How onslaught against oil thieves spiked Kpofire business in Niger Delta

Amid the current efforts by the Rivers State government to rid the state of artisanal refineries, otherwise known as Kpofire and save the people from its damaging effects, information has emerged that the current upsurge of soot pandemic in the state was caused by the renewed drive of the Nigerian Navy and other security operatives to ensure that stolen crude oil does not leave the shores of the country.

A source very familiar with the development told The Guardian that the Nigerian Navy under the current Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo, has been waging a ferocious battle against oil theft such that oil thieves now find it difficult to move the product out of the country.

The source noted that with patronage for illegal crude oil almost at zero level at the moment, oil thieves resorted to the establishment of artisanal refineries (Kpofire) to remain afloat.

Kpofire, in local Niger Delta parlance, is the process of hitting crude at makeshift locations called bunkering sites or dumpsites by illegal oil operatives or oil thieves to extract refined petroleum products.

It is just another way of remaining in the business of stealing Nigerian crude. The Nigerian Navy has been very effective in combating trade in illegal crude oil lately. Naval operatives patrol Nigerian territorial waters and have ensured that vessels that move stolen crude out of the country don’t come in again. Many of such vessels had been arrested and detained. So, the thieves now started building Kpofire. And you know how these things work. If one person builds and succeeds, another person will follow suit. That is why we now have illegal refineries scattered all over the Niger Delta region; but they appear to be more in Rivers State,” the source explained.

An impeccable source close to the Navy, who craved anonymity, confirmed the narrative. The source said: “In 2015, the Navy emplaced total spectrum maritime strategies to guide their responses to crude oil theft and other crimes in the maritime domain. The Navy cannot be everywhere; therefore, they have deployed Falcon Eye system to monitor activities of oil theft, piracy and other crimes in maritime environment.

“Falcon Eye is a facility that has the capacity to spot, chase and interdict maritime criminals quietly and efficiently on the nation’s sea lanes. Falcon Eye system serves as a force multiplier for naval platforms tasked with securing Nigeria’s maritime environment from external aggression.

“The Falcon Eye system is a state-of-the-art surveillance facility that incorporates various sensors located along the nation’s enormous coastline, such as Radars, long-range Electro-Optic Systems with thermal or night vision capability, Automatic Identification System receivers, Weather Stations and marine Very High Frequency Radios for communication.

“The project was borne out of the necessity to combat the myriad of security challenges within the maritime sector. Regional maritime domain awareness centres have also helped the Navy to curb various maritime crimes.

“Maritime Domain Awareness Centres can have different areas of studies, regional, crime, military threats, etc. These centres gather the information, fuse it together and analyse the data in order to spot trends and patterns. The data gathered is useful for different things such as law enforcement, governance and capacity building.”

According to the source, the Navy has been using the two systems to check oil theft and intercept oil thieves, revealing that, “the Navy has arrested over 500 ships involved in crude oil theft in last five years and sustained its operations against crude oil theft through Operation Karteku and Operations Calm Waters.”

The source lamented that, “pipelines pass through many poverty-stricken communities,” adding: “As Navy is demobilising one illegal refinery, another one is springing up somewhere else.”

Regrettably, the development is at the peril of residents of the region, particularly those living in areas with large concentration of Kpofire. For instance, in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital and environs, residents have been contending with the damaging effects of soot pollution, one of the aftermaths of artisanal refining of crude oil, on their health and environment. The situation worsened from September 2021, as the artisanal refinery operators moved into residential areas with the aid of unscrupulous security personnel.

Investigations showed that the refined products were transported in trucks, polythene bags and even drums around the state as such security operatives look away.

During last Christmas and New Year festivities, many residents who travelled out of the state for few days came back to meet their homes covered by black substances as a result of soot pollution, despite their doors and windows being properly shut. It took many of them three days of constant mopping to make their apartments habitable again.

Meanwhile, that their homes are now ‘clean’ does not mean the challenge is over – they involuntarily inhale the substance as they sleep and wake up and go about their businesses on a daily basis.

The artisanal petroleum refineries in the state spread across the local councils, mostly Port Harcourt, Obio/Akpor, Ikwere, Emohua, Eleme, Ogubolo, Oyigbo, Okrika and Ogba/Egbema, have also left residents at the mercy of frequent fire outbreaks.

Kpofire has caused series of infernos, which ravaged some parts of the state and sent many to early graves. Recently, three children of the same parents died from Kpofire-caused inferno in the state. The mother of the children had left them in a boat loaded with drums of adulterated products at the Bonny/Bille/Nemebe jetty to buy something across. However, before she could return, the jetty cut fire and the kids were burnt beyond recognition.

Twenty-seven deaths were also recorded at an illegal refining site in Rumuekpe community in Emohua in October 2021. Properties worth millions of naira were also destroyed with many residents displaced from their homes.

SOOT menace, caused by artisanal refining in the state, has also taken a toll on its aquatic environment. When The Guardian visited some communities in Ogu-bolo local council last week, a fisherman, Michael Oguso, who was seen on his way to fish at Ogoloma River, lamented that the fishing business was going extinct, because most of the rivers in the area were polluted.

He stated that due to the rising activities of the artisanal refiners, the rivers were covered with oil, thus making it difficult for fishes to survive in them. According to him, few fishes in the rivers have a taste of kerosene when caught and cooked.

“When we go to fish, oil is all over the water and we cannot do anything again. They are ‘cooking’ oil near the river and this has affected the fishes. Most of the fishes have oil in them. We get tilapia, catfish and salt water fish but they are not longer sizeable,” he said.

Findings also showed that farmlands were not spared, as many of them polluted by crude oil were no longer fertile. A farmer at Agbeta in Onne, Eleme local council, Mr. Grace Obai, while pointing to her farmland, lamented her inability to make use of the land as it had been affected by the activities of artisanal refiners in the area. The people’s health is also in serious danger.

Several reports by The Guardian since 2016 when the problem became pronounced, especially the report published on January 14, 2021, titled, ‘Again, soot spike in Rivers raises fresh health concerns’, had highlighted that 22,077 persons in the state suffered from respiratory-related ailments in the last five years as a result of soot pollution. The data was obtained from the report of a technical committee on soot menace led by then Commissioner for Environment, Prof. Roseline Konya and Dr. Dasetima Altraide. The experts had averred that residents of the state were at risk of chronic heart diseases, stroke, cancer and other health defects if the pollution was left unchecked.

Apparently scared of the health hazards, residents now wear nose mask not just to safeguard themselves against COVID-19 infection, but also to ward off the effects of soot pollution on their health. However, some scientists doubt the efficacy of common nose masks to prevent soot penetration to the body.

According to Altraide, only M95, a brand of nose mask that filters the air with a lifespan of 30 days could help. He, however, noted that the product was very expensive and out of the reach of majority of residents.

The situation has forced many people to relocate to some other places they consider safer to live. A former aide to Governor Nyesom Wike, Oraye St. Franklyn, who left the country since last year, told The Guardian: “The monumental economic losses to the state are nothing compared to the lives lost and damaged by cancer. I speak from a position of experience and witness; this is not conjecture. Those who left Rivers State in droves because of the soot epidemic left to preserve their lives and those of their children. They also left with their businesses.”

Although Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had in March 2017 announced the Federal Government’s plan to build modular refineries in oil-producing communities in Niger Delta region to enable the region benefit from their resources and eliminate sabotage, the government was yet to match its words with action to the detriment of residents.

However, the National Oil Spill and Response Agency (NOSDRA) told The Guardian in Port Harcourt that the soot pollution has been a source of concern to the agency. The agency declared support for the current efforts by the Rivers State government towards tackling the environmental scourge.

A senior staff of NOSDRA, who spoke in confidence, said: “The soot pollution has been a source of concern to the agency. The Director-General, Mr. Idris Musa, the Minister of Environment (State), Mrs. Sharon Ikeazor and the entire government are worried. So, whatever Governor Wike is doing in ending this air pollution is welcomed, because it is in the interest of the people and anything done in the interest of the people cannot be wished away. So, we are in support of what the governor is doing.”

The source disclosed that the agency has been carrying out public enlightenment programmes in some states in the Niger Delta region, including Rivers State, on the implications of soot pollution.

He added: “We held three enlightenment programmes last year, one in Oshun, Port Harcourt and in Edo State. We make people to understand the dangers of oil spill.”

According to the source, the Ministry of Environment in collaboration with other ministries was working seriously to convert the activities of illegal refiners into modular refineries.

Asked why the implementation of the policy on modular refinery was being delayed, he explained: “Government policies are not easily implemented due to certain bottlenecks. Sometimes, the policies are very lofty but are not easily implemented. Yes, the policy of modular refinery is experiencing delays but surely, it will come soon.”

He disclosed that some persons and oil companies had been sanctioned as a result of default in oil spills, urging people to desist from polluting the environment as the agency would not spare anyone or company when reported.

“We believe that the people who are doing this illegal business are also suffering from its consequences. They should be patient as the Federal Government works towards putting the modular refineries into action; that is not how to get money, you don’t get money by killing yourself.”

NEVERTHELESS, the Rivers State government is not willing to take the risk of waiting until the planned modular refineries come to fruition before salvaging the lives of residents and the environment. In his New Year message, Governor Wike told residents that he was ready to tackle the menace headlong.

Pursuant to that, he mandated the 23 local council chairmen and community leaders to locate and dismantle all illegal bunkering sites in their areas and fish out the operators for prosecution. In a live broadcast on January 9, 2022, he declared 19 illegal refineries kingpins in the state wanted.

Then on January 13, the governor personally invaded some bunkering sites in a forest in Ogbodo community in Ikwere local council and another one in Ibaa community in Emohua local council. A day after, January 14, Wike summoned a meeting of all the security heads in the state, including the heads of the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Air force, Nigerian Navy, Nigerian Police, the Directorate of State Service, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, and local council chairmen at Government House, Port Harcourt, to further brainstorm on how to end the problem.

At the meeting, he issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the 23 local council chairmen to provide a comprehensive list of illegal refineries and their operators within their jurisdiction. So far, there are indications that most of the local council chairmen have swung into action as some artisanal refining sites have been discovered and shut down in Ikwere, Emouha, Okrika and Obio/Akpor local councils, among others.

HOWEVER, mixed reactions have greeted the governor’s sudden determination to rid the state of artisanal refineries and save the people from their damaging effects. While some described it as a welcome development, others wondered why the governor waited till after six years in office before taking action, saying they would follow through to ensure that the current move would not turn out to be a political drama ahead of the 2023 general election.

A resident, who identified himself simply as Oraye, said: “What the governor is currently doing to tackle the menace almost amounts to administering medicine after death, because it is coming late in the day, at the twilight of his term, when the damage has been entrenched .

Understandably, it is in response to untiring campaigns of Rivers people, who for six years were calling for action. Why wait until there were casualties? Why?”

In a swift response, however, a social media aide to the governor, Marshal Obuzor, explained that it was not the statutory responsibility of the governor to take actions, adding that Wike needed to engage and prove beyond doubt that the Federal Government was unwilling to act before he could confront the problem headlong.

The state Commissioner for Information and Communication, Paulinus Nsirim, also described the governor’s action as pragmatic and a step in the right direction, praising his courageous trips to the jungle where the illegal refining activities took place.

On his part, the State Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chris Fineborne, alleged that the state government was complicit in the soot menace even though Wike has begun to hearken to the overwhelming outcry by Rivers people.

On his part, the Executive Director, Mother and Baby Care Global Foundation, Dr. Eli Sukarime, noted that the effects of the soot pandemic was more devastating on pregnant women, children and unborn child.

A consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Sukarime said the governor was taking the right steps and should be supported, insisting that the effort should be sustained.

“Bunkering is not an alternative to joblessness; it is a crime. It is like someone going to steal because he does not have job. They should look for something else to do,” he stated.

A traditional ruler in Ogubolo local council of the state, Chief Spiff Micah, said the governor was driven into desperation to act now because several appeals to the Federal Government to help out fell on deaf ear.

He urged the governor to mount pressure on the Federal Government to cooperate with the state in tackling the nuisance, lamenting that his people were suffering its devastating effects.

To an activist in the state, Enefaa Georgewill, despite the negativities associated with illegal refining of crude oil in the state, it also came with some benefits, hence the urgent need to empower the operators now that the government seems determined to dislodge them.

Georgewill said: “Kpofire made street gang members in some communities to buy you drink instead of pestering you to buy them drink or give them money in the villages. This was most noticed in Obele/Iba in Emohua and Engenni in Ahoada West.

“Kpofire made armed robbery to disappear in Rivers State by 90 per cent. This was particularly noticed in the full stretch of East-West road, from Choba to Mbiama.

“In most of the communities where Kpofire is lucrative, petty stealing reduced by 50 per cent. In those communities, rape incidents reduced too, because people have the money to fund their lust. In a particular community we visited, local folks were boasting of ‘importing’ their female university friends to the villages.

“In communities where Kpofire was bubbling, street gang members became friendly and were engaging in charity work. Though not all street gang members are armed robbers, most armed robbers are members of street gangs. Seventy per cent of these armed robbers got into Kpofire.

“Kpofire is the major source of kerosene in Rivers State. It’s equally the reason kerosene and AGO are cheap.

“The extreme violence in Rivers State is as a result of poverty. If we have an industrialised economy with massive job and social programmes, crime rate will drop by 80 per cent. This culture of Rivers people being extremely violent is new and only started from 1999. We are a peaceful, fun and education-loving people. I recommend that Kpofire operators should be grouped into cooperatives and empowered to start modular refineries in the state.”

ALTHOUGH some environmental, chemical and medical experts also commended the efforts of the state government, they warned that it was not yet uhuru, emphasising that there was need to deploy strategic and sustainable efforts to ensure that the perpetrators do not return to the illicit and deadly businesses after a lull.

The Director of Geosciences and Environmental Management (IGEM) at the Rivers State University, Prof. Akuro Gobo, said: “A lot of damage has been done in the mangrove and the entire ecosystem. The mangrove has been destroyed; people’s health conditions are deteriorating. We inhale it every day. A lot of damage has been done to the unborn. It will affect their growth, a lot of deformations in different organs has occurred.”

Gobo, who is a professor of Applied Metrology, described the current approach by the government as good but stated that it came quite late.

He challenged the Federal Government to partner with the state to ensure that the menace is eradicated. This, he said, could be achieved through the creation of a trusted and transparent high-powered committee that would sustain the current efforts by drafting alternatives, stressing that there was need for serious policies that would put the menace under check.

Speaking in the same vein, an environmentalist and the Executive Director of Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC), Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface, also told The Guardian that, “the action of the governor is coming late but it is better late than never especially as his counterparts in other states are yet to do anything significant to stop artisanal refining and associated issues.”

Fyneface, who is also the National Facilitator of Project with Artisanal Crude Oil Refiners (PACOR) for Modular Refineries in the Niger Delta, which has been forming artisanal refiners into cooperative societies for modular refineries licences across the Niger Delta, added: “He should go beyond the ongoing media war to a well-designed policy backed by law that does not only stop artisanal refining but also map out ways of safely disposing of the products and provide alternative livelihood opportunities for the youths through modular refineries and innovatively modifying what they are currently doing into a legal business framework under a Rivers State Artisanal Crude Oil Refining Development Initiative-(RISACORDI) like the Presidential Artisanal Crude Oil Refining Development Initiative (PACORDI) we earlier recommended to the Federal Government.”

The Naval source, which spoke with The Guardian earlier, also canvassed the adoption of both kinetic and non-kinetic approaches to tackling crude oil theft and illegal refining of the product.

“Once there is unemployment, people will venture into these nefarious activities. To curb it, we need a whole of society approach. The problem will not disappear overnight. There has to be empowerment for the unemployed. International Oil Companies (IOCs) have a role to play; the pipes seem too assessable,” the source said.(The Guardian)

*PHOTO: Crude oil theft