Illegal oil bunkering is not new in the Niger Delta. It is institutionalised. It is not a theft by a bunch of idle and hungry youths. Rather, it is ‘an industry’ with syndicates that handle various aspects of the illegal oil bunkering business. Many of these syndicates lay claim to having top government officials as partners and initiators. Others claim they have top officials in the forces (police, army, navy, air force) as well.
It is an industry that has birthed a few other atrocious industries, such as:
- Militia recruitment agencies
- Specialised offshore militia training agencies
- Specialised gun running and smuggling outfits
- Gas and naval document forgers
- South-south militancy
- Specialised kidnapping
- Specialised pimping and commercial sex service provision, and even
- Specialised ‘protection charm’ witchdoctors
The Need and the Birth
Today, the oil bunkering business has added yet another feather: The illegal crude oil refinery industry.
For over five decades, crude oil and natural gas have been extracted from the Niger Delta, by large corporations, which have had their share of environmental disasters. The ongoing damage from the tapped pipes and these make-shift refineries continue to take a terrible toll on the environment and the local population.
There seems to be some level of competition among these syndicates. In some regions, they have developed a timetable so that they can take turns. As the years go by, more syndicates want to get their hands on some oil money. More players meant that even the smaller syndicates needed to spread out more and quench their thirst on crude oil pipelines. Gradually, their channels for disposing off the crude get clogged, and to keep the easy cash flowing, a new industry was born. They began to engage youths to refine some of the crude oil, right there in the swamps.
As wild as it might sound to some people, it is true. Bandits began to engage youths to refine the crude oil for them. The demand for this locally refined diesel, amongst other needs, grew and more pockets of these open make-shift refineries sprouted. They refine the crude oil with simple, but dangerous methods.
Exposure to Risks
The method involves heating up the highly inflammable petroleum to extreme and explosive temperatures, and in close range with open flames. These local refiners have no protective gear whatsoever. They are exposed to fumes and, continually, inhale thick fumes that have blackened the entire environs of their crude refinery. They are exposed to naked flames under extreme heat that damage their eye sight. They are exposed to huge explosion and massive burns. As expected, many have lost their lives doing this job. Every day at work is a date with death. Every turn at flame may be the last.
Nonetheless, the increasing demand for these services and the lure of money is more pleasant than the abject poverty that thrives in their homeland. Statistics show that, although the country makes an estimated $448,000 billion on crude oil daily, the average person in the Niger-Delta area lives on less than $2 a day.
Needless to say that these youths are, basically, descendants of hunters and fishermen, a craft they have almost lost. The ecological damage from oil spills; a result from the menace of illegal oil bunkering, attacks on oil rigs and wells, as well as a hazard of oil excavation and transportation, has sent the wildlife, aqua-life and their habitat to neo-oblivion. The pummelling standard of education and the soar of unemployment have, over the years, encouraged illegal oil bunkering.
The Dangerous Refining Process
The process of refining a typical local crude oil is very crude. A couple of these barrels are suspended in mid-air and set over a huge flame. The crude oil is boiled in the barrels with massive flames until the diesel in the crude evaporates and passes out of the barrel through an old pipe that is set into the barrels and cooled by water. The diesel drips through the pipe into a container. The container holding the diesel is only a few meters away from the open flames. The adequacy of the containers and pipes are worse than questionable.
The flames are lit and kept burning by pouring oil into it at intervals. The flames rise high and the youth must pour in oil and flee fast or get burnt. Also, coming to such a close range of a heated barrel of crude oil could mean death. The young men take turns at the flames. If there is an explosion, then that is it. The death toll in such occupational hazard is always very high. The entire set up is simply lethal.
Due to its illegality, these refineries are hidden ‘settlements’ in the swamps. The swamp is the wrong place to have such an activity because the pollution from this activity is deep and lasting, and the nature of the swamp is such that everything in its biological and ecological make-up is very delicate. A typical refinery is surrounded by blackened pastures and trees and dead marine life. The Niger-Delta region endures spills and the leaks, attacks, and a cycle of violence leaves the region plundered. So, any further pollution is heart rending.
The story of Nigeria’s legal refineries is the story of the 70s. The legal refineries were crippled a long time ago and Nigeria focused on exporting raw crude oil for billions of dollars, so much that it cannot meet the demand for consumable fuel of its own people. There have been plenty of talks about reviving the refineries, but it has been more of talk, backed with no action. The progress has been minimal. The hike in the price of these consumable fuels only increases the demand on these illegal refineries.
Illegal, yet Visible
In spite of being planted amidst the swamp, these illegal refineries are really not invisible. It is not possible to create such flames, explosions and smoke without drawing attention to oneself. These further points to the institutionalisation of oil bunkering and perhaps, even of illegal oil refining. Any helicopter flying over these areas would point them out just by identifying the flame, smoke and the blackened small craters. There would be other better set-up operations as the youths began to master the craft, but these were all ignored as insignificant because they only get a small token of the illegal oil bunkering ‘business’. Then all of a sudden, the spotlight was on them and they are labelled as “the hole” in the national purse.
Corruption lies in the heart of it all; from the ‘oil money’ in the hands of the Federal Government to the billions being carted away through illegal oil bunkering. Despite the regions vast wealth, there is so little development and so much penury that illegal crude oil refining, with dangerous make-shift contraptions, is considered a job by its people. An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of crude oil, valued at ₦1.5 billion is stolen daily, carted off by dugout canoes. Clearly, they are sustained by a small fraction of the illegal industry.
Refining crude oil in this manner is dangerous and many people, world over, have called on the government to put an end to it. As expected, many others have sympathised with these youth, who are only trying to eke out a living in the near-hopeless situation they have found themselves.
The Joint Task Force (JTF) policing the Niger Delta claimed that it had destroyed over 6,000 illegal refineries and arrested a number of oil thieves. Curiously, this was announced after the oil subsidy saga and the nationwide protest in 2012. The joint task force was moved from ‘Operation Restore Hope’ to ‘Operation Pulo Shield’ and wanted to look effective.
Upgrading the Illegal Refineries
About 6,000 illegal refineries, operational in the country, were reportedly destroyed by the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) last year. Some of these ‘refineries’ were, actually, rickety ‘science projects’ being over-glorified by calling them ‘oil refineries.’ But be that as it may, among existing thousands of illegal refineries, there is likelihood that there will be a good number of well set-up refineries among them. The illegal refinery industry has been around, for years now, and has grown a little.
So, can a country that is unable to ‘afford’ putting its four legal refineries in full working condition, afford to destroy illegal refineries?
The poorly set up make-shift contraptions are dangerous and should be done away with. Those youth should be engaged in better set-up refineries instead of arresting them. If there are good ‘petroleum product factories’ out there, then why should they be destroyed? This is the origin of the call for the upgrade of few illegal refineries.
The reality is that, even those make-shift contraptions are proof positive of the ingenuity of the average Nigerian. Nigeria should have some shame and refine its own oil. We have the brains and we, truly, have the money. All we need is the technical know-how which we can acquire.
Nonetheless, the same old questions arise: exporting raw crude and importing finished petroleum products is very lucrative for certain ‘cabals.’ Would reviving these four legal oil refineries be taking the food out of their mouths? Is the sudden clampdown on these illegal refineries a pointer to a future of ‘privatised’ oil refining; foreseen and nipped in the bud before it also takes the food out their mouths?
A Breath of Fresh Air
Thanks to the richest black business mogul, Aliko Dangote, for proposing a $9 billon refinery project in Nigeria. Could this be a breath of fresh air? We wait to see how this plan materialises.
It is not the first time that ingenuity is aborted before the foetus is established in the womb; far from even being born. The same questions arise with the nation’s electricity supply and why other alternatives, such as wind, solar, coal and the good old hydro electricity have not worked. Nigerians are pointing fingers at the multi-billion naira market of power generator sets.
Those 6,000 refineries were a lot of employment provision created without the help of the government, but destroyed by it. More refineries have been destroyed for sure, and more are being targeted for destruction to prove to Nigerians that the task force is working. Yet, militancy still exists and terrorism is still budding. Also, massive illegal oil bunkering continues; perpetrated by the inner caucus which the JTF looks away from. Perhaps, the government needs to be reminded of the reason it exists: to serve its people and build their industries, including that of those youth seeking means for survival.
Government should find ways to help restructure and achieve transformation of these outfits, instead of simply criminalising them to the rebound of major business interests. They should be licensed and structured into efficient production units, underlined by quality control. The existence of the ‘illegal refineries’ should be seen as a manifestation, not necessarily of criminal intent, but of survival initiatives that should not be suppressed. Rather, such initiatives should be harnessed within the ambits of the law.
Minimising the problem of unemployment entails creating opportunities and encouraging independent initiatives of the people, across the country. There is no doubt that the illegal refineries provide employment for some people in the area, ironically, reputed for its poverty, rather than affluence. Hence, an ingenious transformation of the make-shift refineries could provide further employment for the people and redirect their energies from social vices, which pose threat to national security, to more productive ventures.