Oil theft - known as bunkering - in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region is soaring following a brief lull, leading residents and community leaders once again to call on the federal government to do more to address the area’s chronic under-development.
Thefts and vandalism of oil pipelines diminished in 2011 and 2012, partly due to the initial success of Oil Field Surveillance Limited (OFSL), which the government set up to monitor and report on oil theft but shut down in September 2012 after its head, ex-militant Ekpemupolo Tompolo, was sacked for allegedly not running the operation properly.
OFSL staff mainly comprised ex-militants and employed over 100 people at its height. It was part of the government’s 2009 amnesty programme to provide jobs for local youths. Some 27,000 Nigerians surrendered their weapons and signed up to the amnesty programme which included vocational training, and a fixed-term US$410 monthly salary.
Locals had complained to the government that OFSL was poorly managed, spending money on ghost workers, jeeps and other equipment. Many had disapproved of the programme, seeing it as a means of paying off criminals.
Isitoah Ozoemene, a political science lecturer at the State College of Education in Niger Delta oil town Warri, told IRIN: “The security they are talking about involves using ex-militants previously involved in vandalizing oil pipelines, giving them free money to do anything, and saying they are patrolling oil facilities. We have a government that compensates criminals, so more criminals come forward.”
Others say OFSL was the best solution for a bad situation: Only by giving youths jobs, will criminality abate, and as locals, they know the area and situation better than outsiders.
Julius Malam-Obi, former OFSL head of operations in the Isoko South local government area of Delta State, told IRIN oil theft has shot up in Isoko South since OFSL disbanded. His crew of 75 people used to go into the creeks on two-week shifts to search for oil bunkers and illegal refineries, which they would report to the authorities, he said.
Oil thefts have prompted corporations Shell, AGIP and Eni to close down operations in some parts of the region in March, and none have yet fully resumed their operations. According to the managing director of the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), the enterprise was losing an average of 60,000 barrels of crude oil per day (out of an estimated total production of 150,000 barrels) to oil bunkering, which represents a surge since January 2013.
Military attempt crackdown
Since September 2012, the military Joint Task Force (JTF) has controlled oil survey operations across the region. JTF media coordinator Lt-Col Onyema Nwachukwu said so far in 2013 they have arrested 498 people and seized 18 boats.
“These arrests reflect our unrelenting effort to eradicate oil theft while making the illegal business increasingly unrewarding and frustrating for perpetrators by scuttling their apparatus,” he told IRIN.
In 2012 they arrested 1,945 suspects and destroyed 4,349 illegal refineries, 133 barges, 1,215 open boats, an unspecified number of illegal fuel dumps and tankers, over 5,500 surface tanks, and 36,000 drums of illegally refined products, he added.
But despite these efforts, thefts continue to soar. So many people benefit from the theft - from locals and low-ranking soldiers to local politicians and top political and military men - that it is almost impossible to stamp out, said Jackson Timiyan, a community leader in oil-rich Gbaramatu Kingdom of Delta State.
There are high levels of collusion between security forces, residents and oil workers in oil theft, say environmentalists and community activists.
All these groups make deals with oil theft cartels, including the JTF and the navy, said political science lecturer Ozoemene. “We have a very corrupt regime. JTF is made up of lowly paid officers and everybody wants to catch up with oil wealth.”
JTF’s Nwachukwu denied the allegations and said whoever had concrete evidence should bring it forward. JTF lacks the manpower required to control over 6,000km of pipelines simultaneously, he added.
Locals say ex-OFSL members are now returning to criminality. Jackson Timiyan explained why: “These youths are from the underdeveloped communities and they think these oil facilities are their own and [they] must be part of it, and since the government is not giving them enough reasons they will think that government is exploiting them,” he told IRIN. Others have turned to piracy, he said.
This spells danger, which residents are all-too familiar with, following years of violence from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and other militant groups. Some 1,000 people were killed and 300 taken hostage in the Niger Delta in 2008.
Meanwhile, locals continue to endure polluted water, poor schools and a seriously impaired healthcare system, despite years of campaigning. Agriculture is the mainstay for most residents, yet extraction, exploitation, oil spills and gas flares have decimated much of the delta, killing fish and ruining ecosystems, say environmentalists.
Rather than clamping down on ex-militants, they should be further empowered not only to track criminality but also to make money from oil legitimately, said Ozooemene. “Nigeria is the sixth largest oil producer in the world and has a reputation of being unable to refine crude oil… Where is the sense that it produces it and then has to later import the refined product? These persons should be employed to do the job,” he said.
While such a strategy appears unlikely to be implemented any time soon, what is clear is that continuing alienation, corruption, environmental degradation and unemployment could further boost insecurity in the delta region.