There are various dimensions to the malaise of oil theft, and while it seems these may be well known to the authorities, the surprise is that the action of the oil thieves is still a long way from being curbed.
Experts have offered a graphic picture of how substantial quantities of the country's crude is stolen daily. Some of these include: Rupture of pipelines to siphon crude oil into barges or shallow draught tanker vessels for subsequent transshipment to mother tanker vessels offshore (sometimes over 20 nautical miles offshore). This is outside Nigeria's territorial waters (12 miles), but within the country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ - 200 miles).
Pipelines may also be ruptured and crude oil siphoned into barges, drums and deep canoes for local refining within the creeks.
The first dimension was most prevalent before 2003, when Nigerian Navy was non-operational and thus maritime patrols were very limited. With the transfer of the former US Coast Guard (CAT Class) to the navy, patrols were intensified and several tankers were impounded.
Some of the vessels could still be seen at the Defence Jetty, Marina, in Lagos. The quest to reduce crude oil theft under Admiral Samuel Afolayan resulted in the arrest of over 30 tanker vessels. This led to appreciable reduction in crude oil theft since most of the feeder vessels were out of operation.
When the navy disrupted this supply chain, the people involved in breaching pipelines started looking inwards for sale. With shortfall in local demand occasioned by non-performing refineries, crude refineries within the creeks started distilling siphoned crude oil into petroleum products for local distribution and sale.
However, it is believed that there is a gradual return to the post 2003 situation, albeit not on the same scale. Pipelines crisscross the creeks of the Niger-Delta.
Some of these creeks are not navigable and can only be accessed by small shallow draught craft, so naval patrols are a challenge due to the dearth of suitable patrol craft. However, what happens is that when the criminals breach a pipeline, they affix hoses to distances up to one kilometre away from the pipeline.
The point of fixture to the pipeline is well concealed as well as the hoses, which are immersed within the swamps. It is exceedingly difficult to identify or locate.
What may be noticed is a receiving barge one kilometre or so away, in another creek far removed from any known pipeline right-of-way. If one were not informed, you would never know what the barge is doing. Alternatively, the long hoses feed local refineries far off into dense creeks.
When the barges are full, they are towed to vessels within the channel either at anchorage or at berth to transship. Some of the vessels engaged in this type of illegal activity wait at anchorages with other legitimate vessels (some waiting to lift products from either the Warri or Port Harcourt refineries). Trans-shipments from the barges take place at night.
When these smaller (feeder) vessels receive (usually under 10,000 tons) enough stolen crude from various barges, they sail out of the channel mostly late in the evening or at dawn to rendezvous the mother ships offshore at distances of about 20 miles or more.
Curbing the Menace
Three possible operational approaches have been listed. These include intensifying round-the-clock patrols offshore with focus on the river channels (Forcados, Escravos, Bini, Bonny, Brass, Sombrero, amongst others) with Offshore Patrol Vessels and filling the creeks and waterways with naval presence by deployment of high speed interceptor shallow bottom craft.
There is the need for human intelligence cultivation and deployment of sources within the target area to acquire actionable intelligence. It's also important to acquire and deploy technology to enhance regular surveillance of the area to enable the initiation of naval forces as may be necessary.
Such technologies include, pipeline Wave Control Leak Detection System (WCLDS), Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV), Surveillance Cameras (with infrared) and gaseous sensors mounted on telecommunication towers in the area. The gaseous sensors are capable of detecting smoke emanating from illegal refineries within a specific range.
Government must be seen to prosecute and punish those behind illegal oil theft. It is not enough to parade sailors whose vessels are impounded, while those behind the act are left unpunished. Legal sanctions would serve as deterrence.
Issues of widespread corruption across the board among the security agencies have to dealt with. Some security agents are known to compromise with some of these criminals. The incentive for their action, of course, is the huge material benefit, albeit illicit. That is the reason posting to the Niger-Delta region is seen as lucrative in military circle.
A military officer who wants his identity shielded has however blamed the government for the surge in oil theft on the country's waters. "Government must not deliberately water down the role of the navy by encouraging other agencies to undertake naval tasks. NIMASA and GVWSL undertaking maritime security roles is already creating tension and disquiet within the armed forces with attendant low morale," he said.
"All that is required is to task and equip those statutorily empowered to do the job rather than creating jobs for political cronies. Remember that the services have not forgotten the many soldiers and naval personnel killed in the Niger Delta during the militancy period," the officer told THISDAY.