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Monday 12 November 2018

Inside the creeks of Niger Delta where oil thieves feed fat after bribing soldiers with millions (Part 1)

By Chukwuemeka Chimerue, Chief Editor | The Biafra Times

November 12, 2018

The collusion has been going on for decades, it’s just that it has risen really high now with the economic downturn. It’s no secret that security personnel who get posted to the Niger Delta region return from their tour of duty with inexplicable wealth. It’s now a lost battle because those meant to fight the problem have since become part of the problem.


Nigeria has lost more than N3 trillion to oil thieves in the last two years, according to a report Nigeria Natural Resource Charter (NNRC) released in August. Being an economy dependent on oil, the activities of these ‘saboteurs’ constitute a major threat to the finance of government. To check oil theft, the government of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan engaged “reformed” militants to protect pipelines. Although this did not lead to the total eradication of vandals, it reduced the criminal act.

The current administration, however, revoked the contracts and made new arrangements but the creek manors are still having a field day. Operating across hidden islands in the Niger Delta, the oil thieves siphon products from pipelines of oil companies in the middle of the night and refine them before disbursing to willing buyers.

Disguising as a potential buyer and at some point a researcher, our impeccable source uncovered the operations of the vandals who confessed to rendering security operatives powerless with bribes running into millions of naira.

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From the Bille jetty in Port Harcourt, Rivers state, the boat snaked through sleeping rivers to the wavy sea, and after four hours traversing the waters, docked at Kalakurama, an island of about 100 dwellers – mostly fishermen, and those into the business of illegal oil bunkering.

Just a few kilometers after Bille, the largest island on the route, is the heavy presence of security operatives whose uniforms and insignia on gunboats gave out as those from the Nigerian navy. Like the experience with the police on a road journey, boats, when approaching the patrolling naval gunboats would move at slow pace, with passengers’ hands in the air for what can be described as stop and search.

Bille jetty dock

Within this region where the officers are seen, are tens of high-pressure pipelines — bearing the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) brand— running deep into the sea.

“That’s where we get the crude from,” Opusunju, a 35-year-old man who left his driving job for illegal oil bunkering, taps this reporter gently on the shoulder as the boat sailed away from the naval officers’ muzzles.

Curiously raising an eyebrow at Opunsunju to check the possibility of beating these heavily armed security operatives to access the pipelines, he responds with a smile that suggests this, the least of worries for the oil thieves.

We Do This In The Middle Of The Night

Surprisingly, the journey wouldn’t end at the shore of Kalakurama, where teenage boys are tending to a dozen boats filled with cans, and docked by the island. The boys, whose oily bodies glitter under the mild sun, are conversing in Hausa. Most of them had come from the northern part of Nigeria. They work here under the supervision of those in the illegal business.

“It is from here we start the journey to where we operate,” Opusunju says, as he is welcomed by Patrick, his partner. “Those boys are the ones we use to help load products from our refinery down here,” he adds.

The island, hidden between the waters, Opusunju and Patrick describe as a safe haven for their business. Before now, they had operated from an island on the other side of the river, but they moved to Kalakurama when they became targets of security operatives and the original dwellers couldn’t accommodate them anymore.

“Nobody comes here except fishermen who live here and some of us who are into this oil business,” Opusunju says, untying his boat from its anchor. Commercial boats that convey passengers from Port Harcourt stop and turn back at Bille, but only a few would agree to reach Kalakurama. It is from here Opusunju, and others in the business with him, pick their own boats and head for the inlet where the crude oil is being refined. The sun is setting, and as Opusunju ignites the engine of his boat, he hands rain boot and a head torch to this reporter.

“We operate in the middle of the night, but I need to go check first if we have products left to be moved.”

The operations are in stages - starting from those who burst the high-pressure pipelines to get the crude oil.

“We get the crude from the federal line,” he says, making a note of the pipelines sailed past after Bille.

“There are people who would trace pipes running from under the sea to the flow-station. We then hire highly technical welders who dig deep, open the valves running with the crude oil, and connect our own pipes, diverting the crude to our loading boats.”

Loading empty cans

A loading boat, he explains, is sometimes big it has the capacity to take more than 300,000 liters of the crude.

“You only need a little opening from the valve and the crude starts gushing, because of the pressure, and in one night, we can load six to seven boats. We do this in the middle of the night, because during the day Shell, who has the highest stake, are moving up and down with their chopper, looking after the pipelines.”

When the boats are loaded, the crude oil is then moved to the substandard refineries.

Only Diesel Is Processed, Others Waste
On fractional distillation of crude oil in a standard refinery, not less than 20 products can be obtained, and this includes gas, petrol, kerosene, lubricants, and asphalt.

The technologies to get the best out of the crude oil, however, are not available to Opusunju and his fellow operators in other creeks the reporter visited. When the crude is brought to their creeks, it is transferred into tanks where it undergoes heating process.

After moving about 30 kilometers away from Kalakurama, Opunsunju pulls the boat over, and with this reporter, he walks carefully through the oily and marshy ground up to where tanks of different sizes are erected.

“This is our own refinery,” he begins.

There is a tank - sitting on what looks like a furnace that collects the crude oil, and it has pipes running into the next tank that serves as a coolant— supplying water on the running pipes, and from here a lone pipe runs into the third tank that collects the product(s). The tank serving as storage, after each production, would take at least 500,000 litres of the product.

“We put the crude inside this tank we call oven or pot, and this other one water is pumped in to cool these pipes because when the crude is being cooked everywhere gets so hot.”

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“Cooking” the crude

He explains that after hours of heating, the products are being separated and through the second tank, it comes out from the lone pipe.

“The fuel, kerosene, and diesel come out as only one product which is, diesel and the heaviest,” he says.

“There is no way we can separate them, so all of the products will form into diesel, and that’s all we are after.”

After diesel has been extracted, other possible products are discharged through pipes as waste.

Spread all over the area is sediments of asphalts which Opusunju regrets they are left to waste.

“A small sack of this alone sells for N3,000, but nobody is able to come here and we can’t move them out,” he says.

“We leave other products to waste, and it is this diesel we are able to get we load into market boats to sell to waiting customers.”

Sometimes, they get kerosene but in a smaller quantity.

“In a production, we may get six or seven drums of kerosene, where diesel is in hundreds of drums.”

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