….Army, Navy personnel pass the buck
….Looming environmental disaster over burning of illegal refineries
…..Why EFCC is handicapped in prosecuting offenders

By Egufe Yafugborhi

IN a determined bid to carry out the Federal Government’s order to put crude oil thieves out of business the military, particularly the Navy, has since intensified its offensives  to locate and to destroy all equipment or products belonging to illicit refinery operators caught in the act. In the Central Naval Command, CNC, hub of Nigeria’s oil/gas production and highest with records of oil thefts, hardly a week passes without the Navy torching large wooden boats laden with volumes of stolen crude as well as locally fabricated refining machinery and thousands of litres of refined products, mostly diesel abandoned by the clandestine operators.

*File Photo: Activity at a vandalised oil pipe

Since the coming of Rear Admiral Apochi Suleiman, Flag Officer Commanding FOC, who is eager to personally supervise most of the offensives, the tempo of the chase of the criminals and the burning of illegal refineries have increased.

In one of the latest operations in Delta State which lasted from afternoon to dusk, the FOC leading men of the Nigeria Navy Ship, NNS, Delta set ablaze 11 expansive wooden boats laden with volumes of stolen crude oil and one speedboat caught at various spots around Jones Creek oil field operated by the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company, NPDC in Warri South West Local Government Area.

At nearby Ekpemu, the same operation resulted in the burning of five illegal refining cooking points along with 17 of 33, 000 litre capacity (equivalent of a tanker load) open storage tanks loaded with already refined diesel.

Criminals undeterred

Government’s adoption of the punitive burning of equipment and products of oil theft was intended to deter the criminals. Obviously the criminals have rubbished that calculation. Hardly deterred, the more raids and burning the military carry out, the more they regroup and continue the criminality with redoubled resources. The oil and gas producing space, particularly the creeks, has become one limitless illegal refinery complex.

The probing question begging for answers from this paradox remains: “Is there any end in sight for oil theft?”. Asked this basic question, Rear Admiral Suleiman said: “It is very possible to end oil theft if all relevant stakeholders would take responsibility and play their parts very well.”

Buck passing

Suleiman’s expressed optimism for an end to oil theft and illegal refineries was not without worry over probable compromise by security operatives.  Disturbed at the close proximity between the houseboat accommodating the soldiers guarding the oil facilities and the spots where the crude oil is stolen and cooked by the illegal refineries during the Jones Creek and Ekpemu raids, he told the guards: “You are compromising. You cannot be here and these criminality is happening.”

In self-defense, a Staff Sergeant leading the soldiers on guard responded thus: “Our duty is to look over the oil personnel and the work they do here”. Suleiman countered this response. “Your duty is all encompassing. These crude stealing boats don’t move in the air. They pass through your post and the illegal cooking points so close. You can’t be blind to these things,” he barked.

The FOC, CNC, was only corroborating earlier suspicion of military compromise in its anti-oil theft crusade. His boss,  Rear Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, Chief of Naval Staff, CNS, was less humbling with words when he stressed the same frustration during his maiden interaction with men of naval formations in Delta State back in August.

The CNC had accused officers and ratings gathered at the Navy Engineering College, Sapele of complicity in the crime. “We aid and abet illegal bunkering, aid and abet crude oil theft, we indulge in illegal escorting, constituting corruption. These are fraudulent acts that can land you in jail. Some of us have been very diligent. The good ones must bring out the bad elements so that we don’t tarnish the white uniform we are wearing,” he said.

According to him: “Central Command accounts for the largest losses to oil theft. The guys perpetrating these illegal acts are within our midst, they’re not flying in the air. They navigate the waterways and we must stop them. Keep away from illegal bunkering and crude oil thieves. If you indulged yesterday, let it be the last time.”

Organised crime

Lawyer and rights activist, Oghenejabor Ikimi concluded that oil theft has become too much of an organised crime to place the blame at just one spot. Ikimi who is the  Executive Director, Centre for the Vulnerable and the Underprivileged, CENTREP said: “The FOC was economical with his reservations.  We have said repeatedly that those military posts are toll gates where they collect money from these oil thieves rather than securing the areas. The volume of crude stolen is put at 400000bpd. That is not possible without connivance. You cannot be an oil thief if you are not in the mafia. The cartel involves big politicians, the security agencies and oil operatives too.”

Ikimi’s fingering of oil operators supports the recent suspicion of the CNC of the Navy which resulted in arrest of a barge and a crew belonging to an oil exploration and production company for allegedly siphoning and selling crude from a marginal field at Eremor 1, Ekeremor Local Government Area, Bayelsa State. The company authorities say they have legal mandate to do exploration at the field, but Flag Officer Commanding, FOC, CNC, Rear Admiral Suleiman, who disclosed the arrest last week, indicated that the company has been involved in “a lot of illegalities” within that legal mandate.

Suleiman, stated that, “Eremor 1 field is not an oil terminal or loading point, but our combined team arrested MT Dera, a barge and Runner Charley, a tugboat there laden with 6000MT crude oil suspected to have been pumped from the well head. 11 member crew are also under our custody. “On investigation we saw that they have pumped several metric tonnes and selling out to other operators. In the first place they are not supposed to have sold any oil from that barge. There was already a court case by Century Energy accusing this same oil firm which has the barge of a selling adulterated crude to them.”

EFCC handicapped

For the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, which takes responsibility to prosecute suspected oil thieves arrested by the security operatives, the greatest challenge against fighting oil theft is slow dispensation of justice by the courts when cases are brought before them.

At the Warri naval base where he received nine suspects and a self-propelled badge OMS OGU, allegedly caught in oil theft by the navy, EFCC Head, Assets Forfeiture Unit, Hameed Bawa, decried the inability of the anti-graft agency to get speedy trial of graft cases. “The challenge everybody knows we have is the judiciary. Once we receive suspects and assets used for oil thieves as we have done today, (October 16 ),  we do further investigations and start prosecution immediately, but it takes so long for a case to be concluded,” he said.

Ikimi also blames connivance for lack of rigorous prosecution. “Those cases being charged to court are dead on arrival because of the connivance. At times when I am doing these cases, I weep. The investigations are shabbily done, very watery. By the time you charge them (suspects) to court, all the evidence you need to prosecute and convict are not there. The prosecutor finds it difficult to present a strong case. It is all part of the connivance,” Ikimi alleged.

Environmental pollution

With the burning of every ship laden with oil or every cluster of illegal refineries comes an aggravated environmental pollution by the security agencies. The ruins left in the trails of the burning spree, added to the devastation caused by the oil thieves and illegal refiners, now abound across the producing landscape. There is crude oil everywhere: on the surface of the swamps, creeks and rivers, just as a vast greenery is turning ash.

Because the burning is done around the oil and gas operating environment, one basic challenge with this aggravated pollution is that it is becoming more and more difficult to tell the geographical spread of a true oil pollution caused by equipment failure by the oil majors and those caused by third parties stealing crude by breaking into flow lines, experts have opined.

Ikimi added: “By what they are doing right now, it pollutes the environment the more in a manner very inimical to human health. The mindless destruction of our environment in the guise of waging an inefficient war against oil theft is also endangering the lives of our generations unborn.”

Way forward

Going forward, Ikimi says: “Obviously, things cannot remain business as usual if we want to make headway.  There would have been another way of taking seized products, probably to the refinery for proper refining. It is not a question of soldiers or navy just going to burn products and equipment.  Meanwhile, the volume of refined diesel burnt by the Navy in the recent raid on the Ekpemu cluster of five illegal refineries poses a critical debate of determining the ratio of the volume of illegally refined diesel, also known as Automated Gas Oil, sold in the open market to the volume genuinely imported or allocated from the legal local refineries.

A black market petroleum products dealer alleged that most of the diesel sold in the country are from illegal refineries.  “What was burnt by the Navy at Ekpemu going by the figure declared in the report is an equivalent of 17 tanker loads of diesel. Believe it or not, these illegal refineries account for a significant proportion of diesel sold in the Nigerian market, including what you get in most filling stations.

It is common knowledge that diesel is not attractive to importers of petroleum products in Nigeria. Same for the doubtful production in the failed refineries we have. Apart from the lack of environmental safety  by the illegal refineries, government and its regulating agencies’ initial propaganda to rubbish the quality of products from the illegal refineries is fast fading.

“The criminals have demystified oil refining technology using locally fabricated machinery adapted from the age-long mechanism for distilling the now outlawed illicit gin. The diesel from these illicit cooking points is near as pure as any you can import from any where in the world. I challenge the DPR to a quality assurance test. With legally sourced diesel always insufficient and at far beyond stipulated pump price, illegal refineries will continue to dominate supplies,” Ikimi said.

He added: “Government needs to beam a searchlight on the accounts of security operatives. They come here (Niger Delta) to make so much money by aiding and abetting oil theft. Government should fashion a way of monitoring their inordinate wealth”.

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