Illegal pipeline: This time, unfailingly heads should roll


NIGERIA’S systemic dysfunction and poor governance practices are once more on display with the exposure of a four-kilometre-long illegal pipeline in the Niger-Delta creeks. As revealed by Mele Kyari, Group Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited, the illicit pipeline was created from the Trans-Escravos pipeline and looped into the Afremo test line and had been operating for a staggering nine years! This massive economic sabotage should end.

For starters, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should swiftly remove the security, regulatory and bureaucratic personnel who failed in their responsibility and inaugurate sweeping reforms to cleanse the oil industry.

This time, heads should roll. Corrupt, complicit, and negligent officials and security personnel should be held responsible and visited with severe sanctions, including sackings.

The scale of the oil theft in Nigeria beggars belief. In his briefing to a Senate committee, Kyari said that along with that illegal pipeline, similar illegal operations had also crippled activities at the Brass and Bonny terminals. He added, “The combined effect is that you have lost 600,000 barrels (of crude) per day when you do a reality check.” Reuters quoted him as saying the illegal pipeline cost a loss of 250,000bpd.

But the shameful spectacle did not end there. Further revelations by the NNPC, and the promoter of the company to which it recently handed a controversial N48 billion pipeline security contract, Government Ekpemupolo, identified at least 16 breaches on a pipeline operated by a major oil company in Delta State.

Operatives of the company, Tantita Security Services Limited, have reportedly so far found 58 illegal points from where thieves are tapping crude oil in Delta and Bayelsa states. Then the Nigerian Navy destroyed an illegal oil bunkering vessel ferrying over 600 cubic meters of stolen crude on the Escravos creeks after it was intercepted by Tantita operatives.

Several pointers to Nigeria’s misrule arise from these recent gyrations. First, the scale of crude oil theft in the country is probably higher that the 400,000bpd given by the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timipre Silva; or the 470,000bpd recently given by Kyari. Based on the uncovered illegal pipelines and closure of two other terminals, Kyari told senators that 600,000bpd were lost.

As the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, assessed, no one knows the actual amount of crude stolen in Nigeria and the costs “but is anywhere between $3 billion and $8 billion yearly.” The impact has been devastating. Having first lost its position as Africa’s largest crude producer to Angola in 2016, it is now No.3, conceding the second spot to war-torn Libya in August when production fell to just over 900,000bpd, the lowest in 25 years.

Unable to meet its OPEC-set quota of 1.8 millionbpd, and as oil still brings in 90 per cent of foreign earnings, the country’s finances are in a mess, with the national debt standing at N42.6 trillion and debt obligations soaking up 90 per cent of all government revenues.

Next, the authorities celebrating the find, including NNPC executives, the military, police, security agencies, and the militants-turned-contractors and community leaders cannot claim ignorance of such illegal operations. The scale of the theft is confirmation, if any was needed, of long-running high-level collusion between officials, illegal bunkering cartels, community members and security personnel and well-placed government officials. Ekpemupolo reaffirmed this when he said security personnel, international oil companies and senior officials were neck-deep in theft.

Nigerians will not applaud; the security agencies – the military with its numerous task forces, police, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, the State Security Service, and communities – have long been aware of the numerous illegal pipelines and refineries in the region.

Kyari said oil theft has been on for 22 years; the Nigerian Navy that suddenly woke up to destroy an illegal barge needs to explain how vessels of different sizes operated in Nigeria’s waters for decades lifting millions of barrels of crude right under its nose. Officials and agencies in charge of the ports and maritime safety are unpardonably careless.

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Their carelessness has cost the country dearly. A study published in the Global Journal of Social Sciences in 2020 said “the economic implications include reduced revenue, increased unemployment, and diversification of the economy. The social implications also include sustained conflict, curbed social development, and displacement of persons.” The Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Centre adds, “No country on earth is more frequently associated with oil theft than Nigeria.” For years, the Nigerian state has failed to act decisively.

Therefore the drama accompanying the “discovery” of pipelines, illegal refineries, and vessels in the manner of European explorers of old “discovering” river sources and waterfalls that locals had lived with and used for millennia does not impress Nigerians.

What they expect and what aligns with global best practices now are three-fold; the perpetrators to be identified, arrested, and swiftly prosecuted. Next, to identify, expose, arrest, and prosecute all the state agents that colluded, and those who were remiss in their duties for economic crimes and sabotage. Thereafter, there should be a thorough reform of the NNPC, the security agencies and the ports and maritime regulatory agencies and the entire security system.

This newspaper is not persuaded that the government should completely outsource the security of the pipelines to groups once accused of sabotaging oil infrastructure. Instead, the government should roll out guidelines and create an enabling environment for private security services to thrive and hire operators untainted by past militant activities through a transparent, competitive bidding process to support state agencies. Ultimately, security of critical infrastructure and the country’s maritime waters must remain primarily with state security agencies.

In other climes, instead of prancing before press cameras, senior executives, security chiefs would be explaining their roles and failures before parliamentary committees and law enforcement. Some would have been sacked; others suspended to make way for unfettered investigations.

Definitely, the heads of the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission, the military units assigned to that sector should justify their continued relevance.

Accountability is the norm in public governance. In every other jurisdiction, officials are held responsible for lapses and made to take responsibility. Indonesia just sacked the police chief in the city where a riot at a football stadium left 125 persons dead. In 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta fired police and military chiefs in Kenya’s North-East after Somali-based terrorists killed 36 quarry workers. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro recently forced out the CEO of the national oil company over its increase in petrol and diesel prices that contributed to the country’s economic woes.

In Nigeria, officials and security heads are not held accountable for their failures and lapses.

Buhari, who retains the portfolio of petroleum minister, must also accept responsibility for the humongous theft of crude. Heads should roll; the NUPRCO, the Navy and the military task forces have failed woefully. The relevant officials should be penalised. There should be a massive shake-up of the Navy and its deployed units. Complicit, careless, and corrupt officials and civilians should be prosecuted and flushed out of the service.

The governors of the Niger Delta region have not demonstrated adequate concern. They have known of the theft all along, and Nyesom Wike of Rivers State once went public with accusations that police and other security personnel were illicit bunkerers. There was no follow-up. Henceforth, governors should take up the issue of oil theft at the highest level and seek redress.

This pipeline exposure should mark the end for humongous oil theft in Nigeria and the waterloo of corrupt, complicit state actors. ,

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