They surrendered their firearms to the government under the Amnesty Programme with a pledge to eschew criminality but inside the Niger Delta creeks, the militants run well-coordinated oil theft and illegal refinery empires, posing grave danger to health, environment; and robbing the country of several billions, reports Precious Igbonwelundu.
Scores of metal tanks of about 10,000 litre-capacity each littered vast expanse of lands with choking stench of petroleum products that leaves the uninitiated feeling drowsy, almost suffocating. Tents with makeshift double beds and mosquito nets, rain boots, flip-flops, clothings and kitchen utensils were a common sight everywhere.
There was also an empty sachet of anti-malaria tablets, two bottles of palm oil, litres of engine oil, as well as an unfinished bowl of Eba with a soup plate in one of the tents, apparently hurriedly abandoned at the sight of advancing naval gunboats towards the murky waters.
Welcome to Bakana, Bennett Island and Ibafa Creeks in Degema Local Government Area (LGA) of Rivers and Warri South LGA of Delta States respectively, havens for crude oil thieves, illegal refining of AGO, Kerosene and a ready market for transnational buyers in the Niger Delta.
At Bennett Island and Bakana creek, this reporter, who was among journalists selected by the Nigerian Navy (NN) for an educational tour of creeks in the region to better understand the challenges of combating crude oil theft saw fleeing suspects strip themselves and dive into polluted rivers to evade arrest, abandoning their products and equipment.
Crude oil theft in the Niger Delta is endemic. Several suspects have been arrested, including teenagers, expectant mothers and vessels laden with petroleum products impounded by the Nigerian Navy and other security agencies but the practice has continued unabated. According to a 2013 report by Chatham House, the illegal refining industry is worth as much as $8billion.
There have been allegations that these criminals work in cohorts with top staffers of indigenous and multinational companies, political elites, community leaders and traditional rulers, thus making it almost impossible for security agencies to contain the situation.
These illegal refineries have pipes running through the backyards of some houses close to the jetties, from where the criminals load the products into waiting boats.
Aside Bennett Island and Ibafa, creeks in Ugbodede, Yeye, Ugbegugu, Chanomi, Ekpemu, In Jones and Yokri said to be among the 900 illegal refinery camps identified by operatives of Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) DELTA across waterlogged communities of Delta State, were also visited and the presence of thick black oil on the surface of the river, dead trees and soaked deep into the swamps were evidences.
There were underground pipes connecting crude oil reservoirs suspected to have been siphoned from well heads along the Trans-Forcados by the criminals who ran other pipes to various tanks and dugout pits, such that diesel, kerosene and the waste products go into different channels from their heat ovens through hoses and metal pipes.
Despite the 2011 Ogoniland report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which revealed unprecedented concentration of benzene, a carcinogen and hydrocarbons occasioned by oil spillages that has polluted air and water; oil theft and illegal refineries still persists in the Niger Delta.
In some instances, UNEP’s study showed benzene concentrate in outdoor air were 900 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) benchmark, while the contamination of drinking and ground water posed serious threat to human health and distortion of the ecosystem and would take up to three decades to clear.
Although the federal government had approved the establishment of modula refineries as a way to checkmate crude oil theft, which according to the Nigerian Natural Resource Charter (NNRC) robbed the country of N3.8trillion between 2016 and 2017; the syndicates involved in the crime have continued.
In a report released this month, Shell Petroleum Company (SPDC) stated that crude oil theft on the SPDC Joint Venture (JV) pipeline network resulted in a loss of around 11,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2018, which is more than the approximate 9,000 bbl/d in 2017.
The multinational firm blamed illegal refining and third party interference for 90% of the spills of more than 100kgs of SPDC-JV pipelines last year.
The report revealed that over 1,160 illegal theft points have been removed by SPDC alone since 2012.
“Oil spills due to crude oil theft and sabotage of facilities (referred to as third party interference), as well as illegal refining, cause the most environmental damage from oil and gas operations in the Niger Delta.
“The number of sabotage-related spills of more than 100kgs in volume in 2018 increased to 111 compared to 62 in 2017. The sharp increase in 2018 can (in part) be explained by an increase in theft activities in a pre-election year; availability of our production facilities following repair of a major export line in 2017; price of crude oil and refined products that is seen as an opportunity for more illegal refining.
“This demonstrates that continued air and ground surveillance and action by government security forces to prevent crude oil theft and illegal refining remain necessary,” it stated.
Disturbed by the continuous vandalisation of oil installations and pipelines with attendant losses to the country, the Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas in 2015 launched the Choke-Point Management and Control Regime, which saw the deployment of Naval Security Stations (NSS) or Houseboats anchored permanently at strategic/problematic areas on the waterways to monitor and intercept vessels suspected of illegality. This practice succeeded in driving the criminals from the sea, following the arrest of suspected illegal bunkerers and interception of petroleum products alleged to have either been stolen or gotten from illegal refineries.
Trapped in their enclaves, the criminals resorted to opening one-stop shops in their camps, where their clients come to with drums, kegs and specially constructed waterproof boats to purchase crude oil, diesel, kerosene or bitumen in commercial quantities.
Hence, the CNS, with the approval of President Muhammadu Buhari, commenced the swamp buggy operation to consolidate the gains recorded by the chokepoint regime. This operation, according to Commander NNS DELTA, Commodore Ibrahim Dewu, involved the deployment of armed personnel to dislodge the militants, station armed personnel on the recovered sites and ferrying swam buggies to the location to crush, bury all the equipments used by the criminals.
He said this strategy was adopted instead of setting fire on the camps to avoid a further pollution of the environment and also because the metals used by the criminals were fire resistant.
“This terrain is a difficult place to enter. You can see how long it took us to walk inside from the boats. The officers and men we deploy with the swamp buggy sleep inside this place. It takes them four hours from the Houseboat to this place and you can now understand why you must be properly kitted before coming here.
“The criminals know that fire will not destroy their tanks and so, sometimes, they even set traps for our personnel. They will spray the place with petrol and once they sight our personnel advancing, they will light fire and then jump inside the water to prevent the navy from destroying their camps.
“So, what we do now is ensure that men are stationed in advance before the swarm buggy is deployed. Another thing they do is go after the owners of these swamp buggies and warn them against hiring to the navy. They used to threaten them that they will burn their machines and kill them if they hired the excavator to the base. Hiring is also expensive.
“That is still a problem, although the state government has purchased one for the base, which is what we are using now. But one is not enough. In order to completely send those criminals out of business, we need to have at least 10 swamp buggies. That way, we will achieve more results.
“We brought you here to look at the expanse of land that these illegal refineries are situated and for you to also appreciate the extent to which these criminals are damaging the ecosystem and the environment. You can see a similar structure behind me with the finished product in the tanks.
“In a camp, you can have more than 50 structures of illegal refineries. For example, if you look around you will see so many of them on this land and they have damaged the land to an extent that there is no life left.
“All the trees are gone. It also gets into the water and damage the aquatic life.
“This is one of the menaces the navy has been fighting in our back waters.
“In April 2019, we carried out an operation in this very Bennet Island and destroyed most of the illegal refineries with the swap buggy. Just three months after, the criminals have reconstructed and commenced their nefarious activities again,” Commodore Dewu said.
On whether the navy has the manpower to address the situation, Dewu said the service was collaborating with sister agencies and currently appealing to community leaders/traditional rulers through the local and state governments, to dissuade their youths from such practices.
“If you say the navy should station personnel on all the sites, how many will we do? This is just one camp site and you have over 50 illegal refineries scattered across this over seven acre.
“Then, across the state, we have identified 900 of such. So, how many men are we going to deploy? Another thing is that once you discover and destroy it, they move to new locations. This is what is happening these days. We will continue to do our best.
“We understand that it is not a fight for the navy alone. It is something that requires all hands to be on deck. We are currently partnering sister security agencies in the state in order to deploy more hands and have more stations closer to such illegal camps, so that the criminals will be prevented from coming in.
“We have brought the issue up at the state security council meeting and approached the local and state governments to hold meeting with traditional rulers and community leaders in order to bring an end to this problem.
“Recently, the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC) Eastern Naval Command visited the Olu of Warri and other monarchs in Delta and advised them to talk to their youths and community members on the dangers of illegal refining of crude oil.
“There is no way such things can go on in communities and the members of that community will not know. We need people to understand the danger these activities pose to their health and those of their loved ones. They should also understand that these criminals rob the country of resources that would have been used for development for the good of everyone,” he said.
In Rivers State, the Commander NNS PATHFINDER, Commodore Sam Bora, said there were 700 identified illegal refinery camps, which the base was also destroying with swamp buggies, which became a necessary approach, given the resilience of the operators of these illegal sites to regroup.
Bora showed reporters two new swamp buggies acquired for the base by naval headquarters to aid its operation, noting that the anti illegal refinery operation has led to drastic reduction of sooth in the state.
He said one of the challenges facing the base was the prolonged stay of arrested vessels in its jetty, which poses threat to mariners along that channel, adding that the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) had been contacted to evacuate products from some of the vessels arrested since 2015.
To the naval headquarters, the solution to the problems of crude oil theft, pipeline vandalism and illegal refinery require the collaboration of all stakeholders.
“We cannot completely eradicate the problem without the traditional rulers, community leaders, state and local governments and traditional rulers. In Nembe, Bayelsa State, reduction in illegal refinery has enabled the revival of aquatic life. We have been able to deal with activities of these oil vandals, such that fishing has been enhanced and people now get sardine fish.
“There is ongoing capacity development for the production of military operations charts to specifically meet maritime operational and intelligence needs, especially in the aid of riverine operations within the nation’s backwaters,” the navy said.