On the trail of oil thieves, By Olusegun Adeniyi

Posted by News Express | 26 February 2015 | 4,152 times

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It had been a long day and as the session with the youth of Twon Brass came to an end at about 6:20 p.m. last Friday, we were looking forward to another two to three hour trip by water back to Yenagoa. Then, the alarm bell rang. One of the officers who had come with us on the journey whispered to the Niger Delta JTF Commander, Major General Emmanuel Atewe, that two blue-coloured gunboats and five speed boats were spotted passing from the Atlantic Ocean into the creeks. “At what time did they pass?” Atewe asked. 16:47 hours, came the reply. “And why did you not alert me immediately so we could pursue them?”

It was evident that we had an emergency on our hands but when I tried to ascertain from the JTF spokesman, Lt Col. Ado Isa, what was going on, he said there was nothing to worry about. I was not fooled, especially when all the soldiers who had been relaxed earlier in the day began to take strategic positions the moment we got back to the Jetty. It also did not escape my attention that whereas we had arrived Twon Brass from Igbomatoru with the five gunboats with which we left Yenagoa earlier in the morning, Atewe was making orders for two additional gunboats to join our convoy.

Perhaps to add to the urgency of the occasion, the JTF Commander and his men drew away from us to converse in low tones but I managed to get closer enough to hear what transpired. “From tomorrow, I want to be in the waters everyday and we must catch those criminals. But right now, I have some civilians with me so I won’t take chances. We must avoid an ambush,” Atewe said. “Which Jetty is the closest to this place?” When told that the Ogbia Jetty would take about an hour to reach, he directed that we should return through Ogbia. “But it will be a tactical movement,” he added. “I also want all the weapons tested again like we did in the afternoon. When we move, you have my order to take out anybody who fires in our direction.”

However, as the officer was shouting to those commanding other gunboats that we were now going back through Ogbia Jetty, Atewe said in a firm but quiet voice: “Pass my order with wisdom.” It was on that note that we left Twon Brass at exactly 7pm last Friday in a convoy of gunboats whose lights were turned off, thus making our return journey through the creeks somehow surreal.

I returned to Bayelsa last Friday morning for the continuation of my investigations into the menace of oil theft in Niger Delta. I believe this is one serious issue we have not been paying much attention to but which has profound implications for the future of our country. Aside the fact that we are losing billions of dollars, we may never be able to resolve the power situation if we do not deal with the associated issue of pipelines vandalisation, neither would we ever be able to have any functional refinery as things stand today. And we are not even talking of the environmental hazards or the serious national security threats being posed.

“We are losing revenue; 400,000 barrels of crude oil are lost on a daily basis due to illegal bunkering, vandalism and production shut-in. I have to clarify that it is not as if the entire 400,000 barrels is stolen, no. What happens is that whenever the pipelines are attacked and oil is taken, there is a total shutdown. All the quantity of oil produced for that day will be lost because it means government cannot sell it and it means a drop in revenue,” Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said last year. Against the background that the humongous leakage far exceeds the annual budget of several African countries combined, we can only imagine the damage being done to our national economy. But it could have been worse.

In the last one year alone, the JTF has been able to arrest 53 vessels, 200 barges and several hundreds of boats from oil thieves while destroying 840 illegal refineries. However, securing a network of 16,120 kilometres of pipelines conveying different products across the country has been nothing but a herculean task. Even though the NNPC alone has 23 depots, 19 pumping stations and 277 tanks that can store 2.6 billion litres of products, pipelines remain the most efficient, cleanest and cheapest way of carrying crude and petroleum products.

Yet to demonstrate the enormity of the problem, I understand that in the process of supplying crude to our refineries whenever they work, we lose about 20 percent to theft and when the refined products are being transported, we lose another 20 percent to this same criminal gang – all through the pipelines. Most often armed with dangerous weapons as well as drilling and pumping machines, packs of electrodes, satellite phones, night vision goggles, power-generating sets etc., the oil thieves are evidently no small players. Even the pipelines for gas – a product that cannot be evacuated by the criminal cartel – have become easy targets, essentially to sabotage the power sector. That then explains why despite the commendable efforts by the NNPC gas-to-power team led by Dr. David Ige, stable electricity may for a long time be a mirage in Nigeria with the integrity of pipelines being continually compromised.

Given the foregoing, I have always been interested in the story of the multibillion dollar oil theft that has serious implications for our economy and national security. So when last Thursday night, I received a call from Atewe, (a former course/classmate at Ife as I explained on this page on February 5 in ‘2015 Elections: A Time to Choose…5’, asking whether I could come the next morning to join his trip to Igbomatoru, one of the villages hitherto very notorious for oil theft, I did not hesitate before accepting the invitation. I took the morning flight to Port Harcourt last Friday and was picked up at the airport for the Bayelsa State capital. Incidentally, when we were about to depart the Yenagoa Jetty at exactly 11am, Atewe drew my attention to one young boy who was bathing naked on the other side. “Look at that boy, you may think he is just another innocent guy but I am almost certain he is an informant for the oil thieves. The moment we leave here, he is going to call someone to send alert about our movement. It happens all the time,” he said.

The ride on water itself was fun. With us in the JTF Commander’s boat was Elder James Oyeinebi Yague, representative of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), who became very valuable as he practically served as a tour guide, giving me historical insights on every spot throughout the two-hour journey to Igbomatoru. For instance, he showed me both the maternal and paternal villages of the Petroleum Minister, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, pointing my attention to what he described as “oceanification”, given the way waters had eaten deep into some of the villages. In one, an entire primary school had been washed away.

The journey also took us through the new airport being constructed, the Wilberforce Island at Amassoma, the Oporoma NNPC floating mega station and a neglected Rice Farm that was once reputed to be the biggest in West Africa. Interestingly, on many of the boats we encountered were children, including one who was sleeping by the edge while the mother rowed. When I expressed my surprise as to how a mother could take such risk, Elder Yague reminded me in Pidgin English: “Water no dey kill Ijaw”.

Eventually we arrived at Igbomatoru, where the villagers had been waiting for the JTF Commander, who reminded them that when he came earlier in June last year, he explained the danger of oil theft and the long-lasting scars it would leave for many generations to come in the community. “That day you made a pledge to join us in fighting the menace and we have been receiving helpful reports from you which indicate that you are living up to your promise. But in the course of that my visit, you told me that this community had no drinkable water and I promised you a borehole which I have come to commission today. It is a demonstration of the fact that we are not soldiers of occupation. Stealing is stealing, so let nobody deceive you into believing that oil theft is a normal behaviour,” said Atewe

After his remark, Atewe then presented to the community several gifts. While thanking the JTF Commander for the gestures, the community leader made more requests. Atewe was shown a near-by primary school where the roof had been blown off for months and he promised that the JTF would take up the reconstruction. And then everyone started coming with his/her own problems which they wanted the JTF to solve. It was after the ceremony at Igbomatoru that we moved to Twon Brass, which took another one and a half hours by water. There, the Deputy Amayanabo said the real challenge is not with oil thieves but rather sea pirates and drug peddlers who have become a menace in Twon Brass.

While I will continue to dig into the issue of oil theft in Niger Delta, I believe Atewe’s strategy to buy the support of the locals through his community relations efforts is commendable, especially since it is winning the confidence of the villagers who are becoming strategic partners by providing useful information about the oil thieves to the JTF. But this is one national security challenge that requires as much concerted efforts as the Boko Haram crisis in the North-East. Even while I am sure we will all come back to our senses after the elections, I hope we will not allow the problem to fester until it is too late before we realise the danger it poses to the economic and security well-being of our country.

•This piece by Adeniyi (shown in photo) originally appeared in his column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. He can be reached via olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

Source: News Express

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