The discovery of oil and its subsequent production in commercial quantities no doubt introduced a new paradigm in the social political cum socio economic history of Nigeria. It launched Nigeria into another level of economic promise and prominence while also introducing the country to many other realities. At first, it brought a major change to the revenue of the country in terms of specific sector contribution and changed, positively, the total revenue available to finance development. Nigeria rose to become the 12th largest producer of oil and earned that promised among communities of nations with a privilege seat in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
On the other hand, the discovery and subsequent production of oil in commercial quantities and export and sale of highly valued oil products dangerously encouraged the neglect of many other economic sectors and subsectors. Beyond this, Nigeria got introduced to a new form of crime to be known as oil theft which now threatens not just the socio economic survival of the country but the ecological wealth of the nation with a multiplier impact on the agriculture sector which Nigeria may have to fall back on in a worst case scenario.
Oil theft refers to the stealing of oil. It is sometimes called illegal bunkering and that requires an understanding of bunkering. According to the Department for Petroleum Resources (DPR), in its guidelines on Bunkering 2014  ‘Bunkering means the process of supplying fuels, including but not limited to, Automotive Gas Oil (AGO), Fuel Oil, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) & lubricating oils to users in the marine environment.’ The guidelines provide details on who, when and how bunkering operation should be carried out. This directly implies and serves to define ‘illegal bunkering’ as any form of bunkering whose operation fails to comply with the relevant regulations of oil bunkering in the country. Over the years however, illegal bunkering became a convenient euphemism for oil theft. In a typical Nigeria parlance, the prefix ‘illegal’ is seldom used. This makes it convenient for criminals to prefer the identity of bunkering to armed robbery. Just recently some group of criminals confessed to bunkering but repeatedly denied involvement in armed robbery in which process they were apprehended. Oil theft or illegal bunkering is a major challenge to oil production and marketing and occurs in diverse forms. It affects many other oil producing countries with Nigeria ranked in the top five ahead of Russia, Mexico, Iraq and Indonesia.
Oil theft happens in many ways and could involve different levels of individuals in a network or groups of independent networks. In whatever form and regardless of what personality is involved, oil theft involves illegal acquisition and sale of oil either in its crude form or professionally or artisanal refined forms. Various methods are applied to steal crude: the thieves either hack into and tap crude flowing through pipelines or directly tap the wellhead by removing the Christmas Tree (a structure on the well head) and attach a hose to siphon the oil into waiting small barges which are later loaded into larger ships on sea. Another form of stealing takes place at the oil export terminals through excess lifting of oil by licensed operators. It involves forging of loading documents like bills of lading to enable the loading and transportation of amount of crude beyond the licensed amount. The stolen crude is sometimes refined within the creeks of the Niger-Delta through artisanal refinery processes, exchanged for arms and drugs, refined in some small refineries across the world or sold through a syndicate specializing in illegal oil sales around the world. Artisanal refining involves use of crude or artisan technology often metal pipes and drums welded together in which crude oil is boiled and the resultant fumes are collected, cooled and condensed in tanks and sold for local consumptions to serve energy needs. The exchange of crude oil for arms and drugs relates to a long history of militancy operated in the Niger Delta. Sometimes, top politicians and security personnel form part of the syndicate. Factors that ccontribute to the prevalence of oil theft include corruption, poverty, ineffective law enforcement apparatus and dysfunctional institutions.
The effect of oil theft can be felt in every aspect of development in the country. This is partly because oil contributes a major part of the revenue of the nation. Oil theft deprives the nation of resources that should be available to develop and grow the economy. Between 2009 and 2011, the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) estimated that over 136 million barrels worth $10.9 billion was lost to crude oil theft and sabotage. In another estimated by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former minister of finance and coordinating minister of Nigeria’s economy, over 400,000 barrels of crude oil extracted translating to N7 billion is lost daily to the activities of oil thieves. Also, crude oil theft, sabotage and artisanal refining are the main sources of pollution in the Niger Delta today. Oil theft activities also lead to violent conflict among networks and with security operatives and many times result to deaths.
One of the challenges that have obviously been handed over to the new government is the problem of oil theft. It is well known that every government in the past had to fight oil theft in this country. A major breakthrough was the amnesty program which was carried out by the government of President Shehu Musa Yar’ Adua. All the armed groups operating in the Niger Delta were granted amnesty and required to surrender their arms and desist further from militancy. The militants went through rehabilitation processes and received various welfare packages from government as incentives to stay away from the crime. Also a Joint Task Force (JTF) comprising all the forces was constituted to patrol the Niger Delta to prevent and to combat criminals. The JTF became a very strong force to survey the pipelines and provide security for oil installations. Some ex militants were also controversially contracted to provide security for production and distribution infrastructure in the delta.  Some level of international collaboration was also procured over time. The government of Olusegun Obasanjo introduced the accountability programme collaborated by a group of NGOs which formed NEITI. But what should the President Mohammadu Buhari administration do differently on oil theft? The Buhari government was first challenged by Seal the Crude, a non government initiative, to roll out a policy strategy to combat oil theft. Since then, the government has approached the situation with noticeable zeal even though there remains to be seen a clearly articulated holistic policy direction. It appears by recent arrest and pronouncements by the relevant organisations that they are more determined to carry on the task of combating oil theft. But thorough investigations and prosecution remain a challenge: investigation into the activities of certain persons in government who may be linked to oil theft must be done with the aim of prosecuting them. The restructuring of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) by the new government it is hoped, will introduce more discipline in the management of the sector to include quality security and coordination of efforts to eliminate oil theft. There is also need to increase cooperation with the international community on combating the theft and sale of the stolen oil. Also, the proceeds of stolen oil traceable in many accounts across the world must be returned back to the federation account. This will deter others who may be attracted to the crime to have a rethink. Countries where the stolen crude is refined should be engaged towards ending this practice. Metering of the well heads would help determine the quantity of crude produce as a baseline to be able to easily identify what quantity is missing in the system and at what point. This will help check diversion of crude or excess loading. Other areas where modern technologies could be applied include electronic processing of loading documents. This will reduce incidence of forging of bill of lading and other documents. Social approaches should be adopted to raise a generation that would be turned away from stealing oil. This can be achieved true pear education programs and campaigns on the dangers of oil theft. Investment in aggressive campaigns and sensitizations through the media and other avenues should be considered. Also, efforts must be made to solicit the cooperation of the communities to help participate in the surveillance of pipelines passing through their communities. The communities may network to work with relevant authorities or stakeholders may be enhanced through appropriate capacity building and deployment of social media platforms to report activities of thieves. Addressing social economic challenges facing the communities could serve to provide alternative means of survival for many of the young people. Government should invest in aggressive education provision and agricultural development in the Niger Delta.

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Hemba, a Programme Officer with Seal the Crude, an advocacy organization against oil theft, writes from Abuja

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