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As Navy patrols Niger Delta creeks . . .

133 illegal refineries discovered in two states
More than 2 million barrels of crude oil theft illegally refined weekly
Navy arrests 76 suspects, 26 vessels , 180 boats
Introduces swam buggy operation  in the fight against illegal refinery

The upsurge of Crude oil theft, illegal bunkering and illegal refining of siphoned petroleum products in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, is becoming alarming, owing to the display of brazen resistance from these oil thieves, inspite of steps taken to curb the menace.

Unfortunately, these acts, have a negative effect on Nigeria, being a mono-economy nation that   depends solely on oil generated revenues for her economic survival. Record, shows that Nigeria losses over 300,000 barrels of crude oil per day to oil theft and other related criminalities in the oil sector.

OIL THEFT —Commander, 2 Brigade, Nigerian Army, Port Harcourt, Brig.-Gen. Stevenson Olabanji (right) and other officers, during a raid on an illegal oil bunkering site discovered on Nigerian Ports Authority Road in Port Harcourt, Tuesday. Inset: About 5,150 drums containing illegally refined diesel discovered during the raid. Photos: NAN.

These activities, also have an adverse effect on the region, as they have   turned it’s marine ecosystem into a deplorable state,   thereby aggravating the impoverished state of an average indigene in the region.

One week search for criminals with Nigeria Navy, US Navy (Opens in a new browser tab)

Vanguard’s Assistant Crime Editor,  Evelyn Usman  and its Crime reporter,  Joseph Eruke    who visited two critical naval formations in the Niger Delta region   between June 16, 2019 and June 21, 2019, report activities of these oil thieves, measures put in place by the Nigerian Navy to checkmate them   and the factors militating against these measures.

The act of hacking into pipeline, otherwise known as Oil theft or oil bunkering is a common feature of trade in the Niger Delta region.

Those involved include men, women and even minors, of different shapes, heights and complexion, owing to the lucrative nature of the deals.

Actors of these illegal activities can be categorized into three: Those who buy from illegal refineries scattered within the length and breadth of the region. They   visit the creeks at any given time of the day,   in wooden boats that   can take 20 drums of 300 litres capacity in each. Destination, is the illegal refineries scattered around creeks in the region.

Another category, are those who break the well heads of   pipelines buried under the water, to tap crude oil directly. Thereafter, they link the product to their sites, through the use of hose, from   where the product is loaded into small badges and taken to the high sea where they have ready buyers who export them outside the shores of the country. To beat security checks while taking the products to the high sea, they use forged bill of lading.

And the third category are those who refine these stolen crude oil illegally, in sites located in creeks, from where those in category one come to buy.

Sadly , these illegal   activities have further dented the already negative image of Nigeria before the international world, owing to her placement as one of the most plagued by oil theft in the world. Recently,  Chairman of the Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force, Nuhu Ribadu, disclosed in a meeting with experts   drawn from the state and private sectors, that the country lose  about a quarter of a million

barrels of crude oil per day to theft, aside spillage of the petroleum product. The quantity, he said amounted   to about $25 Million dollars in revenue leakage daily and about $9 billion annually, describing oil theft as the leading threat to the country’s sovereignty.

A recent visit to   Benneth Island located in Warri South Local Government Area of Delta State and Bakana   creeks , in Degema Local Government Area of River State, by these reporters,   revealed a common impact of these activities on both states. This include the environmental pollution caused by oil spillage.   Aside the destruction of farmlands and forests by this spillage, the marine and aquatic life is also affected , as the waters have been poisoned .

At Benneth Island, one could manage to walk round the illegal refinery discovered by the Nigerian Navy. But that of Bakana,   almost sunk these reporters and others who visited, as the oil spillage had soaked the ground with a mixture of mud that swallows the legs above the knees.

Crime Guard gathered that   the illegal refineries on both Islands were destroyed by the Nigerian Navy Ship NNS Delta and Nigerian Navy Ship ,NNS Pathfinder ,   barely one month ago. But to the surprise of   all that visited   , work ,had resumed there.

In fact, illegal activities on the refineries were ongoing when naval personnel paid the unannounced visit. As the speedboats approached the jetties, some of these oil thieves who were stationed at the jetties, apparently to watch out for intruders,   immediately took to their heels. A wooden canoe was   abandoned at the jetty of Benneth Island, in the process. Though no petroleum product was found in this camp which occupies over seven acres of land, most of the metals used to store petroleum products that were earlier destroyed by the Navy, were gradually being replaced. In this camp,   there were more than 200 different   refineries, belonging to different groups of oil thieves.

On the other hand, activities at   Bakana Island, in Degema Local Government Area of River State    had fully resumed , after its destruction. In fact, there were indications that the   perpetrators had just concluded   refining some   products suspected to be diesel. The product was sighted in a large storage metal, with smoke emitting from the oven , apparently awaiting when it would be cool and   trans-loaded.

In this camp, there were brothels and huts where these oil thieves wined and dined. There was a   blaring sound from a radio from one of the huts.   From all indication, it was obvious that occupants of the huts bolted on sighting   naval personnel, as all the huts were under lock and keys.

Surprisingly, this camp   was located close to residential apartments, as some villagers, majority of who were women,   were seen going about their chores. Three women who were found in a building very close to the camp, feigned ignorance on the goings- on there, as they claimed that they came to visit some persons there.

However, a young man who identified himself as Mohammed Sabo, was sighted close to the illegal refinery. When asked what his mission was, he said he sold  suya    there. But on further investigation, it was discovered that he dug holes for those working at the illegal refineries and also bought     metals rejected by the operators.

Arrests

There was no on–the-spot    arrest made at the illegal refinery in   Benneth Island, Delta state.   The reverse was   the case at Bakana Island, where   19 persons, among them two women, two minors and 15 men were arrested.   They were returning from the illegal refinery camp which occupies over seven acres of land, when naval personnel led   by the Director of Information,     Nigerian Navy Commodore Suleiman Dahun and the Nigerian Navy Ship, NNS   Pathfinder’s Operations Officer, Commander Muritala Rogo , swooped on them at different locations along the creeks.

Some of them jumped into the river and swam for escape on sighting the personnel and   abandoned their wooden boats and stolen petroleum product. Not even a warning shot fired into the air , could deter one of the suspects from escaping.   Six wooden boats, each   loaded with 20 drums of the stolen diesel were discovered. One of the boats had over 1000 litres of the illegally refined product in it, without recourse to the danger posed by it, in the event of likely inferno.

Surprisingly, some of the suspects who admitted to knowing that the business was illicit, disclosed that they came all the way from Bayelsa state to indulge in it. One of the women among them, Justina Patani, who claimed to be a widow, said she made N5000 from each drum at the end of its sales.

The big man connection

The confessional statements of other suspects discovered to be mere errand boys,   revealed that the shady business involved   an intricate web of both highly and well placed individuals in the society.

This was buttressed by the confessional statement of    19 year-old Moses Elijah, who revealed that he worked for a woman whose identity he gave as Amama.

He claimed to have been   forced to join the illegal business in order to take care of his two siblings, after the death of his mother.

He said, “ My mother was a single parent. When she died, she left two siblings in my care.

“ I had to work for one woman called Amama. She sends us to the creeks to buy diesel. She owns the boat and drums. My job is to open the drums for   them to be filled with the content and to cover them.   I have been doing this for four months ,   to pay my siblings school fees. One of them is in Primary 3 and   the other is in Primary 4.   Amama   pays me N4,000 per trip”.

Others also revealed that they worked for some persons .

Navy’s efforts

In a move to address these maritime threats , the Nigerian Navy under the leadership of the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok-Ibas Ete , launched a campaign against illegal Oil Crude Oil Theft, Illegal bunkering and Illegal refinry, with a matching order to Commanders at various formations in the Niger Delta to carry out this directive to the latter, through a sustained patrol of the creeks and waterways in their Areas of Operations.

This directive seemed to have been carried out to the latter as record shows that the   NNS Delta, Warri and NNS Pathfinder , Portharcourt , have destroyed 133 illegal refinery sites, with over 3000 storage facilities   between January 2019 and June 2019, in these states, with the recovery of 206   vessels, barges and wooden boats.

In the period under review, Crime Guard gathered that illegal refined Ago discovered in these sites were over 10 ,000 metric tones, while stolen crude oil was over 11,000 mettric tones.

Fifty-seven   suspects were arrested in River state alone. Other recoveries made at the sites included 18 out boat   engines, power generating sets used to facilitate work at the illegal refineries, welding and pumping machines and trucks used to load these products, among others.

Swamp buggy operations

In the course of this operation, the Commander, NNS  Delta, Commodore Ibrahim Dewu and his contemporary at the NNS Pathfinder,   Commodore, Sam Bura, respectively,   disclosed while briefing journalists on the tour that in the course of the operations, they observed that operators of illegal refineries often returned to reactivate refineries that had been destroyed.

Consequently, they said that the Bases respectively, “ sustained Swamp Buggy Operations in order to out rightly destroy these illegal refineries sites and make them extremely difficult to reactivate”

Some of the swamp buggy operations as informed, were carried out in Iwhrekreka, Otovwodo and Otumara communities in Ugheli South and Warri South Local Government Areas of Warri , with an ongoing operation at Yeye and Benneth Isand in Burutu and Warri South Local Government Areas of Delta State respectively. In River State, the swap buggy operation was still ongoing, in Bakana Island and other sites under the Base’s Area of Operation.

House boats

Aside the use of swamp buggy to frustrate the effort of these oil thieves, the Navy, also built   house boats along water channels where oil bunkerers and water thieves pass through , at the end of their activities in the creeks.

At the moment, Crime Guard gathered that so far,   nine house   boats had been built across the Niger Delta region, with plans to build 27 more, to enhance   effective   patrol and surveillance of the waterways.

In Delta state, these reporters visited three house boats , also known as Navy Security stations. They were located 20 nautical miles from the Base. Information gathered there, revealed that naval personnel were stationed there for 24 hours, to carry out   patrol of the water channels, to facilitate prompt response to criminalities in the water ways as well as to provide security to staff of oil companies and oil rig on the high sea.

Speaking with journalists at House boat 023, Cawdhorn channel, the Officer in-charge, Commander Daniel Onyemaeze, said that the house boat was built in 2016 for choke point management.

He said, “ Our men are on board, with arms keeping surveillance , to deter or curb illegal activities and crude oil theft.   We also patrol and search incoming vessels, to ensure illegality do not strive here”.

The house boats each had 20 rooms with at least 35 personnel.

Another house boat visited was located in Yeye. From there , we proceeded to another illegal refinery   located three kilometers from the house boat, where destruction on it   was ongoing.

 

Life in the jungle

In this case, naval personnel   were stationed at the illegal refinery to monitor its destruction and also to protect the swap buggy operators from attack by those operating on   the illegal refinery.

To the shock of all, these personnel, headed by a Sub Lieutenant   were discovered not to have a roof over their heads, neither was there any camp beds in sight, where they sleep at night. Rather,   Crime Guard gathered   that they used   leaves as mats at night and hide under woods   as shelter     from the rain and heavy scorching sun. There was no place for convenience either and they have reportedly been there   for 32 days. This case best described life in the jungle.

Challenges

Despite the seeming process of   Navy’s efforts at curbing these prevalent maritime crimes in that region, it is however faced with some challenges militating against the efficiency of its operations.

One of these challenges as observed at both Bases, included lack of appropriate equipment for cannibalization of illegal refinery structures. Swap buggy operation   was considered   as most appropriate approach to ensure that illegal refineries were cannibalized and that their operators   incapable of re-organising and resuming operations.

The Bases, therefore,   resorted to hiring these swap buggies which Crime Guard learned cost N500,000 and above to hire one, depending on the size.

Unfortunately, hiring them became impossible at a point, as the owners declined to hire them out to the Navy , for fear of attack by those who operate on     the illegal refineries, where these swamp buggies are used to destroy.

The effect of the hitch , reportedly stalled the Bases’ prompt delivery on its mandate until the CNS bought two swamp buggies   for the NNS Pathfinder, River State, while   Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta state, purchased one for the   NNS Delta.

Another major challenge as observed in both Bases, was   the burden of maintaining arrested vessels and   lack of   storage facilities for seized illegally refined product.

For instance, some of the arrested badges laden with stolen crude or suspected illegally refined products are reportedly often towed to the Command’s jetties. But this approach was discovered to have overtime increased the quantity of seized illegal products , boats and barges in the   custody of the Navy.

A visit at both commands would never give a first caller the impression of their true state , until one gets to   the jetties to behold some of these seized barges and boats which have rapidly become weak owing to its long stay there, hence spilling its contents.   Some of them have reportedly been at the jetties for over two years.

Giving an explanation for the   prolong custody of such seized barges and boats in the jetties,   Commodore Sam Bura, said,   when the Navy made arrests,   vessels and suspects were handed over to prosecuting agencies in line with the Harmonised Standard Procedures   on Arrest, Detention and Prosecution of Vessels and Persons in Nigeria’s maritime environment.

He said, “ However, because   the agencies lack capacity to hold the vessels , they are left in the custody of the Base at various holding bays . Overtime , some of these vessels begin to deteriorate , resulting to some of them partially or completely submerging.

“  It is noteworthy that whenever such vessels sink, the Navy is precariously drawn into undue   litigation. Additionally, the responsibility for continued custody     of these vessels has overstretched the Base manpower and logistics resources even as valuable spaces at the jetty holding bays are congested”.

From the foregoing, it is evident that the Nigerian Navy is poised to tackle Crude Oil Theft, Illegal refinery and Illegal bunkering headlong,   in this region. However, there is also need for the Federal Government to address   various factors that   engender the persistent thriving of oil theft in the Niger Delta region. This includes:   poverty, unemployment   and inability by relevant security agencies to arrest the ‘big men’ behind these activities that have become a major threat to the nation’s economy.

 

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