31 January 2013

Nigeria: Where Are the Arrested Oil Thieves?

Oil bunkering criminals should be prosecuted

The outgoing commander of the Joint Military Task Force on illegal bunkering, Major General Johnson Ochoga, did some chest-beating recently. In arguing that the challenge of containing the activities of the oil thieves is enormous, Ochoga said that the task force has succeeded in reducing the volume of theft from 9.5million barrels per day to about 1.5million per day. He added that nearly 2000 oil theft suspects were arrested within the Bayelsa zone alone in the last two years. Considering the difficult terrain under which JTF operates and the fact that what they deal with is an organized crime with international dimension, the effort of Ochoga and his men must be commended.

Yet an important question arises from this revelation: where are the criminals he claimed were caught in his tour of duty being tried? If we are to sustain the efforts at tackling illegal oil bunkering and pipeline vandalism as Ochoga and his men did, it will be determined to some extent by applying the stick to all those who undertake the thriving business of hacking into pipes for crude. In other words, those charged with the theft must be prosecuted and those found guilty given adequate punishment to serve as a deterrent to others.

The huge cost to the economy due to illegal oil bunkering was recently captured by Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who gave chilling statistics of what the country was losing daily as a result of the activities of oil thieves. According to her, these nefarious activities now account for about 400,000 barrels of crude per day. Last April alone, this amounted to 17 percent fall in official sales. Of course, both the Shell Petroleum Development Company and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) dispute these figures. But even their own estimates of loss of between 150,000 and 180,000 barrels per day, approximating to seven percent of production, is still very huge.

This was the point also emphasised by Mallam Nuhu Ribadu when as the Chairman of the National Taskforce on Petroleum Revenue, he spoke about how the country had been bleeding due to massive oil theft. "Security is responsible for up to 30 percent loss of revenue to the country one way or the other. And right now we are being told by so many of the players that we are losing close to 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day. If you put that into arithmetic, you know how much we are losing," he said.

Even if the figures are a little exaggerated (indeed, the country does not know the exact number of barrels it produces) the implication of the arithmetic is that more than a trillion naira is lost every year to the gang of criminals, not to mention the loss of lives and damage to the environment.

Despite the rhetoric, the menace is growing in the level of skills and sophistication even as the criminals become more daring. This is partly because there are many law enforcement agents who are easily compromised. More worrisome is the fact that the trials of these suspects are often impeded by the interference of some influential individuals who may themselves be complicit in this highly lucrative criminal enterprise. As a result, many of the trials are abandoned midstream and the rates of conviction not only low, but do not reflect the numbers and the seriousness of the costly crime.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the agency assigned with the job of prosecuting oil bunkering criminals, seems to be overwhelmed. We urge the agency to sit up, work closely with security operatives and go after these local and foreign criminals who are bleeding the economy. For the foreigners among them who come to our country to make easy money through crimes, they must be made to face the full wrath of our laws.

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