri in Delta State. Emiko’s gang specialises in wading through forests and swampy areas to cut pipes bearing crude oil and other refined products in order to scoop them into jerry cans and transport them to illegal refineries in Warri and other parts of the state.

Jonathan
Jonathan

Having lived in Warri all his life, Emiko had been fully aware of the lucrative business of bunkering and the existence of some illegal refineries. But he joined the business about two years ago after he completed his diploma in fine arts at Auchi Polytechnic in Edo State. Although he says his contemporaries boast of better rewards, Emiko’s toil in the jungle has enabled him to buy a sport car, two commercial buses, a small apartment in Warri and as well have a comfortable bank account with which he can take care of his wife and two children. “I was looking for a job before going back for my higher national diploma and there was none. My friend Lucas invited me to follow them to somewhere one day and I agreed. We went into a swampy area where they had cut a pipe and scooped crude oil with a hose into some drums in the boat. That was how I joined this business. I am not the leader, but I have been going with them on operations since that time,” Emiko confessed.

With his chilling testimony, Emiko has confirmed the reality of oil theft in the Niger Delta.

Just as it was with kidnapping a few years back, illegal oil bunkering is now a thriving business in the Niger Delta and other oil producing states. What started as a survival measure by some desperate individuals in oil producing communities has evolved into a full time trade and a source of income for many like Emiko and his gang members. A middle aged man in Ogbe Ijoh, who gave his name as Temi for fear of retribution, said “this business is risky but very lucrative. Many people are involved in it”.

An illegal oil refinery in Warri
An illegal oil refinery in Warri

In the real sense, bunkering is euphemism for oil theft. It entails siphoning crude oil or other petroleum products from pipelines and selling them illegally. This heinous crime happens at the most basic level when pipelines rupture or leaks. Where there is no leakage, the likes of Emiko dig deep and cut the pipes open in order to siphon the oil. This shady business thrives mainly because of the high quality of Nigerian light crude oil which can be easily processed in local refineries into petrol and diesel which can be used to power generators and vehicles.

As a business, bunkering was said to have begun in communities where oil spillage occurred. Local inhabitants, recognising the economic value of oil, siphoned the spilled oil into containers and took this activity one step further by damaging pipelines and flow stations to siphon oil for sale.  In riverine areas such as Ogbe-Ijoh, the oil extracted from pipelines and flow stations is transferred into containers and transported by locally made canoes called barges across the river into waiting tankers stationed at the river banks.

Mundane and innocuous as these activities in the creek may appear, it is what has morphed the oil theft business into a goldmine which is attracting lots of people into it and giving government and stakeholders in the oil and gas industry sleepless nights.

In a recent interview on a cable channel about two months ago, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, minister for finance, said Nigeria loses about 150,000 barrels of crude oil per day to oil thieves. She added that for a nation that depends mainly on earnings from crude oil, the activities of oil thieves spell doom for Nigeria’s economy. She called on the “international community to support Nigeria in tackling the problem by treating crude oil like stolen diamonds because if the oil thieves don’t have people to patronise them, they will stop the business.”

Mutiu Sunmonu
Sunmonu

Similarly, oil companies operating in Nigeria have also decried the rising tide of oil theft and other illegal activities in Delta State and other oil producing states. In March this year, one of the major operators, Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, threatened to shut down its facilities over the rising spate of oil theft. Mutiu Sunmonu, its managing director, said the company was losing an average of 60,000 barrels of crude oil per day. “The situation in the last few weeks is unprecedented. The volume being stolen is the highest in the last three years; over 60, 000 barrels per day from Shell alone. So, that for me is a great concern.” Later that month, the company announced in a statement that it was forced to shut down production on 12 flow stations because of oil theft, adding that the situation had caused the deferment of production of 150,000 barrels of crude oil on each day.

Not only the government and oil companies are feeling the heat of the oil theft, the Joint Task Force and other law enforcement agencies are also having a hard time battling with the challenges of illegal refineries springing up in various parts of the state.  It is not that the government and its security agencies are not fighting the crime of oil theft. But their efforts appear insignificant when one considers that no oil thief has been successfully prosecuted in Nigeria.

In 2012 alone, the joint taskforce in the Niger Delta region made 7,585 illegal bunkering patrols in the region, resulting in the arrest of 1, 945 suspects, and the destruction of 4, 349 crude oil cooking ovens, commonly referred to as illegal refineries. The task force also seized about 133 barges, 1, 215 Cotonu boats, 185 tanker trucks, 178 illegal fuel dumps, 5, 574 surface tanks and 638 pumping machines used for siphoning crude oil and 18 vessels arrested for engaging in illegal oil bunkering activities in the creeks.

Drum for distilling stolen crude oil
Drum for distilling stolen crude oil

Foreigners involved in the trade were also arrested.  In June 2012, six Romanians and nine Filipinos were arrested by the men of the central command of the Nigerian Navy for their alleged involvement in illegal lifting of crude oil along the waterways and creeks of the Niger Delta region. Up till now, nothing has been heard after 15 crew members comprising six Romanians and nine Filipinos on board the MT VANESSA were arrested from Bonny, Rivers State, and taken to Yenagoa, Bayelsa State.

Even this year, the JTF has made some significant arrests but like those in previous years, none of the culprits has been successfully prosecuted.  Last month, the Nigerian Navy arrested 23 persons, comprising 10 Indians, two Ghanaians and 11 Nigerians, for alleged illegal oil bunkering in Bayelsa State. They were said to have been handed over to officials of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, for prosecution. But the story stopped there.

It is not only the JTF that is fighting oil thieves. The Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC, is also involved. NSCDC officials in Bayelsa recently arrested 15 suspected oil thieves in the state. The command also impounded five trucks, three tankers and seven speedboats. Desmond Agwu, state NSCDC commandant,  said that 60 of his men have been drafted into the JTF to help the fight against oil theft. Like the JTF officials, Agwu lamented the dearth of logistics, operational vehicles and other things needed to curb the menace of oil theft and called on the government to provide them. “It is a fact that a student without writing materials cannot do anything in the class. So, we need vehicles and patrol boats to achieve out mandate,” he said.

According to Onyema Nwachukwu, media co-ordinator of the JTF in Yenegoa, Bayelsa State, developments like these hamper the efforts of the JTF in combating oil theft.  He also decried the fact that the suspects arrested by the JTF have not been successfully prosecuted. “We hand them over to be the police and other officials but they are granted bail and not prosecuted for their crimes.”

Alison-Madueke
Alison-Madueke

Nwachukwu’s views was corroborated by an official at the JTF office in Warri, who wishes anonymity because he was not authorised to speak. The official said the battle against illegal bunkering is a tough one because of the caliber of people involved in the business. “We arrest people almost on a daily basis but we can’t prosecute them because of the caliber of the people involved. We discover that many of the people in the creeks doing this illegal business are just fronts for some big men in the city”.

They were right. Emiko and his gang members had already told Realnews that some prominent people and government officials were involved in the illegal oil bunkering business. Cornelius Agada, one of Emiko’s accomplices, said he was introduced into bunkering by someone who was a close associate of a former governor of Delta State. He alleged that the bunkering trade is a long chain of corruption that will shame a lot of “rich people in Nigeria” if it is exposed. “The governor legalised oil bunkering in Delta state because he was part of it. The man I worked for when I first began this trade was one of his close associates. They all have vessels with which they transport stolen crude oil to other countries where it is refined and brought back into the country.” Agada further said chiefs and village heads in oil producing communities are aware of the business but cannot stop it because they are also benefitting from it. “Elders and chiefs in these villages are also part of the business. Those of them who don’t have barges collect money from the people doing the business, so you see it is a very long chain.”

Local oil distillation drums
Local oil distillation drums

Corroborating these assertions, Sunmonu said the increase in oil theft cases in the Niger Delta region is an indication that those involved are well heeled Nigerians or part of an international syndicate.“This whole crime has gotten a lot more sophisticated and you can see that the perpetrators are now setting up barges and building yards, they are setting up storage facilities, they are setting up tank farms for storing the crude oil prior to shipping out. So, if you look at all of these, it is very clear to me that this is not just an act by desperate individuals trying to make a living. This certainly is a well-funded criminal activity, probably involving international syndicates.”

Sunmonu’s statements might sound like the howls of an alarmist. But judging from what obtains in the creek, it is hard not to agree with him that those involved in the illicit trade of bunkering are backed by some powerful names in the country. The brazen show of criminality at these creeks is also an indication that the security operatives who are supposed to protect the pipelines and bring oil thieves to book are either part of the cartel or afraid to act.

When Realnews visited Ogbe-Ijoh River on May 25,  some young men were busy ferrying stolen petrol from one end of the river into speedboats laden with drums at the other end.  For more than 15 minutes, the Realnews reporter observed as the boys went about their illegal business unperturbed in the presence of gun wielding policemen who sat at the river bank and watched as Nigeria’s oil was being stolen. The policemen finally woke up from their slumber when the reporter attempted to take photographs of the speedboats into which the stolen oil was poured. They confiscated the reporter’s camera and took him to their office where they kept him for about three hours. Satisfied that the reporter meant no harm, they let him go after deleting pictures of the boats from the camera. The officer who asked not to be named earlier for fear of retribution, told Realnews that the owners of the barges “settle the police and other security agents regularly”. He added that they only make arrests when they see “strangers” in the boats who are not willing to cooperate.

Okonjo-Iweala
Okonjo-Iweala

As the crime continues unabated, the international community is watching. Countries such as Britain and America have also indicated interests to help Nigeria confront oil thieves. Diezani Alison-Madueke, minister of petroleum resources during a lecture entitled “The Future of African Energy in a Changing World’’ delivered recently at St. Anthony’s College in Oxford University, England, said discussions were going on between Nigeria, Britain and United States of America on how to help Nigeria combat the menace of oil theft.“ I must say that both the British and US governments have been in discussions with us and are keen to join hands with us to fight this menace. The global community is on track and already geared up and we are working to put in place a strategic platform that will involve us all and enable us to track and fingerprint stolen crude,’’ she explained.

Before the conference in Oxford, Madueke had earlier revealed that the federal government was reaching out to European and African countries where the stolen crude is sold to elicit their support to stop the crude oil theft.  She added that the government had also taken the campaign against crude oil theft to the Offshore Technology Conference, OTC, in Houston, Texas, United States, which held in May. At the conference, Madueke, who was represented by Andrew Yakubu, group managing director of the NNPC, urged the global community and international oil traders to drop their appetite for stolen crude oil from Nigeria and join in the fight against the nefarious activities of oil thieves and pipeline vandals. She added that it was imperative to halt the appetite for stolen crude oil from Nigeria if the country must make appreciable progress in this regard. “The President is taking this matter seriously. It takes two to tango; if those stealing our crude oil do not find a market for it, there would be no incentive to steal. That is why we are appealing to the international community to take action. The tracing of our crude by DNA to the destination is being looked into to ensure that the finger prints of our crude are traceable to the various destinations,” Madueke revealed.

Some of the boats used for bunkering oil
Some of the boats used for bunkering oil

As government and stakeholders in the oil industry crack their heads on how to end illegal oil theft, Emiko and his acolytes posit that caring for people in oil producing communities will go a long way in reducing the crime. “This business started as a retaliation for many years of neglect by government and the oil companies. If Shell, Chevron and other companies provide basic needs for people living in the oil producing communities, nobody will be interested in stealing crude oil. The youths will look for decent jobs and the elders will cooperate with the police to fish out those who are involved in the crime”.

The JTF officer also suggested that government and oil companies should collaborate to provide adequate security for pipelines, flow stations and other oil installations. “They must work together to fund security by providing arms and functional patrol vehicles for us. They must also pay our people well so that they will not take bribes from people involved in oil bunkering business.”

Vandalised pipes
Vandalised pipes

But Chika Onuegbu, National Industrial Relations Officer of Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, PENGASSAN, opines that the increase in oil theft in Nigeria is directly proportional to the level of corruption in the country. Onuegbu who is also the Rivers State Chairman of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUC, said in order to stop the crime, the government should act fast before the situation gets out of hand. “This level of oil theft is a very serious threat to our national security and our democracy, as people who are making such humongous amount of money can destabilise both our democracy and our national security. The experience of Colombia, Afghanistan and other countries, where criminal gangs have established organisations powerful enough to challenge the powers-that-be, should prompt the federal and state governments to act very fast, before the situation gets out of hand.”

Britain also shares this concern and has also told President Goodluck Jonathan to show enough commitment in the fight against crude oil theft. It said Nigeria must do everything possible to confront the oil thieves no matter whoever is involved in the illegal business.

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