By Jimitota Onoyume
Port Harcourt – CRUSADE against illegal bunkering operations in Rivers State, particularly the Ogoni axis of the state assumed an interesting dimension recently when about 813Â illegal bunkers gave up the illicit activity.
They came out at Kpor in Gokana Local Government Area to turn in the tools of their trade which included barges with which they ferried the product to buyers, locally made ovens they used to refine crude sipped from oil pipelines, drums, etc.
Their action was a welcome development because a 44-memberÂ Anti Joint Bunkering Patrol teamÂ set up by the state government with members drawn from the Ogoni axis of the state had given till March 13 this yearÂ within which those in the illegal trade should give up or risk the full weight of the law.
The task force headed by the Chairman of Eleme Local Government Area, Mr. Oji Ngofa, has been partnering with the Joint Task Force in the area to effectively checkmate the operations of the illegal bunkers, otherwise called oil thieves, in some circles in the area.
It would also be recalled that before this batch of 813Â came up to give up the illicit activity about 25 oil thieves had been arrested inÂ Bolo creek, Gokana local governmentÂ by the task force set up by the state government in the areaÂ for allegedÂ illegal bunkering.
Ogoni axis of the state has overtime become notorious for these illegal bunkering operations.Â In the hey-day of militancy in the state and the region, the Joint Task Force then under Brigadier General Sarki Yarki Bello now an Army General discovered scores of illegal petroleum refining points in some of the communities in the area. A bewildered Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi was shocked when he was led to the scenes of the illicit business by the JTF.
Scores of persons have been arrested in the area in connection with the illicit business within the last two years.
Governor Chibuike Amaechi who is noted for being brutally frank sometimes could not hold back words when recently at Ogoni he was told that the police sometimes provide cover for the operations of these illegal bunkers. HeÂ immediately directed the state Commissioner of Police to transfer all his Divisional Police Officers (DPO) serving in Ogoni
Some of the illegal bunkerers who spoke at the point of surrendering their tools for the operations said they siphoned petroleum products from unused oil facilities in the area belonging to Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC.Â The multinational oil company it would be recalled pulled out of Ogoni land over 12 years ago as a result of massive and well-coordinated protest by the people of Ogoni under the aegis of Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) against what they viewed then as exploitative operations of the Anglo Dutch oil giant in the area.
Since then most of their oil facilities have been lying fallow in the area. So it did not surprise many when the oil thieves said they got the product from these unused oil facilities.
According to confessions from the oil thieves, they fabricated local ovens with which they refined the crude into petrol, kerosene or diesel. And that they made so much money from the business. They said they sometimes sold a drum of petrol for as much as N27,000. And they sold several drums daily.
Charles Kpenem, an indigene of one of the communities in Ogoni area said the oil thieves made so much money from the illegal business. He said it was brisk business for them because patronage came from far and near. And he linked the patronage to the scarcity of petroleum products in the state.
In the last two months there have been long queues at filling stations dispensing fuel in the state even at cost above the pump price. Mr. Ajayi, a taxi driver said he could not recall when last he bought petrol at any filling station in the state at the approved pump price of N65 per litre.
According to him, most filling stations sell at N85 or N90. Those that cannot dispense fuel within Port Harcourt for fear of monitoring teams like the Department of Petroleum Resources either wait till weekend to sell at N90 or allegedly divert their product to other areas that can sell at such exorbitant rate.Â Another motorist told the story of how he bought petrol at N85 from a major marketer on Choba Road. And when he requested for receipt to back up the transaction the manager of the filling station said they had exhausted their last copy.
The scarcity has largely been responsible for the patronage illegal bunkering operators enjoy in Ogoni axis of the state, Mr. Philip Briggs said.
As the crusade against illegal bunkering continues in the state, some residents said it should not just be limited to the Ogoni axis. They said government should extend the crusade to the water ways. Because more of the activities according to them take place in the sea. They said government should find a means of effectively policing the water ways against the bunkers as this would go a long way in nipping their operations in the bud.
They also appealed to government at all levels in the country to come up with youth empowerment programme as a way to divert the attention of the youths from this risky venture called illegal bunkering. â€œI have tried it before. And I know how risky it is. I lost a dear friend in this business four years ago.
I really donâ€™t think any youth will like to venture into it but because of hardship most of them have no choice but to go into it. This is not a problem of Rivers state. I think is a common problem in the region. The federal and state governments should do something to tackle this challengeâ€, a source who pleaded anonymity said.
Meanwhile,Â Ogonis in some of the areas have continued to expressÂ gratitude to the state government over the development. According to them, the activities of these illegal bunkers had made life difficult for fisher men and farmers. Because sometimes spills from some of the fractured pipelines destroys aquatic lives and also affect agricultural farms