Economic sabotage: How security forces aid oil theft in Niger Delta – Investigation




FILE PHOTO: Oil pours out of a spout at the Drake Well Museum and Park in Titusville, Pennsylvania U.S., October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

…Military provides protection for bunkerers, illegal refiners

…Army, Navy, Police collect deve daily at Ogbe-Ijoh

…Thieves connect Shell, Agip pipelines to siphon crude oil

…Allegations of complicity false – Navy

…Army mum, minister dismisses claims

Blueprint’s three-month investigations have revealed that oil theft in the Niger Delta is being masterminded by security forces in conjunction with militants and even senior management staff of oil companies.

Our findings showed that some military personnel; army, navy, police, and operatives of other paramilitary agencies deployed to beef up security for sundry oil exploration and related activities usually assist those plundering oil pipelines and sabotaging government’s efforts to curtail illegal oil bunkering operations and related acts.

They are also the backbones of those operating illegal refineries – providing safety networks for their operations, camps, operational facilities and even safeguarding the transportation and the delivery of illegally refined products to their delivery points. 

Our correspondents, who were in Warri in April this year, observed first-hand the activities of illegal bunkering and refining of crude oil into petroleum motor spirit (PMS) and automated gas oil (AGO) or diesel used by heavy duty vehicles.

Although there has been an increased presence of security operatives in the creeks and immediate environs, bunkering and all sorts of illegal activities have continued to thrive openly and in most cases these operators work in collaboration with security personnel directly and sometimes with their agents.

It was also found out that the collaborators of the security agents are mostly militants, ‘community boys’ who are recruited, armed, and provided ‘buffer zones’ within which to operate.

These boys ‘collect dues’ from operators of illegal refineries at respective camps on behalf of their bosses and are not averse to the use of outright highhandedness and arm-twisting of the operators to force compliance to their demands in addition to stamping their authority and instill fears in them to ‘cooperate’ or face dire consequences.

It was also observed that in some cases some security operatives do impose and collect huge sums of money in exchange for the protection for the illegal operators, especially during refining nights.

Our sources, who guided us throughout the period of the investigation, said illegal refiners that declined to oblige the demands of exorbitant sums either have their products seized and their facilities assaulted or were made to suffer arrest and detention.

We learnt further that the fees usually charged depend on the quantity of products to be refined which ranges from N200, 000 to N500, 000 per night. However, what usually leads to arguments and refusal to ‘cooperate’ is that a group or set of army boys that had been negotiated with and paid might later withdraw from their guard posts and subsequently replaced by another set who would insist on fresh arrangements without which the operators would have their products seized and their facilities molested and the operators arrested.

“In most cases, when products are seized and some arrests made, it is likely because the illegal refiners may have refused to pay afresh to another set of soldiers after they had paid to the first group and therefore felt they have been short-changed by the military boys with whom they had an agreement for protection.

“There several ways they pay the military boys. Sometimes, they send boys to go to them several days ahead to negotiate and settle them before they are allowed to pass. They pay between N200-500,000. At times, it is the leader of one of the unions that goes to do the payment. Without this, they are not allowed to pass,” a source who is based in Forcados said.

Protection for bunkerers, illegal refiners

“Some army officers are involved in the illegal refining business, but they are not alone. They work in league with Navy and Police officers. They use community boys to offer protection to operators of illegal refineries in the creeks for a fee. The boys protect the operations in the camps while they (security operatives) protect the refined products from the refining camps to their discharging points.

“As an insider, my brother, it is a lucrative business for both – the illegal refiners and security operatives. Every day, an operator may produce more than 200 drums of crude oil and when they have gathered enough, they arrange with people that have small vessels to take the diesel to specific points like Ogbe-Ijoh market here in Warri.

“Usually, depending on the volume of products to be refined, the army personnel in negotiation with the illegal refiners may demand between N200, 000 to N500,000 per night and the amount is almost always paid in advance,” a source who claims to be an ex-operator said.

Another source, who claims to have shops in the creeks of Forcados, a major federal government crude oil loading point, asserts that the process is repeated in all the major loading points for both the small and large vessels across the Niger Delta.

“It is no brainer that the army and navy boys and the police are heavily behind some of the illegal crude oil activities in the Niger Delta. Some of them give our boys money to set up the business.

“So, some of the illegal refineries are owned by some military personnel. Of course, they have to protect their business and anyone that attempts to hinder their operations automatically becomes their enemy and that even includes the state.

“In essence, the owners of some of these illegal refineries are high-profile uniformed people. True, there are other ‘minor’ elements that have ventured into the business because of the huge benefits accruable from there, but note that the stake is high and it takes those with the needed might and access to embark on it successfully.

“That is why it has been sustained and has also thriven in spite of the federal government’s deliberate onslaught against operators of the illegal operation. Often refining facilities, mostly camps are burnt in the creeks. But none hardly stays for two weeks without being rebuilt,” the source who said he had been arrested and taken to Abuja several times said.

Our correspondents further observed a recurrent trend where state security operatives daily collect from illegal refiners and retailers of illegal refined AGO and other products what in the local parlance is known as deve or development levy which is neither receipted nor accounted for by any of the security agency that collects them.

The trend is a daily occurrence at Ogbe-Ijoh Market in Warri, Delta state, for instance, where uniform personnel daily go round to demand deve from designated stalls where illegally refined products are dispensed in 25 litres jerry cans by agents to retailers.

“There are several ways the operators pay the security operatives deve. Sometimes, the boys go to them several days ahead to negotiate and settle them before they are allowed to pass. At times they paid at the point of discharge or midway in the high sea.

“But the police usually prefer to go to the market (Ogbe-Ijoh) to collect deve from agents of illegal refiners or warehouses where the refined products in jerry cans are stored.

“High quantity crude oil refining attracts between N200-500,000. But those dispensing in jerry cans usually pay an amount ranging from N2, 000 to N5, 000 per can depending on the product and quantity. Sometimes, it is their union chairman that goes to do the payment on behalf of everyone. Without this, they are neither allowed to pass nor sell their goods,” said our guide who took us round Ogbe-Ijoh Market one Saturday morning to observe the operations first- hand.

Thieves connect Shell, Agip pipelines to siphon crude oil

Three sources said crude oil is stolen at loading point in Forcados. According to them, some military personnel engaged underwater drillers in connivance with community boys to connect pipes from Shell pipeline to Agip pipeline so that whenever the federal government comes to load crude oil for export, they also will connect their vessels to load crude oil as much they desire and sell the same to buyers who are always hovering about in the high sea.

They said further that although in April, Agip shut down their flow station, their export line from Forcados remains.

“The army and navy are guarding the pipeline. But later, they arranged with the community boys to connect Shell pipeline to Agip pipeline so that when Shell is loading, their crude flows into the Agip pipeline and they collect the crude oil from there. Agip loading point is sealed.

“The navy is also involved. Like the wellhead at Forcados terminal where they load federal government ships, they have their own different loading points. Since crude oil is always loaded at night, when the federal government is loading, Navy gunboats are in the high sea, patrolling while sometimes their 2000 metric tonnes vessel is also loading at their own loading point,” a Forcados-based source said.

Oil coys’ staff involvement

Furthermore, our findings showed that mostly, some senior staff of oil companies are involved in the act. They connived with security operatives and community boys to burst pipelines so that contracts will be awarded for repairs at huge costs, according to a former contractor with the Pipelines Products Marketing Company (PPMC), a subsidiary of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

The ex-contractor said the deal is usually spearheaded by depot officials who negotiate with militants to burst pipelines at various points resulting in oil spillage and enabling the request for award of remediation contract.

The deal, we learnt, also involved some staff of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) whose duty it is to monitor and ensure remediation of burst pipelines and certified sites where repairs have been effected.

“It is usually some depot officials and other senior officers of oil firms that connive with militants to vandalize pipelines at various locations so that a contract for remediation will be awarded to their agents.

“Sometimes, contractors are assigned the task of getting ‘trusted community boys’ to vandalise underwater and surface pipelines for oil spillage to occur and so that repair and clean-up contracts will be awarded to them,” the contractor who now deals in cereals said.

According to him, hardly three to four months pass by without an incidence of oil spillage because those involved see it as a major means of generating funds ‘legitimately.’

“The idea is that if there is no problem, money will not come out. How come anytime crude oil is to be loaded there is pipeline vandalism; yes, it’s an insider job.

The source also said there are annual allocations to NOSDRA and Health Safety and Environment (HSE). The budget, which runs into millions, is solely for remediation. So, the budget has to be spent and vandalism of pipelines it can’t,” he said, noting that this explains why there is a chain of connivance by those who are aware of the available funds.

Navy’s denials

However, reacting to recurrent allegations of complicity in the fight against oil theft, the Nigerian Navy has debunked the claim, saying it is “reckless, preposterous and unfortunate.”

The service spokesman, the director of information (DINFO), Commodore Adedotun Ayo-Vaughan, in a recent release, said the Navy “in the last 18 months has left no stone unturned in her fight against crude oil theft, illegal bunkering, Illegal Refining Sites and associated crimes.”

The release recalled that the Navy had, on April 01, 2022, launched of Operation Dakatar Da Barawo (OPDDB) in synergy with the NNPC, to curb crude oil theft and associated crimes.

It listed the achievements of the operations of OPDDB over the four-month period to include seizures of millions of litres of Automated Gas Oil (AGO) and crude oil, and hundreds of thousands of litres of Dual Purpose Kerosene (DPK) Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) Sludge and LPFO, all amounting to about N25 billion.

Also, the operations successfully destroyed 278 illegal refining sites; 127 illegal refinery ovens; 102 illegal refining pits and 148 refinery storage tanks; the release said.

It added that it has arrested 85 suspects, 72 boats and 23 vehicles and tanker-trucks, and recovered several outboard engines and pumping machines.

“The entire region has indeed felt the impact of OPDDB because most oil thieves have been put out of business, the carbon soot that was predominant in some places due to the operation of Illegal refineries has disappeared and innocent citizens have been saved from the health dangers/hazards the fumes/soot posed to them. Navy personnel in the Niger Delta creeks have repeatedly raided these IRS to ensure they remain inactive, unproductive, and moribund,” Ayo-Vaughan said.

Although the release admitted that some officers had at a time been alleged to be complicit in crude oil theft, it said the Navy’s zero tolerance for such acts has been evidenced in charges such officers are facing.

While also conceding that the nation has suffered sleazes from time to time from some unpatriotic Nigerians, it stated that there were still Honourable men in Nigeria, some of whom include naval officers.

Ayo-Vaughan said the Navy in the last 18 months, under the leadership of its current Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Awwal Gambo, has among other salient moves in conjunction with the NNPC held regular meetings to reappraise, update and situate the operation, with a view to fashioning out new strategies to curb the menace.

The Navy maintained that it had not reneged in appealing to political, traditional and opinion leaders in the region to educate the people to note the environmental, economic and health hazards the crime of COT and IRS pose to the operators, people and entire region, hence the need to dissuade the oil thieves from the crime.

It advised the press to be circumspect and not stoke up tension in the polity through unverified information.

Army keeps mum

Following these claims, this reporter sought reactions from the Army spokesman, Brig.-Gen. Onyeama Nwachukwu, through several telephone calls and text messages but got no response.

Instead, the spokesman for the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Horatius Eguatu, dismissed the assertions, saying there are mere allegations without substance and dares anyone with proven evidence of military involvement in illegal refinery operations to come up with such evidence before the authority.

He said the military have actually been working hard to stop criminalities in the creeks of the Niger Delta.

“They are vandalising pipelines and engaging in illegal refining activities. Recall the marching order Mr. President gave to the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources to go to the creek along with stakeholders, the military, the Chief of Defence, the NNPC Group Managing Director.

“He gave the order that illegal refining should be stopped throughout the region. And the military has moved in; they are recording successes. And criminal elements are being arrested and handed over to the police,” he said.

FG’s disclosures, regrets

In February, this year, the federal government had raised the alarm over the loss of about $3.27 billion worth of oil to thieves in 14 months. The government also said high-level cases of oil theft had become a threat to the country’s corporate and economic existence.

The May data from the Nigeria Extractive Industries and Transparency Initiatives (NEITI) Oil and Gas Industry indicated that annually 272.2 million barrels of crude oil is lost to oil theft and other forms of criminalities in the midstream sector.

The figure showed an immoral improvement on the average of 200, 000 barrels of crude oil stolen per day by oil thieves earlier adduced by the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) group managing director, Mr. Mele Kyari; an amount that translated to 73 million barrels of crude oil annually.

NEITI’s 272.2 million barrels amount to a daily loss of 745, 753.4 barrels of crude oil; a figure that is over 500, 000 in excess of that declared by the NNPC. Given that Nigeria’s daily OPEC quota is a paltry 1.6 million barrels per day (the 1.9mpd new quota takes effect from July 1st), then it means that almost half of Nigeria’s OPEC quota is siphoned by oil thieves.

Although in recent weeks, troops of Operation Dakatar Da Barawo and Operation Delta Safe both fighting against economic sabotage and oil thievery in the Niger Delta, are said to have discovered and destroyed a combined 167 illegal refineries while 18 suspected operators were also arrested.

The director, Defence Media Operations, Maj.-Gen. Bernard Onyeuko, who gave details of military operations across the country late last month, said 59 ovens, nine wooden Cotonou boats; 156 storage tanks; 67 metal storage tanks; 12 dug-out pits were recovered along six pumping machines; five trucks; two outboard engines; two weapons; one Yamaha engine; one generator, and three pumping machines.

The general said a total of 2,82million (2, 828, 500.00) litres of stolen crude oil, as well as a total of 2.42million (2, 425, 300. 00) litres of AGO, and 20, 000 litres of Kerosene.

“Cumulatively, the operations led to the recovery of 1 Yamaha engine, 1 generator, three pumping machines, 20,000 litres of kerosene, 1,625,000 litres of AGO and 2,050,000 litres of crude oil.

“All recovered items have been handed over to the appropriate authorities for further action,” he said, noting that these successful operations were conducted in 18 creeks across 8 local government Areas in Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta states, respectively.

He particularly thumbed up NNS Pathfinder whose operations in Isaka Junction, Cawthone channel and others led to the discovery of 150 illegal refineries, 59 ovens, 67 metal storage tanks, four wooden Cotonou boats, which he said were all eventually destroyed.

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