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How security agencies frustrate battle against oil theft, Niger Delta stakeholders allege

By Godwin Ijediogor (South-South Bureau Chief), Chido Okafor (Warri), Julius Osahon (Yenagoa), Tina Agosi Todo (Calabar) and Obinna Nwaoku (Port Harcourt)
26 September 2022   |   4:11 am
There are two main lucrative assignments and postings for top military officers in the country at the moment - the special operations in the Northeast and the other in the Niger Delta.

NNPC GMD Malam Mele Kyari

We need proof of our men’s involvement, says Navy spokesman

There are two main lucrative assignments and postings for top military officers in the country at the moment – the special operations in the Northeast and the other in the Niger Delta. And the lobby to head such operations is intense, and something to look forward to by even the rank and file, in the case of the Niger Delta, more than the fight against insurgency in the Northeast and banditry in the Northwest.

Cases of oil theft are not new in the Niger Delta, but not at the current large scale of about 80 per cent. In the past, such cases were attributed to militants and locals, but today, ostensibly because of the scale and sophistication, there are alleged involvement of multinationals, top government officials and security personnel, to the point that there is no accurate and reliable data on the actual amount of crude oil that leaves the country’s shores daily.

According to the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation Limited (NNPCL), criminals steal about 437,000 barrels of oil daily in Nigeria, calculated at $100 per barrel, that amounts to over $43, 700, 000 per day.

To curtail pilfering of crude oil, the Federal Government, through the NNPC Limited, awarded over N4.5billion monthly pipeline surveillance contract to former leader of Movement for the Emancipation of Niger-Delta (MEND), Government Ekpemupolo, popularly known as Tompolo, and other contractors in the Niger Delta.

This have gone down well with some ex-militant leaders and others that want a bite from the contract, including leader of Niger-Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), Alhaji Asari Dokubo, who alleged being sidelined, even as Tompolo was reported to have held a series of meetings with some of them on how to get them partake in the job.

The NNPC, through its Chief Executive Officer, Mele Kyari, has described the action as the ‘right decision,’ saying it was necessitated by the need for Nigeria to hire private contractors to man its oil pipeline network nationwide due to massive oil theft. He recalled that it was not the first time individuals within the region were awarded contracts for pipeline surveillance.

Kyari clarified that the federal government was not dealing directly with Tompolo, but a private company he has interests in, adding: “The security agencies are doing their part, end-to-end pipeline surveillance would require the involvement of private entities and community stakeholders. We need private contractors to man the right of way to these pipelines. So, we put up a framework for contractors to come and bid and they were selected through a tender process. And we believe we made the right decision.”

Kyari explained the objectives of the contract: “First, to ensure that security agencies play their part, we have our Navy, the Army and they are doing an excellent job of containing this. But as you do this, sustenance is everything and therefore we also decided that we need private contractors to man the right of way and also operate outside the right of way so that they can also join us to manage members of the community.

“We don’t have access to that and therefore, we put up a framework where contractors were selected through a tender process for people who can do it, not everyone can do it and Tompolo is just mentioned, we’re dealing with corporate entities. He may have interest in the company, we’re not dealing with Tompolo, but we know that he has interests in that company.

“We know that we are engaging all other individuals who will be of help to us in this situation. This has happened severally over time and the result was that it was contained under a process like this and we believe that we are taking the right decision.”

A former secretary general of Okerenkoko community, a key oil production hub in Warri South West Council of Delta State, Ernest Bebenimibo, said oil theft in the Niger Delta persists because military men now act as guarantors to illegal bunkerers, alledging that as a pipeline surveillance contractor, he was aware of the connivance of military personnel, oil company workers and criminals.

He said: “Crude oil theft is not new in Niger Delta region. In the off shore areas, we do not know the barrels of crude oil that is stolen daily, but in my area, that is the Escravos River in Delta State, I know that many of the companies complain that in some lines, they lose 4,000 barrels, some 2,000 and some 10,000 daily.

“So, if you quantify what is happening at the Escravos River to all other flow stations of Agip, Shell, Exxon-Mobil and other companies, I think it is true that as much as 70 to 80 per cent of crude oil is stolen daily in the region.

Tompolo

Tompolo

“The Federal Government recently awarded surveillance contract to Tompolo and he has been engaging stakeholders from various ethnic groups, with even that engagement, crude oil theft has reduced to some extent, because in the process of engaging stakeholders from various groups, he always send out warning to illegal bunkers, especially about the destruction we are doing to ourselves and the environment.

“The stealing of crude oil offshore is by far more than in onshore areas; it is at the offshore that the ogas at the top and military are involved.”

On the allegation that top security officers are involved in the act, he said: “It is 100 per cent true. My brother and I got a surveillance contract at one of the stations of NDPC Delta region operated by Neconde Energy Limited around 2018. When we came in, the operational area was polarised with bunkering activities, even the water bodies were polluted and devastated, but immediately we came in, we went into action, disconnected all the pipes used in stealing crude oil and burned down their camps, boats and other materials in the area.

“But in the process of carrying out the assignment, we received a lot of threat from the military. We arrested some boys involved in stealing crude oil and it was the military people that came to beg us to release them, saying that if we took the vandals to their commanders in Bayelsa or Warri, the commanders will arrest them too, that we should free them.

“Like Tompolo said during his meeting with stakeholders, the illegal bunkerers are our people and we know them. If we threaten to burn down their camps, they will cry to the military to beg us. The military people will tell us that they are not well paid, that it is through illegal bunkering that they are managing their lives, that we should help them and allow the boys to steal crude oil. They will stand as middlemen for the illegal bunkerers.

“The military even have their own illegal bunkering camps. They give money to the oil thieves to open the well head, the boys will tap oil pipelines, that is why if you see the junior officers living big; they get the money from their involvement in oil bunkering.

“Company workers are also involved; they often connive with illegal bunkerers. We have caught oil company workers and military conniving to steal oil. In one instance, the oil company sacked four workers. So, the company and the military connived with illegal bunkers to steal oil in the Niger Delta.”

Commending the Federal Government for signing the surveillance contract with Tompolo, Bebenimibo said the move would reduce, if not stop the activities of oil thieves in the region.

He said although the Niger Delta people consider the oil in their land as their God-given resources for development, it must not become a curse.”
SOME stakeholders in Bayelsa State said the war against oil pilfering might not be easy because of government and regulatory officials’ involvement in the illegality, alleging that big oil bunkerers are topshots in the military, government, NNPC and multinational oil companies.

Speaking with The Guardian in Yenagoa, the stakeholders, including the Chairman of the state chapter of the Host Communities of Nigeria Producing Oil and Gas (HOSCOM), Pastor Hardy Theophilus; spokesman of the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC), Ebilade Ekerefe and National President of Niger Delta Nonviolence Agitators Forum (NDNAF), Wisdom Ikuli, expressed hope that current efforts will yield good result.

Ekerefe said: “It will be difficult to stop illegal oil bunkering because big oil bunkerers are military personnel. They are complicit and it will be very difficult to address it, because of the amount of resources that is involved in the illegal business. So, while the Federal Government is going after petty oil thieves, let them also look at the bigger ones, because the Navy is saddled with the responsibility to secure our territorial waters.

“Where are the big ships that siphon oil out of the shores of this country coming from? Are they not are passing through the Nigerian waters. You can’t tell me that foreigners would bring in big vessels, come into the creeks of the Niger Delta region, siphon oil and go out of this region without the knowledge of security personnel that are saddled with protecting our territorial waters.

“Like I said, illegal refining as well is being encouraged by these big thieves. I have just told you that the military is complicit; they have an understanding with all these people who are carrying out this illegal refinery business in the creeks. It’s a value chain because of the amount of resources involved.

“Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike had accused the military before, including the civil defence; all of them are part of it. The only time you see them destroying badges or going into these illegal sites to burn down these facilities is when the people don’t comply. It is a sad reality.”

Ayo-Vaughan

Theophilus added: “Oil theft is very critical and almost becoming impossible to stop; I call it constitutional theft, because the 1999 Constitution, as amended in Section 162, Sub-section 2, provides that not less than 13 per cent from the proceeds from oil exploration and sales should be reverted to the host communities.

“Under (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo, the monies for the host communities were shared among the state governors, as against the Constitution. So, as long as that constitutional theft is being celebrated, it will be difficult to stop the oil theft.”

On his part, Ikuli said, “Unfortunately, beside the issue of conspiracy of silence on the side of the authorities, including the various security agencies, the key actors in local bunkering also claim high sense of entitlement, especially those from the oil-producing communities, who feel shut out in their God-given natural resources.

“It will, therefore, be a Herculean task to stop these illegal activities, except now that an outstanding personality, like Tompolo, has been formally engaged by government. He has good track record of curbing oil theft at all levels, so his formal engagement will help in no small measure to stem the ugly menace that has become a great source of worry to major critical stakeholders, especially government.

“Crude oil theft has its far-reaching negative implications. It is pertinent to narrow it to the economic and environmental impacts. Nigeria loses over 400,000 barrels of crude oil daily to pilfering, covering both bunkering and government supervised lifting that is not captured by the NNPC and it’s commissioned cum licenced marketers.

On the way forward, the respondents believed that the engagement of the host communities and stakeholders in the region will go a long way in curbing the menace.

Ekerefe said: “The way forward is for the Federal Government to engage stakeholders in the region, and I am sure they have already started the process of engaging Tompolo to help them to secure the pipelines in the Niger Delta region. He has the capacity to help the government to protect the pipelines in this region.

“Beyond that, we are also saying that our people have the capacity to refine this crude, so government needs to set up mechanisms and put necessary regulations in place for them to carry out this business in a legitimate way.

“The NNPC should come out very clean and engage stakeholders. Tompolo knows that he cannot do it alone; that is why you see him calling stakeholders in the region to intimate them of the development.

“If they are ready to give 13 per cent directly to host communities, then the problem of oil theft will reduce, if not eradicated completely. If they are ready also to pay the host communities the N98 billion gas flare Trust Fund and the three per cent recommended by the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA), oil theft will stop.

“You are exploiting and depriving them and you expect the man to say, ‘thank you?”

Both Ikuli and Theophilus also recommended the setting up of Bayelsa State Oil Producing Development Commission (BASOPADEC) to give oil-producing communities a sense of belonging and guard their own resources themselves.

CONCERNED stakeholders in Cross River State blamed consistent oil theft on prominent and powerful Nigerians, including those at the corridors of power.

Describing it as ‘official theft,’ a legal practitioner in the state, Leonard Anyogo, said the problem of Nigeria is lack of political will to punish criminals.

He wondered why a ship-load of oil would disappear from the face of the earth while on the country’s waterways when public officials are involved in securing the country’s assets.

“When you are talking about this large oil theft, we are not talking about one gallon or two being stolen, we are talking about ship loads of oil and the ship will just disappear from our waterways? Where are our security agencies and public officials? To me, it seems like an official theft and far beyond just few militants or oil thieves. Without any official collaboration, that is not possible.”

“Crime can be committed by anybody but the hallmark is that nobody is being punished for anything. We tend to celebrate criminality in this country by not implementing the law, and that is unfortunate.”

On whether agitating for resource control at the local level would solve the problem of oil theft, he said the issue of resource control would not come up if true federalism is practiced, noting: “It is time to reset the country.

“The issue of resource control will not even surface if we are practising true federalism, where each state is allowed to develop its resources. Each state has to develop at its own pace and compete; that is the stage we should get to and it is going to be interesting. We have never had it this bad that trailer loads of oil leave the country illegally to other countries and ships loaded with oil get missing on waterways.”

Asari Dokubo

A leader of the Petroleum Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) Azubuike Azubuike, faulted government, which secures oil facilities, for not commanding the will to stamp out oil theft.

He said: “The duty of government is to secure life and property, and part of the things they should be able to do is to secure the national assets. If we do not have government, there would be anarchy, and whatever will make government not to secure these assets should stir up questions.”

Azubuike noted that pipeline vandalism thrives in the region because the people are shortchanged, adding that stopping oil theft is not rocket science. “We should ask ourselves why all these things are happening. It is because there is no political will and it really goes to show us that there is no government that caters for the welfare of the people.

“We know that where these oils are explored, the environments are degraded and sources of livelihood, like farmland and water, are polluted. The challenge lies in the activities of oil exploration. It is all about the fact that we do not have responsible government that has passion for the people, that is where you have vandals going to burst pipes.

“If they can make life more meaningful for people in oil-bearing communities, I can assure you they will join hands to protect the pipelines in their communities.”

Regarding reports of some International Oil Companies (IOCs) declaring less than the amount they produce, Azubuike said if such things exist, it further shows the porosity in the oil sector, blaming government for such.

“If an oil company declares less amount of crude oil produced, that equally goes to tell us that we do not have a responsible government, because as a country, how can the crude leave your shores and you do not know the amount?

“If our member is complicit, we will never support the person. If you take extracted oil and declare less, is government not monitoring all these things? For me, the security agencies and those in government cannot deny that some organised criminalities are weakening the fight against oil theft.

“For instance, if government knows that a certain amount of crude is leaving the country and somebody is declaring something else and it doesn’t have what it takes to check it, then government is a failure. Everything rises and falls on leadership. If the government is sincere, why are they not installing metres in the pumping stations?”

We need proof of our men’s involvement, says Navy spokesman
THE Director of Information, Nigerian Navy, Commodore Adedotun Ayo-Vaughan has absolved the Navy of complicity in oil theft going on in the Niger Delta. He said, “We have Commanding Officers of the Forward Operations Bases in Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Delta and Bayelsa states. These bases are part of the Nigerian Navy’s effort at curbing crude oil theft in the Niger Delta under Operation Dakata Dabarawo, which is the Navy’s logistics support of the Nigeria National Petroleum Company (NNPC) Limited.

So, if there are allegations of collusion, connivance, involvement or complicity of our men, we want names and locations to enable us to take action. I communicate with our commanders in the area on daily basis.

“This is not to rule out the fact that there could be some bad eggs in the system, but we sanitise the system regularly. About two years ago, one of our men was picked up because he had continuously manipulated the system to remain in the Niger Delta beyond the stipulated time and had gone to one of the communities to negotiate with a traditional chief that he wanted to open his own illegal artisan refinery.

“When it came to the knowledge of the Navy authorities, he was arrested and taken to Lagos, where he was court-marshaled and the verdict is being reviewed for approval.

“So, these are not things people should just say, ‘oh, your men are complicit;’ they should be specific with adequate information. I have served in the Niger Delta more than three times, as a junior officer in Onne, with Pathfinder and then in Warri area and as a Commanding Officer on board a ship in Onne.

“On two occasions, while I was with Operation Restore Hope in Warri, people approached me. There was a particular man that said he was doing a business called oil blending and would need the support of my men so that they are not disturbed in the creeks. My Commander then used to send me to the creeks to stay with the soldiers on duty overnight to monitor their conduct.

“There were cases of soldiers that were attacked by their colleagues because they were uncompromising. So, we know that these things may exist, but we need the names and facts to enable us act.

“The same happened when I was on board NNS Centenary as Commanding Officer in Port Harcourt. I went to a Shell location to play squash and a Shell policeman requested my complimentary card and when I gave him, he said, ‘oga, I have been wishing to meet somebody like you.’ Later, he sent me a text message, that he was involved in a business and when we chatted, it was this same illegal refinery.

“I gave his name to the Commander of our base then, as one of the kinds of people we needed to get to lead us to the people behind all these things. We have made over 124 arrests of suspects involved in conveying illegally refined products since we started Operation Dakata Dabarawo about six months ago.”