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Friday 14 December 2018

Inside the creeks of Niger Delta where oil goons feed fat after bribing soldiers with millions (Part 2)

By Chukwuemeka Chimerue, Chief Editor | The Biafra Times

December 15, 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.

There Are More Than 300 Refining Units Around Here

Navigating across the creeks, plumes from afar and near rent the air, and the waters had turned black— it would appear a pool of black oil. Instead of lush vegetation expected of a riverine area, the trees by the banks are dying, and this is traced to the continuous activities of the either the illegal refining of crude oil or as a result of oil spills caused by the activities of oil companies around them.

“Most of the waste we discharge finds their way into the river,” Opusunju gives reason for the contamination.

“You know we have more than 300 units of this kind of refinery here, and most of them have been operating since 2012” he added.

Along the way, he would stop by some islands to check if they have products.

“Sometimes, if we don’t have enough products, we get from the others and they, too, do come to us when we have in abundance.”

We Work With The Navy, Marine Police, NSCDC And The Army

Police officers often wait to collect their shares at Borokiri.

The area is not easily accessible to those who are not in the know of the business. This reporter had posed as a potential buyer who wants the product in large quantity, and it took days of back and forth discussions before an agreement was reached.

At short intervals as he sails, Opusunju brings out his telephone to make calls, and he is heard asking, “is the coast clear?”

After two weeks that he has been out of the creeks, he explains, it is important to keep in touch with those inside so their movement is guided, especially when the news before leaving Bille jetty is that, “new federal troops are on the water”.

“We know those that are there, but when we hear they have brought in new ones, we would try and play safe,” he says.

“You know, this thing we are doing is illegal business and we must be careful,” he admits, saying it is such a profitable business, of course, with its high risks. “It costs about N15 million to set up a refining unit, but in one week of full production, one will make almost a double of the money,” he says.

We drove inside Port Harcourt sea, where oil thieves are doing business with ease. Things, however, have been running smoothly for them because they have to their side security operatives deployed to watch over the crude oil pipelines.

“We work with navy, marine police, NSCDC and the army. Although, before, it was war, they know us now.”

When a helicopter belonging to the Nigerian navy flies over the water, Opusunju wouldn’t raise his head. He keeps his clam, and laughs. “They see the flames and they know we are illegally cooking crude oil.”

For Opusunju and others, the matter is already handled as long as you ‘settle’ the security operatives.

“We do give the security operatives their own share,” he says. “They will only give you problem when you are greedy, and or you move to the federal line to get crude without putting them in the know.”

To move a loaded barge to and fro, the oil thieves say, they pay up to N1 million to ‘settle’ security operatives on duty. Barges are moved on a weekly basis, giving the operatives an avenue to illegally rake in millions.

Illegal Refined Products Do Not Have The Required Numbering

Opusunju: “They see the flames and they know we are illegally cooking crude oil.

Akuma Oji, a technical assistant at the centre for gas refining and petrochemical (CGRP) at the University of Port Harcourt, says that they’ve known about the oil theft in the area as far back as 2008.

“We felt they take crude, and initially we didn’t know what they do with it,” he explains.

“We later found they take the crude and sell them off. Super tankers from abroad would come and lift them to other countries. It was an assumption though, that those people come to buy them at cheaper rate.”

Within 2010 and 2011, Oji says they started noticing how the business of illegal refining of crude was now on the rise. The researchers were carrying out an environmental impact study in the areas where oil companies operate when they saw this.

“We know they used to refine in creeks far from where people are, and the military had always tracked them, destroying the facilities. But recently, the activities are happening even in nearby places and it is like a compromise on the part of the security operatives.”

He explains that the crude oil contains many fractions, and when properly refined, gasoline is obtained from the light end and others from the heavy end.

“But since those in the creeks do not have the separation techniques, they just waste other things after getting diesel.”

Apart from the effect on the environment, Oji says the product from the illegal refineries is not good for engines.

“By blend, this product doesn’t have the required numbering. There are light and heavy diesel, but these guys can’t differentiate, they only keep heating the crude and wouldn’t know when the light diesel had gone.”

In the standard refinery, catalysts are added in the heating process for effective separation of the products.

“Thermal conversion will separate the fractions, and catalytic conversion cause the heavy fractions to turn to light and instead of having those residuals.”

Oji says what illegal refiners are able to get is just about 30% from the whole, and this is, definitely having an effect on Nigeria’s economy.

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

The academic, however, suggests the way out is for the government to reach an agreement with those involved in the illegality.

“It may be difficult for the government to stop this, because people are daily joining in this business. Even the military guys are taking their own share and using force might not work again. I believe we can train these guys and help them improve.”

In 2017, the government had announced that 10 modular refineries were being developed in Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Delta, Edo and Imo states. With a refining capacity of 300,000 barrels, the government said it would ensure self-sufficiency of petroleum products while serving as a disincentive for illegal refineries and oil pollution. But the project is yet to see the light of the day.

The Thriving Business

Nigerian refineries are mostly non-functional, and a considerable number of filling stations across Rivers and Bayelsa states rely largely on products from the ‘river.’ Products are loaded in barges, different sizes of boats and moved to the shores in Port Harcourt and other places for delivery.

Tankers come as far as Kano and Kaduna states to get products from the illegal refineries down the south.

“It is always available and cheap,” a tanker driver in Port Harcourt says.

Before leaving for Kalakurama, Opusunju would check on one of his customers around Borokiri area of Port Harcourt whom he says was owing about N2 million, money for products delivered to her weeks ago.

Every corner in Borokiri are stores stocked with these products and transactions are ongoing without interference of police who are expected to check on the illegal activities.

Behind the police station in the Marine Base area of Port Harcourt is a flowing river whose bank serves as another oil trading hub. Strangers, when noticed, are quickly accosted by some teenagers, pulling them to their side, and giving the prices of what they have in stock.

The products here are, mostly, diesel and kerosene.

As early as 7am, a particular model of Toyota Camry cars waits by the riverbank to load products. The products are carefully emptied from the drum into large size nylons, tied and put in the boot.

At the entrance of Okrika town, just opposite the Port Harcourt refinery, is an array of women and men with different sizes of flat-sided containers filled with the products. Motorists, small-scale business owners are regular visitors of Hilary, a middle-aged woman whose rack is located by the pipes running into the refinery opposite her.

“We get our supply, mostly from the river,” Hilary says, admitting the products are from illegal refineries.

Economic Hardship In Nigeria

The harsh economic meltdown in the country has also contributed a great deal to the activities of the oil goons, making the country to lose about N3.8 trillion within the last two years. NNRC estimated the financial value of what Nigeria has lost to be higher than the country’s 2018 budgets for health and education.

“Over the last decade, oil theft has risen to unprecedented levels, peaking between 2011 and 2014. The inability of the government and oil companies to curb this epidemic has made Nigeria the country most plagues by oil theft in the world,” the report read.

In 2015, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had said Nigeria loses about 400,000 barrels of oil daily to thieves and this amounts to about N4.8 billion. He had promised that the government would priotise the security of the oil sector, not knowing that the security personnel are part of the shady deal.

At a programme in June, Ibe Kachikwu, minister of state for petroleum resources, spoke on the need to checkmate the activities of those perpetrating this act.

“For the fact that vessels can actually come through the security corridors and pick up oil is even much more troubling. It may not have been oil, it may have been arms. Something needs to be done in terms of security and environment as well as the economy of the country.” he had said.

Poverty, unemployment and poor governance, NNRC, in the recent report, identifies as major reasons for the emergence and sustenance of oil theft in Nigeria.

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