“Kpo-fire” is a slang used to describe illegal oil bunkering business thriving in the Niger Delta region.
It is coined from the explosive sound produced when fuel is poured on fire. In several creek communities that feed the Escravos River, which opens into the Atlantic, there are illegal bunkering sites where sweaty young men and women labour underneath massive cauldrons set across fires of wood hewn from mangrove trees to eke out a living in a crude way. The gloomy picture decorated all crude polluted communities visited during this report.
Along the creeks of Southern Ijaw Local Government Council of President Goodluck Jonathan’s home state, Bayelsa, sources said there is hardly any family without one or more of its members involved in the activity. Not surprisingly, most of them justify their involvement. “It is our people’s way of getting a piece of the national cake. Look around you; what do we have to show that we produce oil that drives Nigeria economy? There is nothing to show for it. That is why we think illegal bunkering should be legalized so that when the politicians are stealing in Abuja, we will have something for ourselves here too,” Comrade Austin Ozobo, a local activist from Ayakoromor, said in a telephone chat.
From Ugborodo, an Itsekiri enclave, which is now a hub of illegal refinery activities to Gbaramatu axis of Warri South West Local Government, around Okwuogbene and Asafama, long rows of mangrove trees lie supine, as if bowing to an invisible deity. Denuded by the absence of protective shade of the mangrove trees, the withered, empty land on which they stand shimmer with films of crude oil left behind by receding water. Everything around is black and lifeless. Across the horizon, thick plumes of smoke shaded the skyline. They bellow from clusters of massive cooking spots (refineries) in the deep of the mangrove swamp, where the oily businesses are carried out.
Kpo-fire started way back when Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo, leader of the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF) held sway as a warlord in the creeks of the Niger Delta. Asari-Dokubo had attested to the fact that any petroleum product that was not produced by NNPC within the West Africa region then was called “Asari-Oil or Fuel”.
Dokubo, who pioneered the “Kpo-fire” industry in the region now loathes the illicit trade, and had regrettably said that “Kpofire” has surpassed Shell and other oil companies 50 year plus of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta region. “Now talking about the issue of environmental degradation, I would say it is absolutely wrong how we are lying about our environment. Shell, Chevron, Total/ Elf, Exxon Mobil and other oil companies have indeed degraded our environment in the last 50 years. But…the so-called illegal local refineries they call ‘kpofire’ is worse than what these oil companies have done in the last 50 years.
“That, with our own hands, we are destroying our environment is wicked, it is evil and it is totally satanic…..we must do everything to stop it because our environment is dying…. So when we point our fingers to the multinationals, we should also point our fingers at ourselves. We are destroying our own environment because of our insatiable urge for the things of pleasure,” Asari-Dokubo was quoted to have said in an interview.
The ground is marshy and slippery due to ankle-deep sea of spilled crude oil, but the thought of daily earnings of up to N5,000, a fall and roll on the blackened earth is bearable for the labourers. These foot soldiers are usually the ones arrested by law agents. Their labour fuel the affluent bosses (chairmen), who own palatial homes in Warri, Port Harcourt, Abuja and other cities, where they drive around in expensive latest cars.
Illegal bunkering sites like those described above employ about 50,000 youths in the Niger Delta. Over two million illegal refineries are believed to be operational in the area. In spite of security agents unearthing and destroying over half a million in the past three years, the ease of setup ensures that scores spring up in place of every one destroyed. All operators need are empty metal drums, massive plastic tanks for storage, pumping machine and other paraphernalia of the illicit trade.
Huge boiling pots are constantly filled with crude oil stolen from numerous hot points drilled into pipelines of oil multinationals operating in the area. The black liquid is siphoned into huge local canoes called cotonou boats in which they are transported to the crude ‘refineries’ where they are processed mostly into Automotive Gas Oil (AGO), which sells for higher prices of about N150 per litre in the market, and transported to the cities. Criminal gangs in the oil-rich delta of Nigeria embraced this method of selling stolen crude around 2007 following a massive military operation by the Joint Task Force comprising men of the Nigerian Army, Navy, Airforce and the Police.
Prior to the setting up of the taskforce, soldiers deployed to man the gateway into the area colluded with criminal gangs to steal crude oil for a handsome fee. But the renewed clampdown has left criminals with hundreds of barges filled with crude but with nowhere to go. “What we did at that time was to device a means to empty the filled barges without losing the products or our investments. We moved them deeper into the creeks where the boats of the military men can’t reach and refined crude into petrol and diesel. These are poured into drums and tanks and taken to Warri were they are sold to filling station owners,” one of the gang members, said on condition of anonymity.
This method of crude oil theft opened the ‘market’ to more players, who now form a cartel worth a whopping $6 billion (N1trillion) yearly, according to Managing Director of Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Mr. Mutiu Sunmonu. Sunmonu said the activities are “being carried out by well-financed and highly organised criminal operations — a parallel industry with well-developed supply chain and growing sophistication.” Illegal bunkering is a money spinner.
Beneficiaries of the crime are as diverse as Nigerians. Petrol stations patronise illegal refiners because of the comatose state of the nation’s four refineries and the greed to make huge profits. “They buy the adulterated petrol or diesel as the case may be and mix them with those bought from any of the refineries. This way they make huge profit because the ‘black oil’ is cheaper,” an industry expert said.
Even multinational oil and telecom companies power their plant and generators with illegally refined fuels. Sometime ago, it was reported that a wing of the task force in Warri, swooped on a base station owned by a GSM service provider in Warri and recovered 1,500 litres of substance suspected to be crude oil crudely refined into diesel. Captain Mohammed Abdulahi, the Intelligence Officer of the 3 Battalion of Nigerian Army, who led the operation some time ago, said the product was stored in 15 barrels that were openly conveyed to the premises of the telecom firm.
“If a respected company like this can get involved in this criminal deal, you wonder how we can get people to stop involvement in this economic sabotage against the country,” Abdullahi lamented. In the same vein, Chevron Nigeria Limited, a major player in the oil industry, was almost caught up in a scandal when one of its major diesel suppliers was accused of patronising criminal gangs refining crude oil in Ugborodo, Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State.
Although the young multi-billionaire contractor could not be directly linked to the crime, the insinuation caused suspicion over the nature of the deals between the company and local warlords. Guns, arms and ammunition bought with proceeds of these deals now pose a threat to the peace and security of the area. In one operation by military men at Arunton Escravos, dozens of weapons, including Ak-47 rifles and thousands of ammunition were recovered.
Commanding Officer, Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Delta, Captain Musa Gemu, has been on the trail of these criminals in a bid to rid the region of the scourge. Gemu and his men have taken the war across several communities in Warri South West LGA where over a thousand sites have been destroyed. Despite criticisms that security agencies are carrying out economic war in the Niger Delta environment, Gemu, who was recently elevated to the rank of a Commodore, said the navy would continue to invade and destroy any camps used by criminals for illegal refining of petroleum products as well as the vessels and all items used for the illicit business.
Gemu said that since repeated appeals to the conscience of the perpetrators of illegal bunkering, vandalism and unauthorised local refining of stolen crude had remained unheeded, the authorities of the Navy had no choice but to destroy everything associated with the illegal business. He expressed the hope that the masterminds of the illegal refineries and the vessels used in the business would “have a rethink considering the heavy loss they suffer when, for example, their illegal refining camps and boats are destroyed.
Gemu said that about 936,000 litres of crude oil believed to have been stolen from vandalised pipelines in the creeks of Warri was few month ago destroyed in the latest of such operations by operatives of the NNS Delta. Commodore Gemu said his men found the stolen oil in at least nine units in three camps for illegal local refining in Egbokoda creeks in Warri South Local Government Area of Delta State.
“You (newsmen) are all witnesses to the fact that in recent times, we had stopped going for destruction of illegal oil refineries within my area of responsibility; that is to tell you that we have destroyed all. In so many places that we went, when you put the quantity together, in my area of operation, we have destroyed up to about 870 illegal oil refineries within this short period of my tenure in office.” He reiterated that the Navy would stop at nothing to ensure that oil theft in the region was completely eradicated in the waterways to save the country from losing further revenue worth several billions of naira to oil cartels.
Lamenting the menace of the illegal local refineries, environmental activists, Comrade Sheriff Mulade of the Centre for Environmental Peace and Justice, said the fate of birds, sea animal, insects and plants directly affected by havoc wreaked by illegal bunkering and other spills have wider impact on the overall ecosystem because of their effects on other animals that depend on them for survival.
Mulade, who is in the forefront of campaign to stop illegal bunkering in the region, said hundreds of lives have been lost through fire outbreak and contamination of water sources in the past years. “Most of the backward communities rely on rivers and creeks for their water needs — cooking, drinking and washing of food plates.”
“The criminals and innocent persons die on daily basis. There are numerous fire accidents on the sites. When they occur there are seldom survivors. You see a lot of our people with burn wounds, when you ask them, they tell you stories, but we know where they get it,” he said.
More worrisome for activists like Mulade and others is that oil firms like Shell whose facilities are vandalised by the criminals do not seem willing to partake in the remediation of polluted sites, especially those located far from their facilities. But the Centre for Human Right/Anti- Corruption Crusade (CHRACC), insists that the security agencies, particularly the JTF, are carrying out economic war against the Niger Delta region.
In a statement signed by its national president, Barr. Alaowei O. Cleric and national Secretary, Barr. Otuaro Jerry, said that the war against crude oil thief being spear-headed by the Joint Task Force, code named: Operation Pulo Shield, is causing more harm to the already degraded environment.
“Much as we condemned the illegal bunkering activities and recommend sustained and well-coordinated action by the Federal Government to rid the region of such illicit practices, we stand to condemn the JTF’s uncivilised practices by using wrong methods to tackle the menace.
“The Joint Task Force (JTF) in the Niger Delta has being boasting to the world that it has destroyed boats of different sizes (loaded with items suspected to be stolen crude) on the already despoilated creeks of the region. But this is highly ridiculous.
“If those stolen crude, as alleged by the JTF, is returned to the NNPC, will it not help the nation to recover some of its lost daily outputs? We want to draw your attention to the unpalatable situation in the Niger Delta region.
“The JTF is carrying out an economic war of aggression against the Niger Delta environment, an extension of what the multinational oil companies have being doing to the region through the aid of the Federal Government of Nigeria. “The Task Force on a daily basis has being destroying illegal crude oil reservoirs, refineries or boats the saboteurs use to convey stolen crude. “However, the quantity being spilled by the JTF in the environment from its unproductive fight against crude oil thief is even more than the acts of the economic saboteurs.
“The illegal crude oil business which has been thriving despite the security presence has in addition to the perennial spillages by the oil companies has completely destroyed the flora and the fauna. “We thought, with the coming of the JTF, this gross environmental abuse would be reduced to the barest minimum. However, we are surprised to see that what the task force is doing is even more grievous than the acts of the vandals.”
*this was published in the Daily Times dated Tuesday, December 23, 2014