The increasing oil theft in Nigeria

That crude oil wealth is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy is not in doubt. The petroleum sector is said to be accounting for about 90% of the nation’s overall revenue in a typical fiscal year. However, crude oil theft, which is certainly not a new phenomenon in the nation’s system over time, is fast assuming a detrimental dimension and posing a real threat to the socio-economic well-being of Nigerians in recent years.

Besides instigating needless, massive environmental disasters in the immediate and remote areas in which their dastardly acts are perpetrated in renewed attacks on oil installations across the country, these oil thieves otherwise known as “bunkerers” in local parlance, have continued pillage Nigerians’ commonwealth while inflicting much bleeding on the nation’s expected oil wealth on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the nation reportedly loses about N921billion to oil thievery annually, which is purely economic sabotage.

Recent aerial images this writer gleaned from a foreign news medium showed illegal oil refineries in their thousands that dotted the Niger Delta region. These are avenues where stolen crude oil being ferried across the waterways in barges, canoes and vessels is illegitimately refined locally are quite shocking to a curious observer.

One of them, a view of an illegal oil refinery in Ogoniland outside Port Harcourt, River State, on Reuters, illustrates what the organisation aptly described as a practice that has been “a fact of life for years in Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, puncturing pipelines and costing Nigeria and foreign oil firms millions of Dollars in lost revenues each year.”

In addition to losing millions of Naira to these oil bunkerers daily, the rising homicidal smoke from these illegal oil refineries could cause serious health implications for the people living within the axis of the unlawful, home-built refineries. That is not to mention pollution and consequent destruction of arable land, fishing waters with natural aquatic splendour and outright fire outbreaks in the course of the widespread illegal oil bunkering activities in the region.

Specifically, crude oil theft and unprecedented upsurge in illegal bunkering and refining are said to have severely impacted rivers in Abia and Rivers states. Vice-President, Health Sector and Corporate Affairs, Mr. Tony Attah, was once quoted to have remarked on this disturbing trend thus: “The scale of crude oil theft in the area was alarming. Aside from revenue loss to government and other stakeholders, significant portions of the stolen crude are spilled, blighting large swathes of the ecosystem.”

In spite of the reportedly successful Amnesty granted to the predominantly hitherto militant Nigeria Delta youth, though with pockets of dissident voices still lurking in the trenches, the gains of the improved average of 2.4 million barrels of crude per day which the nation apparently produces are being pooh-poohed by the harmful activities of the oil thieves.

Even with the rising world oil prices which apparently instigated the Nigerian Government to jack up petrol price from initial N65 to N141 and, after a week-long strike and civil protests by Nigerians in January 2012, later reduced it to current N97, these developments, in a way, have further emboldened these economic saboteurs to continue to break into oil pipelines and pilfer the people’s collective patrimony at will.

Refined oil theft is equally not abating, as other sets of illegal bunkerers relentless strive to locate the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) oil pipelines’ right of way, majorly buried in the ground in far-flung places across the country to commit their criminality. These outlaws purportedly do this via loading of oil tankers with refined fuel, using all manner of equipment, mostly under the cover of darkness.

In an attempt to curb the excesses of the oil bunkerers, and following complaints by the locals over the malicious effects of continual oil bunkering with its attendant on their health and communities’ means of economic survival, the Government years back constituted the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) to monitor the activities of the oil theft cabal.

“The local communities raised the alarm because of the devastating effects on their waterways and farms, and complaints have also started coming from the oil majors…. We are smoking them all out, but the public seem not to be aware of what we are doing due to the distance between us and the press,” the military spokesman in the Niger Delta was quoted to have commented.

Nevertheless, there are often rife allegations of connivance of the members of the JTF and certain top Government functionaries with these oil thieves in fleecing the country of its accruing oil wealth needed for development of the economy for the good of the majority.

Even with authorised oil exploration by the international oil majors in the Niger Delta region, environmental degradation remains the greatest challenge there. Now, the seemingly unrestrained activities of these oil bunkerers need to be curtailed before much more devastation is wreaked upon the innocent people in the region.

While unrests in the region have considerably declined since the 2009 Presidential Amnesty deal, yet crude theft and illegal refining of petroleum products have doubled, as many of the perpetrators unapologetically regard their criminal act as a way of cutting their own proverbial National Cake. The Amnesty Office in conjunction with the Ministry of Niger Delta and Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), as matter of urgency, should ensure that this unbecoming development, years after sealing the Amnesty deal with the former militant youths in the region, is nipped in the bud.

The so-called powerful Nigerians and insubordinate military personnel allegedly bankrolling the illegal oil bunkering in the Niger Delta must be unveiled and brought to justice to serve as a deterrent to potential economic saboteurs.

The NNPC ought to deploy its security and surveillance apparatus to monitor its oil installations, and clamp down on oil thieves and illegally refined petroleum products marketers being sold on the black market. This measure will help in preventing product adulteration and safeguarding the health of innocent users of petroleum products.

Multinational oil firms operating in the nation’s oil-rich region should stop the blame game and concentrate on making earnest efforts at developing the communities in which they explore oil. Provision of basic infrastructure as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for the communities and positive engagement of both the skilled and unskilled community members in their ears of operations would go a long way in curbing the menace of oil pilfering in Nigeria.

Written by
Gbenga Kayode
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