oil thieves

FOR stealing 3,423.097 metric tons of Nigeria’s crude oil, nine foreigners were each sentenced to a five-year jail term by a Federal High Court presided over by Ibrahim Buba in December.

Their ship – MT Asteris – is to be forfeited to the Federal Government. The oil thieves comprised five Filipinos and four Bangladeshi, who were, however, shown an escape route with the N20 million option of fine granted them by the judge. This is tantamount to blowing hot and cold at the same time in dealing with a cancerous problem.

Therefore, there is not much to cheer about this judicial pronouncement. Buba was right when he said that activities of these rogues had made the country a laughing stock in the eyes of the world. They deserve to be paid back in their own coin. “The court must send a strong signal that Nigeria is a nation; not a nation of booty,” he said. Ironically, the judge vitiated the message. Even locals in the trade would have jumped at the leeway he provided in the fine, let alone international criminals in a multi-million dollar business. They will easily secure their freedom, return home and prepare to stage a come-back. This is sad.

Apparently, a hands-on approach has yet to be discovered in dealing with this enigma. Had it been the case, the arrest and detention of these foreigners since March 27, would have led to the smashing of the local syndicate that aids their illegal operations. Until a fatal blow is landed on their Nigerian collaborators, the trade will continue to undermine our oil market.

Nigeria’s crude oil theft has in the last four decades grabbed international headlines. The country tops a global ranking of five countries where oil theft is most notorious, according to Oilprice.com. Others are Mexico, Iraq, Russia and Indonesia. In 2006, federal authorities freed 12 Russians who were held for 23 months for the same offence after they were sentenced, but were later released simply because of diplomatic pressure from their home government. Russia could not have succumbed to such arm-twisting from Nigeria.

The Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, quoting figures from oil companies, said that Nigeria lost about 160 million barrels of crude worth $13.7 billion to theft between 2009 and 2012. Chatham House says, “Nigeria’s crude oil is being stolen on an industrial scale.” It estimates that an average of 100,000 barrels is stolen daily, adding that proceeds are laundered through the world’s financial centres and used to buy assets in and outside the country. It names military officers, militants, oil workers, oil traders and community leaders among those who benefit from the illegality. This is why the dubious venture has yet to buck the trend.

This resonated at the 2014 National Constitutional Conference. Edwin Clark, a leader from the Niger Delta region, said as soon as the trend started in the 1970s, he alerted the then military government whose investigation into the matter traced the phenomenon to military personnel. Such military conspiracy was evident in the circumstances under which MT African Pride, a ship laden with 15,000 barrels of stolen crude, escaped in 2003 while in the custody of the Nigerian Navy. Another ship, MT Jimoh, also escaped. The two ships were among the 15 impounded during the period. It was a national embarrassment that saw the House of Representatives Committee on Petroleum chaired by Anthony Aziegbemi, plunge into the depth of the scandal; and ultimately recommended sanctions against errant military officers.

The then Chief of Naval Staff, Samuel Afolayan, and a former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun, appeared before the committee with conflicting accounts. “It is my responsibility to arrest (impound) the ship and another (agency) to prosecute. I have made the arrests and handed over, and it is not my duty to do anything beyond my constitutional duties,” Afolayan submitted. However, Balogun’s reply showed the Navy was hiding behind a finger. He charged, “MT African Pride reported missing by the Navy was never, I repeat, never in the custody of the police. The ship was on the high seas where the police have no access to them (it).” He challenged Afolayan to produce his handover note, with which the ship changed custody between the two services. Though, nobody was interested in unravelling the truth, nothing could be more revealing.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s disclosure in July that some officials of the Goodluck Jonathan administration were sucked into this malfeasance, lifting up to 250,000 barrels per day up to June 10, after he had taken over, shows how entrenched the cartel is, and incalculable the national loss. At the sidelines of the 70th United Nations General Assembly, the President thanked his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for his country’s effort in intercepting ships carrying Nigeria’s stolen crude. Pleas for a similar assistance had gone to other world leaders.

But it is at home that real work needs to be done to tame this monster. As the Minister of Petroleum Resources, he has to come up with an empirical construct that will tackle the concerns often expressed by the Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta region that suspects handed over to the police for trial are often re-arrested as they return to illegal bunkering. Action needs to be taken to strongly convey to the bandits within and outside that this illegality does not pay, and to strengthen our penal regime for maximum result.

The engagement of the three services – Navy, Air Force and Army – in maintaining the integrity of our oil infrastructure and coastal waters, instead of surrendering them to militants and ethnic militias represents a paradigm shift. However, it will be of little or no effect if these security agencies are not well equipped with helicopters, boats and high-tech gadgets for aerial surveillance, patrol of the creeks and monitoring of oil pipelines breaches.

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