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Audacity of crude oil thieves — By Emmanuel Onwubiko

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Few days back, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) which I founded, had a meeting with the office of Chief of Naval Staff at the Naval headquarters in Abuja.

The chief of Naval staff himself did not receive us but asked the publicity director of the Nigerian Navy to host us.

We had ‘meaningful’ dialogues for over an hour but what was not satisfactory to us was the inability of the Nigerian Navy to offer any constructive response as to why crude oil thefts have become such hydra- headed monsters that have caused grave economic consequences to the economy of Nigeria.

Why is the Nigerian Navy unable to combat crude oil thieves and why are the officials of government busy running their mouths wide and blaming all kinds of elite for the continuous massive thefts of crude oil resources from the pipelines? Why does NNPCL claims to be spending billions of Naira monthly to combat crude oil thefts, yet the menace has become almost impossible to defeat?

Why are the military Generals also been blamed for protecting these heartless crude oil thieves? Even the Naval Chief was once accused of conspiratorial activity with crude oil thieves to expand the frontiers of crude oil thefts in a highly sophisticated manner. The Navy denied the allegation.

The underlying message we took to the Navy which we wanted to convey directly to the chief of Naval staff, also revolved around why government had to engage private security companies to protect the crude oil assets of Nigeria whereas the Navy is the institution that should safeguard the maritime territorial integrity of Nigeria.

Is it not a scandal that the government engaged a former armed militant who took up arm against the Nigerian state to protect the nations crude oil assets? Is this not turning logic on its head? Why is crude oil theft not fought with the commitment that it deserves so as to eradicate the menace, arrest the crooks no matter how highly placed, get them prosecuted vigorously and punish them sternly? Is government not sufficiently worried about the negative economic index induced by the massive crude oil thefts?

Our worries stemmed from the fact that even though the Country Nigeria is well endowed in mineral and crude oil resources, yet Nigerians are subjected to the odium of resource curse in such a fashion that Nigeria now is the capital of multidimensional poverty in the world with over 133 million households known and classified by the National Bureau of Statistics as absolutely impoverished. Is this not one of the wonders of the World?

Why should Nigerians be so miserably poor when the nation is endowed with huge crude oil resources that yield billions of dollars in revenue to Nigeria? Is this not a crime against humanity that only government officials grow fat from stolen funds belonging to the nation state whereas millions of citizens are dying from absolute poverty, hunger, deprivation, poor health and broken down infrastructures?

The simple truth is that crude oil thefts which have active support of powerful forces embedded withij the federal government, drain the revenues that Nigeria usually generate through exportation of crude oil resources so as to power the establishment of functional infrastructures that will enable most Nigerians to be economically empowered to become productive.

But the reverse is the case to such a despicable level that Nigeria is now home to the greatest numbers of absolutely poor people globally. Why are crude oil thieves overwhelming the Nigerian Navy even when it claims to be professionally efficient to battle the scourge of crude oil thefts? Is the Navy so deficient in intelligence gathering that it doesn’t know who the crude oil thieves are?

Specifically, the Nigerian Navy prides itself as a highly motivated professional Naval force capable of shaping the security outcome within Nigeria’s maritime domain and the littorals including land based engagements in fulfilment of Nigeria’s national security interest. These are the Navy’s exact words, but is appearance different from reality? To the government, it seems that the Navy can’t be trusted but the Naval official said that is not so.

But the immediate past president Muhammadu Buhari, who is a retired Major General in the Armed Forces of Nigeria, doubted the capacity of the Navy to protect the maritime domain and the littorals which was why he engaged the services of a former alleged outlaw and a repentant armed militant in the Niger Delta, Mr. Government Ekpemupolo or Tompolo to assume a part of the security architecture of the crude oil national assets. Does armed militancy pay and is this why there is proliferation of terrorists now in Nigeria since government gives them illegitimate opportunities to turn new leaves and then are awarded juicy security contracts?

The Nigerian Navy thinks their integrity is intact which is why in its magazine publication of July – December 2023 known as The Sailor, the Nigerian Navy stated the mission of the Navy thus: “maintain and equip a professionally competent and ethical naval force while leveraging an all ­­­elements of national power for the effective defence of Nigeria’s maritime area of interest against all forms of threat in fulfilment of national security imperatives.”

But is president Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, convinced that the Nigerian Navy under his purview and jurisdiction constitutionally, have the stated capacity to actualize the mission of the Nigeria Navy? I do not think so because if he does, he will not retain the services of a private maritime security outfit to secure the crude oil national security.

Interestingly, only recently, The Guardian’s Energy Editor did a very incisive, statistically rich piece on the menace of crudevoil thefts that have become endemic.

He correctly stated that despite the militarisation of the Niger Delta region and the involvement of private security outfits in the past 18 months by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPC) to safeguard oil production and reduce crude theft, Nigerian elites, who have been accused of stealing the nation’s crude, appear to be unrelenting and outsmarting the system in an unabated theft.

The reporter argued and rightly so that most stakeholders insisted that the many approaches deployed by the Federal Government and continuous spending by the state oil company have failed as they called for an immediate overhaul of the security architecture of the oil sector.

With the development, says this brilliant journalist, which is coming in the face of the killing of 16 soldiers and another six police officers in the Niger Delta, stakeholders are accusing the NNPC of deliberately diverting attention from the root cause of theft.

Although the Group Chief Executive Officer of NNPC, Mele Kyari had admitted that Nigerian elites are the brains behind crude oil theft, Niger Delta Statesman, Edwin Clark debunked it and said NNPC and military were behind oil theft. With oil production remaining way below budget benchmarks for the last three years the NNPC alone is spending an average of N267.98 billion on security, industry players are also concerned that the worsening security crisis across the country meant that the oil facilities alone would not be immune from the crisis. The Navy has lately bombarded us with media stories of their breakthroughs in catching crude oil thieves.

Few days back, the Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) PATHFINDER claimed that it uncovered 16 illegal refining sites with refining capacity of 9.6million litres of Automotive Gas Oil (AGO) popularly known as ‘Diesel’ in a creek in Rivers State.

The operatives of the NNS Pathfinder led by its Commander, Commodore Desmond Igbo, during an operation at the creek around Elem -Krakama in Degema Local Government Area, also arrested 14 suspects, recovered over 1.5m litres of diesel already refined at one of the illegal sites in the area.

One media reporter who was at the illegal refining sites, observed that three wooden boats with a storage capacity of 70metric tones of crude oil worth 210metric tones still siphoning crude from a tapped oil wellhead owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPC) were also arrested by the Navy.

It was further observed that the activities of the suspects at the oilfield wells owned by the NNPC has dastardly polluted the environment, as crude oil illegally exploited from the wells by the suspects littered on the rivers, destroying the mangroves and other living plants in the area.

Speaking with journalists at the incident sites, Commander of NNS Pathfinder, Commodore Desmond Igbo, identified the oilfield as Oil Mining Lease (OML) 18, owned by NNPCL, saying that the wellhead badly compromised by the suspected oil thieves was well 15 in the same oil field. Igbo, who expressed shock at the wide-scale economic sabotage going on in the location, said the site has 16 cooking pots with the capacity to contain 600,000 litres of AGO each, assuring that the Navy will not relent in ensuring that illegal oil refining activities become a thing of the past.

Igbo said: “This is Elem-Krakama in Degema LGA of Rivers State, we have come here to ensure that this oil stealing will not continue. We have about 16 cooking pots and some of them contain about 600,000 litres. It is very quite huge, as you can see where they are tapping it right from the oil wellhead belonging to NNPCL.

“We have made arrests, we arrested about 14 of them in the act of stealing the crude and also illegally refining this crude. Behind me is oil well head 15 belonging to OML 18, of NNPCL. You can see a very big 14-inch hose connected illegally to this oil well head 15. They are transferring it to this big wooden boat also known as the Cotonou boat.

“The boats contain 70 metric tons of crude oil, the crude is still there, they will connect it to the reservoirs through the 4-inch hose from there they will start cooking it. We have three of these wooden boats in this camp. The cooking pots also contain about 1.5 million AGO. This is not good for our country, not good for the economy.”

Igbo continued that the success of the operation was in furtherance of the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral, Emmanuel Ogalla’s mandate to them to fish out the economic saboteurs and not to deter in ensuring that oil theft in Niger Delta become history are thing of the past, adding that they will continue to stamp out oil theft in the region.

He, however, revealed that both the arrested suspects and seized crude would be handed over to appropriate agencies for prosecution, saying his personnel would dismantle the illegal connection, just as he noted that the attention of the owners of the oil field has been drawn to clampdown the spilling wellhead.

He urged community leaders to urge their youths to desist from such criminal activities for a safe and cleaner environment, warning that anyone caught in the act of sabotaging the national asset will be made to face the wrath of the law.

“It is actually economic sabotage. The cooking pots, we are going to crush them and we have already told the company operating OML 18 owned by NNPCL to clamp down the wellhead permanently so that they cannot come back and engage in it and they said they would do so. We are hoping that they would do that and we will give them the necessary security and safety they would need to do that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the 14 suspects handed over to the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), were received by the Desk Officer, Intelligent and Investigation Rivers state chapter of NSCDC, Omale Ene. But crude oil thefts aren’t abetting thereby multiplying the resource curse that Nigeria is afflicted with as encapsulated in a recently scholarly report on this thematic area.

MARCH 11, 2024, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPC Ltd.) appealed to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to help tackle the menace of crude oil theft in the country.

The Group Chief Executive Officer of the company, Mr. Mele Kyari, made the appeal at an interactive session with the EFCC’s helmsman, Mr. Ola Olukoyede, which held at the NNPC Towers in Abuja on Monday.

Speaking passionately about the efforts by NNPC Ltd to eradicate corruption from its system and stem crude oil theft and pipeline vandalism, Kyari contended that going by the volume of oil stolen daily and the brazenness with which the perpetrators operate, crude oil theft was the most humongous and virulent economic crime in Nigeria that must attract the attention of the EFCC.

“As we continue to do our best to deepen transparency and stamp out corruption from the system, there is one big challenge that you will need to help us with, Mr. Chairman. That challenge is crude theft. It fits into everything you have said – the people, the asset, the opportunity, and the absence of deterrence.”

“We have deactivated 6,409 illegal refineries in the Niger Delta region. Today, we have disconnected up to 4,846 illegal pipes connected to our pipelines, that is out of 5,543 such illegal connection points. That means there are a vast number of such connections that we have not removed.

“These things don’t just happen from the blues. They happen in communities and locations we all know. As we remove one illegal connection, another one comes up. It is sad, Mr. Chairman.”

“This kind of thing does not happen anywhere else in the world. When we say illegal connections, they are not invisible things, they are big pipes that require some level of expertise to be installed. Some of them are of the same size as the trunk line itself. No one would produce crude oil knowing fully well that it is not going to get to the terminal. That is why nobody is putting money into the business. So, you can’t grow production.”

“I believe, personally, that the very purpose of your commission is to curtail economic crimes, and there is no bigger economic crime of this scale anywhere else than what is happening in this area,” the GCEO lamented.

On corruption within the system, Kyari explained that by law, NNPC Ltd is required to maintain high ethical standards and has put in place structures and measures to curb discretionary actions which fuel corruption, stressing that most processes in the company have been fully automated to discourage arbitrary actions.

He disclosed that many issues of corruption reported in the public were either not true or recycled from the past.

In his presentation, the Executive Chairman of EFCC, Mr. Ola Olukoyede, expressed satisfaction with NNPC Ltd.’s commitment to issues of ethics and code of conduct.

He, however, challenged management to ensure that the codes of ethics and regulations are complemented with monitoring and enforcement to enhance deterrence.

The interactive session was at the instance of the Group Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Mele Kyari.

But why is Nigeria so resource curse, if I may ask?

Experts say that the Resource Curse is a Gravely Inefficient System and insist that a major impact is the lack of economic returns relative to the financial resources invested into the oil sector. In 2020, oil accounted for 90% of Nigeria’s export earnings and consisted of 1/3 of the country’s annual revenue, however, it only contributed to 9% of GDP growth.

Such economic inefficiency, according to persons knowledge about resource curse, stated that along with the appeal of fast money, underscores how Nigeria’s resource curse leads the government to neglect other economic sectors such as infrastructure, industry, science/technology, services and agriculture.

They say such neglect of these sectors depresses opportunity and exacerbates poverty, seen in Nigeria’s unemployment rate of 9.8% and per capita income at $2,085 as of 2021. Nigeria also ranks 150 out of 157 countries in the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital index, indicating a lack of adequate living standards from poor opportunities in education and healthcare to ensure a productive labor force. These indicators of poverty relate to the neglect of other industries that come from the resource curse and the lack of economic diversification to provide adequate socioeconomic opportunities for Nigerians to escape poverty.

Experts believe that Nigeria’s resource curse has also made it acutely vulnerable to global price fluctuations in the oil market, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Oil prices for Nigerian exports collapsed by 60% between February and May 2020 alone, threatening half of the government’s revenue source during this period.

The vulnerability to global price fluctuations underscores how reliance on the oil sector alone can make economic growth from it particularly fragile. Also, how relatively small returns in economic growth from huge investments seen in export percentages can create an inefficient economic system.

Can president Bola Ahmed Tinubu who is the Petroleum minister and the Nigerian Navy break this vicious circle of unrelenting crude oil thefts? Only time will tell.

Emmanuel Onwubiko is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA and was a NATIONAL COMMISSIONER of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION.

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