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Before oil thieves kill Nigeria’s economy

By Editorial Board
29 August 2022   |   4:10 am
The arrest of a supertanker with capacity for three million barrels of oil, about three times the one million barrels per day (bpd), clearly validates the widely held suspicion that siphoning of the country’s oil wealth is perpetrated by a syndicate.

The arrest of a supertanker with capacity for three million barrels of oil, about three times the one million barrels per day (bpd), clearly validates the widely held suspicion that siphoning of the country’s oil wealth is perpetrated by a syndicate. This syndicate involves the military, surveillance companies, politicians, local communities, high-level government officials and international collaborators. The implication of this action is far-reaching on an economy on the brink of collapse going by the revelations by the minister of finance on the state of affairs in the first quarter of this year. This crime against the Nigerian state and its people should no longer be treated with kid’s gloves but as a treasonable offence to deter the culprits.

The Nigerian Navy the other day confirmed the arrest of a vessel, MT HEROIC IDUN, narrating how it evaded arrest and how the captain tagged Nigerian forces as sea pirates. It confirmed that the vessel had arrived at one of the oil fields without Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPCL) due clearance for the loading operations. The Navy quoted the head of CRESMAO as confirming that the captain of the tanker refused to cooperate and rather altered course towards Sao Tome and Principe and later deliberately raised false alarm to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). The navy welcomed with much satisfaction the news of the arrest of MT HEROIC IDUN by the Equatorial Guinean Navy (EGN) on August 12, 2022, barely four days after the supertanker assumed she had evaded arrest.
While government officials and the NNPCL curiously attempted to downplay the level of theft and blame an international cartel, it is worthy to note that the capacity of the tanker points to the scale and scope of the theft of the precious resource commodity. The Federal Government should explain to Nigerians how such a tanker was able to load the product without any form of suspicion or intervention, until it was dramatically detained after leaving Nigeria’s territorial waters. It is apparent that this is not the first time the activity will be taking place. How much does a 10,000 tonne barge cost and how is it able to move from the creek to the sea without detection not to talk of a super tanker? Is this not the same country where a vessel, MT AFRICAN PRIDE, carrying 15,000 barrels of crude oil got missing in 2003? The Nigerian Navy seized the MT AFRICAN PRIDE tanker along with 13 Russian sailors, on suspicion of smuggling in October 2003. But the tanker, laden with crude oil, disappeared mysteriously.
Nigerian authorities often link oil thefts to siphoning through the pipelines. However, in early March, businessman Tony Elumelu, claimed on Twitter that over 90 per cent of the production is stolen before it reaches the oil terminals. What is the reality of the situation? According to data from the government, 250,000 barrels are disappearing every day, compared to an average of 220,000 in 2021. But these statistics should be read with a great amount of caution considering the present reality and the scale of theft being witnessed now.
There are two ways to steal oil. The first is to connect a pipe to a pipeline to convey the product to a barge. The barge can then supply artisanal refineries or go back and forth to a larger vessel anchored in an area where the river is deeper. This vessel will then head out to sea to refuel a tanker bound for South America, Europe or Asia. These tankers can also stay close to the West African coast and carry out transactions with other vessels on the high seas.
The second option is the so-called topping, which is the act of adding a quantity of undeclared crude oil to an official shipment. In this case, the documents are in order, the permits have been issued and traffickers can resell the extra oil as if nothing had happened. This second method is very difficult to investigate, especially since it often involves officials and members of the political elite. It is really a way to steal and move huge quantities of oil for minimal risk. As far as crude oil is concerned, there is no shortage of clients in international waters!
From reality, Nigeria is losing on all ends. The Nigerian economy has recently been badly hit by the inability of the government to generate dollar revenue from its main source, which is the export of crude oil. While Nigeria’s production in the last few months hovered between 1 million bpd and 1.1 million bpd, its Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quota for August is 1.826 million, a deficit of roughly 700,000 to 800,000 bpd. At the unveiling of new Production Sharing Contracts (PSCs) with its partners last week, Group Chief Executive Officer of the NNPCL, Mele Kyari, hinted that while local oil theft had been contained to some extent, there were some international cartels involved in the stealing of Nigeria’s oil.
Managing Director and country chair for Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited and Shell Companies in Nigeria, Osagie Okunbor, said oil theft was one of the reasons that Nigeria could not meet its OPEC quota of 1.8 million barrels a day. “Two of our most important pipelines in this country today are shut down with hundreds of thousands of barrels a day shut-in,” Okunbor said without giving details, adding that “It is a fact that the issue of theft, whether as a standalone or as the basis for us to meet our OPEC quota is an existential threat for this industry.” The Shell boss said local companies that won licenses to develop marginal fields would face challenges to transport their crude once they start production. This is the reality of Nigeria’s business environment.
Going by the recent revelations by the Minister of Finance, Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, on the state of the country’s finances, Nigeria is lucky not to be insolvent despite the scale of theft and abuse it has undergone and undergoing. With a very expensive subsidy regime that is also shrouded in secrecy, Nigeria’s biggest revenue earning sector appears to be on bended knees, despite the ‘commitment’ of the Commander-in-Chief. The Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, had been vocal about the structure of the organised crime and perhaps, it is time to treat oil theft as a treasonable offence as recommended by the governor, going by the magnitude of crime against the state and jeopardy the nation is being subjected to by the action of some individuals and inaction of the Commander-in-Chief and Minister of Petroleum.
It is time to stop aiding oil theft via empty promises and inaction. Mr. President got the popular votes because people believed he will do better than his predecessor. Nigeria is fighting an enemy within and competing with other countries for investment. Nigeria in the last seven years has a flawed approach to dealing with issues of insecurity and theft. The situation, most times, deteriorates so badly before the President gives an order in his messianic manner. With producers holding back investment while they look for alternative export options, it is time for Mr. President to go beyond lip service and strive to leave a better Nigeria than he met.