Confirmed: Military Involved In Oil Theft

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By Constance Meju

Participants at the validation display copies of the research publication

Transparency International in conjunction with Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Center, CISLAC organized a validation session on a research they jointly conducted on “Military Involvement In Oil heft” in Nigeria Thursday June 13, 2019.  Venue was Landmark Hotel, Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

Welcoming participants drawn from civil society organisations, media and community representatives, CISLAC programme officer   said the discussion paper, outcome of the research arose from the fact that Nigeria loses 200,000 barrels of crude oil everyday to oil theft and this affects the federal revenue and deliverables to citizens. He said the situation is made worse by claims that security personnel charged with the responsibility of guarding against the theft are aiding ad even participating in the crime.

He said the recent accusation by the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike that the Army leadership is involved in the theft added to a pertinent need by Transparency International and CISLAC to conduct a research on the matter to ascertain the truth or otherwise.

The programme officer explained that the stakeholders have been invited to validate the findings of the research being operators in the oil and gas impacted areas.

According to the research report titled, “Military Involvement In Oil Theft in The Niger Delta: A Discussion Paper: “The Niger Delta is the most important oil producing region in Africa with its oil providing 70 per cent of Nigeria’s government revenue. However, alongside the legitimate trade in the Delta’s oil products, there is a lucrative and organized illicit oil trade that reported loses Nigeria 200,000 barrels of oil every day”.

“Participants in oil theft also called oil bunkering, steal oil from pipelines, refine the oil, and then sell it to local, regional and international markets. It is a profitable criminal industry that cost the Nigerian government N3.8trillion (approximately UD$1056billion) in 2016 and 2017,” the report further stated.

It noted that beyond the economic loss, “the human cost and environmental pollution have similarly, been significant”. Regular spills of oil caused by oil theft and sabotage it said, have “polluted the waterways, contaminated crops and other food resources, and released toxic chemicals into the air”. According to the research, in 2017, reports emerged that oil spills doubled the risk of child mortality in the Niger Delta.

Though the Joint Military Task Force, JTF was deployed to the  region since the early 2000s to checkmate militancy and protect pipelines from oil theft, there have been indications that some JTF members are complicit in and often benefit from precisely the pursuit are mandated to eradicate; the illicit oil industry.

Categorically, the report stated: “Existing research suggests that members of the Nigerian Armed Forces have enabled and benefitted from the illegal trade in a number of ways. Often this benefit comes from providing protection both ensuring military officials turn a blind eye to illegal activity and protecting oil thieves access to extraction points from rivals in exchange for financial bribes. A Chatham House report has suggested that JTF officers have stood guard at illegal tap points and provided armed escorts to ships loaded with stolen crude.

“Similarly,  a 2015 report from the stakeholder Democracy Network, SDN reports JTF members active involvement in oil theft, from providing security to local oil thieves as they install taps that divert  oil from pipelines to collecting transportation taxes for vehicles transporting oil and demanding regional security payments from illegal oil refineries for ongoing protection. The media also suggested that soldiers know the locations of the illegal cooking pots but are often paid off not to close down oil theft rings and maintain an overview of the illegal operations. 

To gauge the scale of practice and depth of military involvement, six independent researchers conducted interviews and focus group discussions in the region between February and July 2018 and discussions took place in Nembe and Yenagoa, Bayelsa State and Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Participants were drawn from local communities familiar with the illegal oil operations. The researchers further observed busy scenes at several illegal oil refining points.

Outcome of the exercise revealed complicity of the military in protecting operators or feigning a blind eye in exchange for money.

“One participant who is familiar with illegal bunkering in Bayelsa State indicated that tapping occurs with the knowledge and complicity of military personnel”. According to him, the military, “know the location of every tapping point and the names of every individual or group who controlled them”.

In Cross River State, researchers were told of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC state-owned pipeline being routinely targeted for oil theft operations.

“The extraction points identified by interviewees were less than one kilometer from the Nigerian Navy Base, NNS Victory and the Nigerian Navy training School. The proximity of  tapping points close to military establishments suggest at best, awareness of the scheme and at worst, active participation”.

The vulnerable especially women pay up fast to avoid harassment. ”Women are also involved and pay up promptly being more vulnerable”.

“My waterfront is a joint where all the forces, army, police, navy, in Rivers State come to collect their share”, a highly placed stakeholder stated.

Focus group participants reported witnessing some JTF members being closely involved in oil theft from the NNPC pipeline and receiving a share of oil products in return for providing cover and protection while Rivers State residents reported on trucks being escorted by police and military personnel regularly approach the pipeline at night, inserting valves and hosts and filling two or three tankers with oil as armed military and police personnel provided a security perimeter.

Operators of illegal refineries told the researchers that the JTF knew exactly where the bush refineries were located and how they operate used that to knowledge to extract payment. “The JTF knows where every cooking pot in the Niger Delta is; they know how to get there, they know who owns it and they even have their phone numbers”.

The interviewees alleged that the sites burnt by the JTF running into 100s, are acts to intimidate operators into submission to agree to their terms. “How can the military claim that they are looking for oil thieves when they have invaded the entire waterfronts and communities? No, they came to cause fear and damage to our communities to instill fear so that those who do bunkering will pay”.

While environmentalists decry burning of illegal refinery sites and tankers caught with stolen crude as it devastates the environment further endangering lives. Some communities claim that what is actually destroyed are not the refineries but dumps containing flammable waste from the refining process.

Payments to the military are said to be regular and scheduled while non-payment attracts punishment. From Bayelsa State came the disclosure that, “after an illegal refinery failed to meet a deadline to pay an operational fee of N4million (approximately$11,000), military officers arrived on the site and opened fire, allegedly killing one person and demanded an extraN200,000 ($550) for the delay.Next day, N1.7million was to the military personnel with a promise to pay the balance of N2.5million($600) later”; reminiscent of a drug movie scene.

And from Rivers State, a worker associated with illegal refineries recalled a meeting with police and army personnel of unknown unit which purpose was to ensure the illegal worker delivered his regular payment to the security personnel.There was a payment he could not deliver on as scheduled due to delayed communication in the illicit trade network-the contact in the oil company had not given him signal to go ahead and siphon crude oil and as such, he had not produced from that well as scheduled.The army officer had to personally call the oil company insider to confirm the truth and was told time was risky.

So evident is military involvement in the transportation of this theft business that an interviewee summed it up thus: “It is impossible for any person to transport even a drop of product on these rivers without first getting the understanding of the military. Nobody will will expose his investment to that type of risk. There is no hiding; they will find you and the punishment for trying to bypass them is that your produce and the boat will be burnt.

Even before the boat man agrees to give you his boat to carry product, the first question is, ‘Have you settled security?”

Validating the findings, stakeholders confirmed the involvement of the military in oil theft in the Niger Delta both as security providers and sometimes as participants in the business. They lamented that while government is fighting to stop illegal oil business, the military representing the armed forces,are facilitating the evil act. They however, noted that government is not taking adequate care of the security personnel to fortify them against being lured into the illegal lucrative trade.

The stakeholders described illegal oil trade as a failure of the Nigerian state, exhibiting fundamental flaws in our system noting that the oil theft is a ring connecting high ranking personnel while posting of military officers to the Niger Delta and oil sites are influenced. They said it is the duty of government to play its part by holding citizens accountable to their assignments and office.

Though the importance of the military in the protection of lives and properties in the Niger Delta in particular was acknowledged, a noticeable lapses in the governance system were identified  including, obvious lack of transparency in the country’s security operations as well as clear human and environmental rights violations.

To change things for the better, the stakeholders recommended the publication of officers nabbed colluding with oil thefts as a deterrent to others as they called on the federal government to come clean on oil operations by declaring how much is coming in, what quantity of oil is stolen. They stated that when government shows transparency, oil communities will be encouraged to support moves to end oil theft in the region.

Government was also charged to resolve the Nigerian crisis as oil theft is very well tied to politics and resource control and stop destroying illegal sites, tankers and boats loaded with products as the survival of Nigeria depends on a healthy Niger Delta. Establishment of large tank farms for storage of trapped stolen oil was recommended to help save the environment and help government gauge correctly,the quantum of oil lost to theft.

Use of ICT to anonymously monitor and protect activities in the industry was recommended as well as high level advocacy to military leadership by civil society to promote non-involvement.

Niger Delta governors were challenged to be more specific in condemnation of parties involved in the illicit trade including the military to help track and sanction them.

Oil companies operating in the region were also charged to do the needful on quality control in line with international best practices to block room for leakages that encourage bunkering.

#Gender And Accountability

#Kebetkache Women

#Stop Oil Theft

Constance Meju is a gender equity and environmental justice advocate and publisher of Port Harcourt based National Point Newspaper