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How to End Nigeria’s Illegal Oil Bunkering Business (3) - TELL Magazine

How to End Nigeria’s Illegal Oil Bunkering Business (3)

Oil theft in Nigeria can be stopped if the government, security operatives, oil companies and the host communities play their roles sincerely.

Artisanal Refining

Oil theft is evolving and developing a lucrative value chain. Artisanal refining, called Kpo-Fire in Niger Delta parlance, is the downstream component, or local content, of the trade in stolen crude oil. Due to the supply gap created in the local market for refined petroleum products, the business of illegal local refining of fuel emerged and became a significant contributor to the supply of petrol, diesel and kerosene. It is called Kpo-Fire after the huge popping sound the boiling crude makes when it reaches boiling point.

Illegal pipeline grafted to the legal pipeline in the Niger Delta
Illegal pipeline grafted to the legal pipeline in the Niger Delta

Kpo-Fire became so pervasive that the resulting soot became a health hazard in Rivers State. It was raining soot in Rivers. People spread white clothes outside and they turned black. People with white beards found it bleached black when they walked in the open air. Associated illnesses were reported across hospitals in the state.

Alarmed, Nyesom Wike, governor of Rivers State at the time, swung into action and led operations against the artisanal refiners himself because the security agencies had failed to stop it due to their alleged involvement in the business.

Chidi Loyd, a lawyer and chairman of Emuoha Local Government Area, an epicentre of the Kpo-Fire business, like Wike, led the counterforce against the illegal refiners at Emuoha. He explained the complexity of the business and the complicity of security operatives to us when we visited his local government during this investigation. He described the campaign as a “vicious fight into what I will call an organised crime.”

He says that oil theft is deeper than what people see. “It is more than what you see in the bush. It is a systemic problem. People have put structures in place to continue to rob the nation of its resources.”

Oil pipelines in the Niger Delta.
Oil pipelines in the Niger Delta.

He felt the impact directly in Port Harcourt. “There was a time here in Rivers State when you could not safely on your barefoot, step on the floor of your house. Windows were not open for years in Port Harcourt for fear of soot. There’s a common denominator; people call it Shakeleke – the white bird (Egret) – all turned black in Port Harcourt and Rivers State because of the activities of illegal oil refiners. People became ill often in Port Harcourt. People with bronchial ailments died; people with asthma and all that. It was now impossible for people to continue to live in Port Harcourt safely. Expatriate workers left Port Harcourt in droves to neighouring states where they breathe fresh air! Our air was constantly polluted. The ecosystem was endangered.

“When I went round, the Choba River had turned brown! You couldn’t fish in the river. Our people couldn’t pick periwinkles. There was no oxygen because the water had blackened everywhere. When you got to the area where this thing happened, you will shudder because for 10 to 20 years, grasses may not grow there.”

He revealed that Kpo-Fire has evolved with the money the practitioners are making. The basic infrastructure involves what they simply call setting up a pot and the refining process is called ‘cooking.’ It costs between N20 to N30 million to set up a pot. “It is a mini refinery; they know when they heat the crude, how the different products come out. When they heat to a point, it’s PMS. They know when it’s kerosene and diesel,” revealed Loyd.

“At times when you hear explosions, (Kpo!), it had gotten to the point of gas. These young men who do this thing are usually high on drugs. They are high on Tramadol; the ones we were able to arrest we saw Methamphine that is popularly known as ice (Mkpurumiri). These are the things they take to keep them strong and awake because the cooking is done in the small hours of the night.”

It was a big battle to dislodge the refiners from Emuoha but Rivers had what Nigeria lacks – political will. Says Loyd: “Once there is a political will to do a thing, crime will be a thing of the past in Nigeria. Then governor came out. He came to my local government – Emuoha – and I led him to the forest. The governor trekked 10 miles! The place is not motorable. They go far into where they have these pipelines; they break the pipeline and they fix their own.”

Rear Admiral Antonio Bob-Manuel the day he was discharged and acquitted on January 5, 2005.
Rear Admiral Antonio Bob-Manuel the day he was discharged and acquitted on January 5, 2005.

That is what makes Emuoha attractive to Kpo-Fire entrepreneurs. The pipelines are on the surface. They easily graft their own pipes and take the crude they need free of charge.

All these could not happen without the involvement of security operatives. Loyd insists, “The security agencies cannot deny involvement. The governor caused the transfer of the man in charge of pipeline vandalisation in NSCDC. He became the kingpin of illegal oil refinery and the governor insisted he must leave. He was thrown out. The Divisional Police Officer, DPO, Rumuji, was also thrown out. The Civil Defence will continue to be implicated because they haven’t left it.”

He says the collaboration of security agencies is crucial to the value chain of oil theft. “How do you transport it if the end user does not see it? It will remain there. But you find the Army, Police and Civil Defence fighting to share money and they will escort them from Emuoha, through Obele, to Imo. Then they will hand over to the next set of security agencies from there who will take their share. A time was in this town when the boys cooked (refined) Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. What they cooked on Thursday was used to settle security agencies.


“When I got the information that the DPO was involved, I immediately alerted the governor. He was a security risk, an enemy of the State. And they booted him out. The State Commandant of Civil Defence was also removed because the governor insisted. If the Police and others are not involved, the illegal products cannot be transported. There’s a young major at Five Battalion, Elele; a very patriotic officer – Major Garba. He fought this menace to a standstill with me. If I called him at 2am, he was awake. He wondered why I am not a soldier. Four am, I will be in the bush and call him to meet me there. And he will be there.”

Artisanal refining is an organised crime. “It was a cartel. We seized trucks; we seized anything that was used in the illegal activity. There were instances where we set boats ablaze because they couldn’t be evacuated. We did all that to save the environment.”

Loyd was disappointed with the attitude of the Federal Government to the local fight against oil theft and artisanal refiners by the Rivers State government. “When the fight had reached a serious dimension, one day, we heard that the Chief of Army Staff, the group managing director, (GMD) of the NNPC, and the Minister of State for Petroleum, came to Port Harcourt and they had no courtesy of even seeing the governor, let alone come here. But we started the fight.”

He feels the federal government is not sincere in the campaign against oil theft and that is why the business may never end. “Imagine a situation where a ship was discovered in Gbaramatu; instead of seizing the ship and using it as evidence, they set it on fire and destroyed evidence. This is the only country that will ask a non-state actor to do the duty of the state actors. Nigeria is good at digging one hole to cover another hole.”

Unknown to Nigerians, Kpo-Fire was responsible for much of the refined products in the market. That was why their costs skyrocketed when Rivers State government dislodged the artisanal refiners.

“We discovered to our chagrin that these illegal refiners were the mainstay of the economy. The price of petroleum products went through the roof when we stopped illegal refining. It now dawned on us that these were the people holding the economy of Nigeria because once this war was started, the price of diesel went up! There was no contingency plan for the people. So at the end of the day, Nigerians are the losers for whatever rot that is going on in the system,” says Loyd.

He laments, “What are we talking about? A country where monkeys and snakes swallow money and people have the effrontery to even say it! A country where an accountant general of the nation alone will steal billions, pretend as if he is sick in court and drop the clutches when he was out of the court! This is the most dangerous place to stay on earth. Life doesn’t mean anything here. Imagine a country worse than Syria! We are now at par with Afghanistan in the Global Terrorism Index!”

Creekmen: "We are waiting for them at the pipelines."
Creekmen: “We are waiting for them at the pipelines.”

The Nigerian Navy speaks

Olukayode Ayo-Vaughan, a commodore and then spokesman of the Nigerian Navy, responded to some of the issues in contention. He revealed that from 2015 to 2022, the Navy had arrested a total of 537 vessels and barges as follows:

2015 – 45

2016 – 50

2017 – 70

2018 – 64

2019 – 85

2020 – 88

2021 – 44

2022 – 46 (September 2022)

A breakdown shows that out of these, 147 vessels are under NN Custody; 137 were handed over to the EFCC for prosecution; 12 were handed over to the Police; 17 to NSCDC; 45 to NIMASA; 79 released to owners; 29 handed over to Dept. of Fisheries, and two to NDLEA. Seven were forfeited; while three were handed over to the Federal Government; one to Equatorial Guinea; one to A – One Sy Ltd, and three to AMNI INTL Petroleum AMNI Development Coy. Ltd.

Ayo-Vaughan explains, “Some of those ships have been handed over to prosecuting agencies for prosecution because Navy is not a prosecuting agency. Some with minor offences like switching off Automatic Identification System were handed over to NIMSA. Some of them have paid fines to NIMASA and have been released.

“Some, like Pedroku, that came into our water from Switzerland. It’s a chemical-carrying vessel and did not have the required papers to come into our waters. Because of that, it was arrested and detained by the Navy. Unfortunately, the prosecuting agency did not do a diligent prosecution, so the case was turning against the Navy and had to be handled at the highest level – between the Vice President of Nigeria and the Vice President of Switzerland, and it was taken to the International Court of Arbitration on Maritime Crime.

“It went on. At one time, their officials visited Nigeria and ours visited Switzerland. An out-of -court settlement was reached. They wanted to claim fines; things our own seafarers cannot do in Western Waters they will come and do it here and go away free. They want to see us as one backward kangaroo country. There was no diligent prosecution, and the case was turning against the Federal Government. The Navy stood her ground. And though eventually released, Pedroku was detained for two years.

“The data I have given to you showed those who have been arrested over the years. Some have reached the level of final forfeiture to the Federal Government, for which the Federal Government has sold them out. It is a very long, cumbersome thing. Some are forfeited, and some are at the stage of being forfeited.

“The Nigerian Navy has patriotically been at the forefront of curbing crude oil theft with the launch of Operation DAKATAR DA BARAWO in Rivers on April 1, 2022, in synergy with the NNPC Limited.

“The successes so far recorded have been significant. So far, oil thieves have been denied oil products to the tune of more than N35 billion, and still counting. In addition to the interception of MT Heroic Idun, the Nigerian Navy’s offshore surveillance and operations has in recent months uncovered similar attempts at unlicensed loading of gas by MT Vivit Arabia in July 2022, and attempted unlicensed loading of crude oil by MT Trinity Arrow also in July 2022 – both of which happened in the Bonny area.”

In the current operating manual of the Nigerian Navy, vessels caught stealing Nigeria’s oil are to be “appropriately handled.” We asked Ayo-Vaughan what this phrase means in real terms.

“’Appropriately handled’ is a phrase coined from directive from the higher authorities, specifically the Presidency, that gave instruction that vessels, vehicles, anything found involved in crude oil theft should be destroyed in situ. That’s a directive from the Presidency, which was amplified by the Chief of Defence Staff to the Services.

On the “Orders from above”, which some Navy personnel attributed the infractions from the Service, he said, “First, before I respond to this you need to tell me those operatives because in service, there is no such thing as ‘hidden directives from above’. Where are they serving? Who are they? What are their names? In every organisation, in every family, there’s that tendency to find a Judas. Whoever have compromised, whoever is complacent, it’s good you mention their names; mention where they are serving.

“I want to say with all seriousness and all sense of responsibility that the Nigerian Navy particularly takes time before appointing officers to command our bases in the Niger Delta, which carry out operations against oil thieves. The officers that are the commanders are credible, honourable men. They know the standard of the Service; they have respect for their family names, and will not do anything of such.

“Yes, we know that sometime in 2022, there were some of our personnel that were picked up. Somebody who had wanted to start an illegal refinery himself, they were disciplined in line with service regulations. So if others are saying ‘orders from above’, let us get their names and know where they are serving.”

On Tompolo and Tantita getting better results than the Navy, he further explains, “Well, you are a Nigerian and you know the history of Tantita. The ex-agitators, particularly those in the Warri area, were the ones that built Camp 5, if you remember; before the amnesty period. The operators of Camp 5 almost brought the economy of this country to its knees. They barricaded incoming tanker vessels from coming to lift crude oil and they themselves were involved in illegal oil bunkering, including siphoning oil and diverting pipelines. These were the same people who were brought to the scene to fight the war. So what do you expect? They are from that area. They understand the terrain better; they have done the business, the criminality, before. So what do you expect?

“You have visited the Niger Delta; can you comb the creeks in the Nembe area, Opulama area, Brass or Bonny area, or even in Warri area heading out of Escravos? People got missing in those creeks for three weeks when we were in Operation Delta Safe and Operation Restore Hope. These pipelines crisscross the creeks, including some settlements and villages. So it’s almost completely impossible for one organiaation to survey the entire pipelines. It’s a job that requires a level of expertise, professionalism, technology and everything. And now, government has given it as a contract to ex-agitators who know the terrain. What do you expect? They have brought out the issue of hidden pipelines for diverting crude oil. It’s not something surprising. And they are not doing it on their own; they are working with the Commander of Operation Delta Safe.”

Loss of any personnel? “The Navy has not lost any personnel in the fight against oil theft. That is not to say the Navy has not encountered armed resistance. In some places, there have been cases of fire outbreak in some illegal refining sites, but there have been no fatalities to the best of my knowledge.”

Cases of arrested vessels escaping from Navy custody? “MT Heroic Idun attempted to load crude oil and was arrested. Now they are shouting about human rights. They escaped, but we transferred her back from Equatorial Guinea. PBT Arabia and one other vessel attempted to load gas and crude oil at different times in July 2022 without license, until the Navy accosted them before NNPC regularised their papers. These issues should also be directed to NNPC. Why should vessels want to load crude oil without licensed until they are caught by the Navy?”

How to end oil theft

Loyd says Nigeria can end oil theft by deploying technology in the surveillance of oil installations. “We don’t need non-state actors. I was told that Saudi Arabia monitors all their oil installations from one room. All we need to do is, deploy technology; use drones and get the host community involved.”

Mitee agrees. “We need to engage the community themselves in a conversation. Ask them what they want. Give them incentives to protect. Employ people from those communities. Pay them sufficient living wage. If you pay young people N250, 000 monthly and they are in the village with water and electricity, they don’t need to come to urban centres. They will stay there and work and live well. They have something to protect so they will be dedicated to the work.”

Onengiya Erikosima, spokesman of Asari Dokubo’s Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force, (NDPVF) now the executive director of Foundation for Peace in Nigeria, says pacification of armed groups is only a palliative, not the solution. “Nigeria rewards violence. All of us were in the struggle for the liberation of Niger Delta. Some renounced violence, but some haven’t. However, the government prefers those who shoot guns. They have ignored those of us who preach non-violence. Once you shoot gun, they will listen to you; if not, they will not listen to you. The solution is to empower the oil-bearing communities to see the oil infrastructure as their own. Engage with the youths directly and you will see significant buy-in from the communities and peace in the creeks.”

He feels that the various federal intervention agencies are operating above the heads of the grassroots. Consequently, the expected benefits are flowing into private pockets. Scholarships are awarded by the Amnesty Office and PTDF; the list of beneficiaries with special skills but without jobs is lengthening every year. Frustrated, they become available to oil bunkerers. Erikosima is of the view that these beneficiaries of scholarship programmes should be given jobs in the oil industry when they graduate.

Fynface says the only win-win solution is to upgrade the artisanal refining to modular refining. “The solution to the equivalent job you can give them is to set up modular refinery, where they can be engaged. I’m promoting transition from point A to point B, from where we can now have clean and renewable energy. Why I’m promoting the Presidential Initiative on Artisanal Refining is because if we modify the artisanal refining going on in the creeks now, they can be able to refine without polluting the environment and buy the crude oil without stealing it.”

Sara-Igbe insists, “If government wants to really solve this problem, they should solve the problem of unemployment in the Niger Delta.

Mitee is the oldest of those who favour non-violence. He was in the trenches with Late Ken Saro Wiwa and only escaped death by the whiskers. A lawyer and an activist of over 30 years standing, but the federal government will ignore him when executing environmental projects even in his Ogoni backyard.

“I feel disappointed that the country is such that rewards only violence and ignores non-violence. But I still believe, ultimately, if not in my generation, generations to come will find out that we stand for the preferred option. If you make non-violence to work, it is a disincentive to violence. If you make violence to work, it becomes a disincentive to non-violence. That, the world over, has seen. Everywhere you see in the world there has been that realisation, whether it is in South Africa, you see they had armed struggle, but they came back through a conversation. In New Zealand among the aborigines, there has been that conversation going on. In America, you see that for the native Americans the government made allowances for people who stood for non-violence so that at the end of the day, they will say, for doing what we are doing, this is the reward.

“What we see in Nigeria is the opposite. Shoot, shoot, shoot there! Then they will call and ask, ‘What can we do so that you don’t shoot?’ You now send message to upcoming generation that this is the way to get rewarded and empowered.”


This story was funded by the International Centre for Investigative Journalism, ICIR.

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