By G9ija

Chiemelie Ezeobi reports that the recent unearthing of a pipeline vandalism syndicate by the Western Naval Command at Baruwa in Alimosho, Lagos, again brings to the fore the need to tackle this economic sabotage headlong

Countlessly, pipelines belonging to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) have been breached, with the nation suffering losses of petroleum products running into billions of naira. The NNPC facility is a strategic national infrastructure for refined petroleum products to be distributed across the county, so sabotage of any nature spells grave danger to Nigeria’s economy.

With the huge revenue derived from crude oil, pipeline vandalism portends grave danger for the nation’s economy. In 2000 alone, about 300,000 barrels of crude oil were stolen per day. An International Centre of Reconciliation study puts the total value of stolen crude oil and disrupted oil production between 2003 and 2008 at approximately N14 trillion.

In 2011 alone, Nigeria lost about $7 billion to crude oil theft, a clear but whooping difference from the value of crude oil lost between 2003 and 2008. A Nigeria Natural Resource Charter (NNRC) report on crude oil theft in Nigeria revealed that the government lost about N3.8 trillion between 2016 and 2017. That figure has tripled over the subsequent years. Last February, NNPC pegged crude oil in the hands of saboteurs and vandals at an average of 200,000 barrels per day. This was a giant climb from 70,000 barrels per day as of August 2020.

The Niger Delta, synonymous with oil theft and destruction of oil pipelines, is not the only place economic saboteurs are exploiting Africa’s most populous nation. At Baruwa, one of the suburbs that dot the Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos, an oil heist was recently discovered. Vandals had dug a manhole after vandalising one of NNPC’s pipelines enough to leak crude oil into the criminals’ receptacle with pipes and hoses connected to the manhole, a conduit that supplies fuel into waiting tankers for onward transportation to buyers.

Tipped off by anonymous sources, the Western Naval Command (WNC) of the Nigerian Navy swooped in and intercepted four trucks laden with petrol. Although the interception was carried out in a joint operation with the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) personnel, the Flag Officer Commanding of the naval command, Rear Admiral Jason Gbassa, attributed the success to intelligence gathering.

“This was possible as a result of the intelligence we received for some weeks, and we have repeatedly been on this case. Yesterday we set up and discovered four trucks came into this area,” stated Gbassa. “The striking thing is that within a built-up area like this, people had the effrontery to carry out illegal acts.”

Unfortunately, the squad could not capture the suspects who fled the scene, leaving behind their trucks and appliances.

“You will recall that some weeks ago, four people who were involved in similar incidence and were sentenced and handed over to the Nigerian Correctional Service,” the FOC disclosed, adding that it takes technical skills and enormous resources to muster the kind of operation.

He added, “We will do our best to make sure it doesn’t take place here again and other places we have identified. If we put together these four trucks with a capacity of about over 90,000 litres multiplied by N165, you will go into the range of about N15 million for just one night’s operation for a group of people to rip off the nation.”

Beyond the economic damage of the criminals’ activities, there are health misfortunes pipeline vandals bring upon communities.

“The fumes from this activity alone is a threat to their health and even to the environment. I thank the people of this community because they were the ones who provided the intelligence, and I appreciate other security agencies who collaborated with us in carrying out this activity,” the naval officer explained. “I urge them that we continue in this collaboration and synergy in going forward that the collaboration will get better and we will get more results in the pursuit of perpetrators of such crimes.”

The NSCDC Commandant of the Lagos command, Eweka Okoro, is committed as Gbassa to bringing economic saboteurs to book. He warned pipeline vandals to steer clear of oil infrastructure. “These vehicles are purported vandalised vehicles used to vandalise the Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) trucks on the right of way,” said Okoro.

Often, the recovered products are handed over to the PPMC for storage, pending the court’s decision. In this case, the FOC said it would move the four trucks to base and hand them over to the appropriate agencies for further investigations. “Similarly, we will ensure to follow up on this same case to see to it that we conclude effectively to make sure that the trucks are forfeited to the federal government,” he added.

One part often neglected in the scheme of things are buyers of the stolen oil. “On our part, we will continue to pursue the perpetrators in order to know those who are behind the sponsorship of these illegal acts and see to the end of such acts sabotaging our economy,” said Gbassa.

gathered that the entire process is run as a cartel: the vandals siphon the products, package them, and sell them to the highest bidders. Sometimes, it is transported to different parts of the country and sometimes to neighbouring African countries.

Destruction of pipelines and subsequent stealing of crude oil is more sophisticated than being a mere operation of vandals. It is an organised crime run by a cartel of economic saboteurs.

Given that these oil pipelines belonging to the NNPC are virtually on the ground surfaces, vandals dig boreholes kilometres away from the pipelines and siphon the products. The products then run into the boreholes, which they fill into kegs and drums, even tankers. The stolen products are then sold to the buyers within Nigeria and neighbouring countries at cheaper rates.

These illegal activities have led to a significant loss in revenue accruable to the government and damages to strategic installations that require a colossal amount of money to repair.

In early 2017, the authorities were forced to shut down the 76km stretch of pipeline running from Atlas Cove to Mosimi Depot for 11 months due to severely damaged pipelines. The repair cost the federal government billions of naira.

According to NNPC, between October 2018 and October 2019, the nation recorded 2,181 vandalised pipelines. In the monthly financial reports of NNPC, mined by Premium Times, 1,161 pipeline points were vandalised across Nigeria in the 21 months between January 2019 and September 2020.

The data revealed that the acts of vandalism happened across five pipeline axes nationwide. It noted that the Port Harcourt axis of the pipelines recorded the largest share of the ‘pulverized points’ within this period, with 538 points damaged. This is followed by the Mosimi-Ibadan axis, with 535 points damaged. Other oil pipelines in Gombe (46), Kaduna (32) and Warri-River Niger (10) accounted for the remaining oil pipelines theft in almost two years.

Aside from the huge financial toll on the nation’s lean purse, the report also noted that from January 2019 to January this year alone, repairs of the pipelines and other facilities came at an outlay of about N15 billion. Of which a third of that amount was expended within two months. Just last May, NNPC spent about N3.2 billion on repairs. Prior to that, March 2020 gulped N2.6 billion for the same purpose.

Inevitably, damaged pipelines have led to pollution of the maritime environment and, in some cases, fire disasters resulting in the loss of several lives and properties. Environmental pollution is also rife. The 2011 Ogoniland report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) revealed an unprecedented concentration of benzene, a carcinogen and hydrocarbons occasioned by an oil spill that pollutes air and water in the Niger Delta.

In some instances, UNEP’s study showed benzene concentrate in outdoor air were 900 times higher than World Health Organisation’s (WHO) benchmark. It noted that the contamination of drinking and groundwater posed a serious threat to human health and distortion of the ecosystem and would take up to three decades to clear.

Although the federal government had approved establishing modular refineries to checkmate crude oil theft, the crime has not stopped.

Pipeline vandals may not be working alone. Stakeholders are fingering corrupt officials as part of the criminal enterprise. This past checks at Festac Town revealed vandals had insiders who unplugged pipelines and connected them to the vandal’s hose buried underground.

It is to curb the menace of pipeline vandalism, oil theft that Operation Awatse, a joint operation led by the navy, was borne. Its mandate entails protecting NNPC pipelines within the right of way from Atlas Cove to Mosimi, where billions of naira have been lost to pipeline vandals.

Launched in December 2019, Operation Awatse has, over the years, engaged in series of operations within the corridor seizing various petroleum-related materials from criminals.

Industry watchers and stakeholders want pipelines to be more secure, urging security agencies to go beyond arresting to successfully prosecuting.

Also, there is a continuous need for speedy dispensation of justice and forfeiture of vessels used in the crime. In such cases, the navy has appealed to the judiciary and prosecuting agencies to fast-track the trials to save the cost of maintaining, securing the vessels and other exhibits the prosecution agencies do not have facilities to keep.

Stakeholders also suggest partnership among security agencies, not leaving the fight to the navy alone. Also, the agencies cannot successfully tackle the criminals without citizens, traditional rulers, community leaders’ support.