•Money we make is worth the risk involved—Operators
•Security men, top community leaders involved
•How we plan to stop illegal oil refineries —Imo govt
By Chinonso Alozie, Owerri
Despite the explosion of an illegal oil refinery at Abaezi community in Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area of Imo state that killed over 110 persons and burnt many vehicles last week Friday, operators of the illegal oil refinery said they would continue in their illegal business regardless of the risk involved.
Meanwhile, the Imo state government had declared wanted one Okenze Onyenwoke, in connection with the exploded illegal oil site in Abaezi community.
Some of the operators and their agents spoke to Saturday Vanguard from the oil-rich communities of Ohaji/Egbema and Oguta Local Government Areas of Imo state.
Some of the operators who preferred not to mention their names for security reasons claimed that the unfortunate incident must have been a mistake by some people who came to buy fuel at the site and failed to observe some basic rules.
They argued that it was the first time an incident of that magnitude was happening in that area.
According to one of the operators, “we have over 150 oil bunkers in the Ohaji/Egbema area, especially at the boundary communities with Rivers state. New sites were even created at different locations in the forest. So I am suspecting something went wrong. If people think that it is as bad as they think, then we should be having oil explosions every day in the communities. It is a daily business in our communities and everybody is involved in it, both the big and small the communities. But we’ve not been having these issues.
“Let me tell you, those who are involved in the illegal business apart from the operators themselves include landowners, security operatives and top community leaders. You can’t establish a bunkering site without their approval, it is like a chain business.
“Some young girls are gradually getting involved in it. The main issue here now is that there is no job, young boys and girls are stranded, they have no job to do. You can see now that this oil bunkering has created an opportunity for them to make money and be independent. No matter what is involved we are still surviving.
“We are making serious money and it is lucrative I must tell you. This is a life and death venture and nobody wants to miss out in this business of making money.”
He added: “We have some young men who act as local security men, they watch out for external invasion by security operatives who are not part of the deal in the oil bunkering.
“They stand in some strategic positions within the forest areas and if you enter the area without being invited, you will be stopped and other things will follow.
“It is a thick forest. Even at night people drive through the forest, buy the petrol and go home to sell and make money. Yes, people are taking the risk but the money one can make in just one trip can take care of one’s family throughout the week. So there is money in it, I must tell you.”
When Vanguard asked why some vehicles were burnt along the road leading to the forest, the operators said: “Some of them were as a result of electrical faults that developed from the car which sparked a fire and with the petrol, the car will be ignited and be burnt to ashes. There are many of them on that road.
“The worst thing is that nobody will assist you because people around already know what led to the fire and everybody will be afraid not to be hurt because you are carrying petrol.
Another risk in the business is that some security operatives would break your windscreen and destroy your vehicles If you don’t comply when they demand money from you. This one is not a joke, if you want to succeed in this business, you must learn how to settle the security men on the road, it is important. “People who have motorcycles in most cases make use of the bush path, they ride through different forests and escape the embarrassment from the security operatives. It is not easy but once you go and come back successfully you are okay for that week.”
However, mass burials for the victims were conducted last Tuesday by the Imo state government and National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, among others. The state government said 50 out of the 110 victims were buried at the Abaezi forest of Ohaji/Egbema local government area of the state.
According to the Chairman of the Interim Management Committee, IMC, of Ohaji/Egbema LGA, Marcel Amadioha: “Those buried in the forest were burnt beyond recognition and the other bodies were identified by their relatives and taken to be buried in their homes.
He continued: “We have the instruction of the governor of Imo state, Senator Hope Uzodiinma to conduct a mass burial for the victims of the explosion. This is the least we can do for them because they were burnt beyond recognition. You can see there are no relatives of the victims who are here because the victims were unidentifiable. This is the least we could do to avoid their bodies from decaying further. I believe this will serve as a deterrent to others.
We are clamping down on all illegal refineries in this area. We can’t allow this economic sabotage to continue. We deserve better than this. The governor has shown enough compassion by providing us with enough logistics to carry out this mass burial.”
However, among those whose bodies were said to have been identified by their relatives was one Miss Blessing Ajie, from the Abacheke community a neighbouring community with Abaezi.
A source from the area, said: “She is a nursing student. The incident happened on the day she returned and asked to go with other persons to the illegal refinery. She did not know it was going to be the end of her journey.”
On what the government said it was doing to put an end illegal to illegal oil bunkering, the Imo state Commissioner for Petroleum Resources, Goodluck Opiah, said: “Government will no longer treat those who engage in illegal oil bunkering with kid gloves. No matter how stubborn the challenge of illegal oil blundering is, it remains surmountable, and the Government will surmount it.
“In as much as the challenges always encountered in the fight against illegal oil bunkering are stubborn, they are also very much surmountable. In other words, illegal oil bunkering can be effectively stopped. But then, this can only be achieved through strong commitment and collaboration between the people and government.
The truth is if we can always expose criminals amongst us, we can reasonably demand accountability from the government. If we stay true to our civic responsibility of always ensuring we elect responsible and responsive leaders into government, the issue of illegal oil bunkering and indeed other crimes will be drastically reduced.
“Government will no longer view illegal oil bunkering as a tool for blackmail, sabotage, bullying or agitation against the government. Rather, it should be rightly taken for what it is – a fundamental crime and therefore existential threat.”
“I appeal to all of us, citizens of oil-producing areas, to ignore the unnecessary attraction or allure in the illegal oil bunkering business and embrace the call by the Government and well-meaning citizens of the state in the advocacy against the menace. I invite every Imo State citizen especially people of the oil-producing areas to support and appreciate the governor’s struggle to recover the hitherto lost oil wells in our neighbouring state, Rivers.
“The effect of the uncommon fight is that Imo State will be counted among the top highest producers of oil in the Niger Delta”, Oprah said.