Nigerian oil theft is an international enterprise
It happens at night, under cover of darkness. Thieves move into the mangrove swamps and creeks of Nigeria's southern
Niger Delta region, homing in on the oil pipelines that criss-cross the area.
They puncture the lines or open their valves, siphoning off crude and refined oil into barges or trucks. These vehicles then head for the nearby coast, where their cargo is deposited into the bunkers of large ships, including fishing trawlers.
"The method is simple. Some foreign vessels will be stationed somewhere at sea, waiting for their collaborator
vessels from Nigeria to take crude oil or even refined products for onward shipment to countries all over the world,"
says Tony Esan, a former naval officer who was involved in patrolling the coast around the Niger Delta.
"Some of these fishing trawlers you see around are not really fishing. Underneath you will see tanks which they normally use to take oil either as crude or refined product illegally out of Nigeria," he told. Thanks to the inability of coastal authorities to monitor the area properly, illegal bunkering has become a thriving business.
Certain oil refineries in West Africa are believed to depend almost solely on crude oil stolen from Nigeria, which
produces more than 2 mm bpd of fuel. A percentage of the stolen oil also finds its way to Eastern Europe and Asia.
Although the Nigerian government says local communities in the Niger Delta are actively involved in bunkering, the
communities lay most of the blame at the door of well-organised syndicates.
"I can say there are syndicates that are responsible for the vandalisation of oil pipelines. Prominent people are involved. They have barges in the sea," says Edward Onofe, former deputy chairman of local government in the Okpe region.
It is a view shared by Esan: "Illegalities are being perpetrated at the sea year in, year out by some Nigerian collaborators along with some foreigners."
Allegations of foreign involvement were lent credence recently when Tafa Balogun, headof the Nigerian police,
announced the arrest of 307 people for illegal bunkering. Thirty seven of them were foreigners, including eighteen
Russians, two Romanians and two Georgians. Thirteen of the Russians have since been charged. They were detained off
the Nigerian coast late last year in a Greek registered ship, and accused of transporting 11,300 tons of crude oil
valued at about $ 3 mm, without a proper licence.
Twelve other foreigners from neighbouring West African countries were also arraigned recently on similar charges. Nigeria's law prescribes life imprisonment for any one found guilty of illegal bunkering, which costs the country $ 3.5 bn every year. In the past, those arrested for this crime have rarely been sent to jail. But police say the latest prosecutions are indicative of a new urgency in fighting the crime.
Patrols of the Niger Delta are being stepped up with assistance from the United States, which has donated seven ships
to Nigeria under a bilateral security assistance programme. Inrecognition of the fact that oil theft would fizzle out
were it not for strong demand, authorities are also focusing their attention on the markets where stolen oil is being
One of these is in Cote d'Ivoire which has a refinery that is said to get a regular supply of stolen crude from Nigeria. The two countries have signed an agreement under which 30,000 barrels of oil would be supplied each day to the Ivorian refinery to try to stamp out the trade in pilfered fuel.
In addition, oil multinational Anglo Dutch Shell -- which has sustained considerable losses from illegal bunkering --
has suggested a system of chemical certification to curb the trade. Under this system, it would be possible to use
chemical analysis to determine the country of origin of any oil that is suspected of being stolen. Shell is
responsible for about half of Nigeria's current oil production.
But, in the time it takes for these efforts to gain momentum, bunkering is taking a toll on local communities and the environment. After puncturing pipelines to steal oil, the thieves tend to leave them leaking.
The resultant spills have proved detrimental for vast expanses of forests and farmlands in the Niger Delta -- and
have also led to fires. These often occur when poor villagers attempt to scoop up the leaked oil. Pipeline fires have
claimed more than 2,000 lives in the last six years, with one of the most devastating incidents taking place in Jesse
village in 1998. The blaze left about a 1,000 people dead, and scarred the community in any number of ways. Bad burns
have left some of Jesse's villagers permanently deformed, while many children who lost their parents to the fire have
been left without proper care.
"Most of the children are suffering," says Benjamin Oniovosa, whose wife died in the blaze. "Some died after the death of their parents because there is no proper care. Some of them died because of lack of food and lack of maintenance."