Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Renewed War Against Oil Thieves In Niger Delta

The Renewed War Against Oil Thieves In N/Delta

Written by Osa Okhomina, Yenagoa
Nigerian Leadership
Thursday, 17 June 2010 00:01

The Joint Military Task Force known as Operation Restore Hope, is waging a war against illegal bunkers in the Niger Delta as part of its effort to bring lasting peace to the Niger Delta. Our Niger Delta correspondent Osa Okhomina reports.

When peace was restored in Niger Delta through the amnesty plan offered militants in the region by the Federal Government, many citizens of the region had thought the peace keeping mission of the men of the Joint Military Task Force, known as Operation Restore Hope, had ended.

But recent events, as recorded in the arrest of illegal activities of crude oil thieves along the water ways of the region, made many have a rethink on the calls for the withdrawal of the men of the task force from the region.

In less than a year,the men of the JTF in Bayelsa and the sector commands in the region had recorded huge seizures, including shiploads of stolen crude from foreign nationals and their Nigerian counterparts.

The drama started last year with the seizure of the vessel owned by a Greece-based maritime company used by 14 Filipinos in July to allegedly siphon crude oil along the Bayelsa State waterways.

The Filipinos, suspected to be international oil bunkerers, were arrested in July by the JTF with 150-160 metric tonnes of stolen crude oil at the Bight of Benin in Bayelsa State .

The JTF, after the arrest, gave the names of the 14 Filipinos as Rey Chavez (Captain), Nelson Corpin, Antonio Norgino, Tirso Olaviar, Jerome Competente, Joselin Gabion, Rexy Aldovino, Rito Bajoyo, Jun Garcenila, Judel Garcenila, Eugenio Mediano, Mark Dimaano, Jose Palimero and Louis Givesania.

Acting on the need for the proper legal processes that will lead to the prosecution of the men the authorities of the task force handed over the seized ship and the arrested crew to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

The EFCC commended the JTF for keeping vigil along the waterways and creeks to save the nation from losing huge revenue from oil. Also full of commendation to the JTF and particularly, the Sector 2 Command headed by Lt. Col. Chris Musa, was the House of Committee on Oil and Gas, which had come to inspect the vessel and brief members of the House on the incident which created a diplomatic problem between Nigerian and the Philippines.

The activities of the illegal oil thieves, however, strive under the cover of darkness and the guardiance of their god-fathers who benefit from their theft.

The rising activities of the illegal bunkerers created a situation where the nation under the leadership of the deceased President Musa Yar'dua was undergoing poor revenue generation from oil inspite of the existing peace that followed the amnesty programme.

At the Governors’ Forum meeting held in Yenagoa,the governors of the 36 states agreed that the calls for the withdrawal of soldiers were allegedly being heightened by those involved in illegal lifting of crude along the creeks and waterways of the Niger Delta.

After much deliberations and a fact finding visit to the headquarters of the task force in Yenagoa,Bayelsa State, the governors, in a communiqué read by the Chairman, Governor Bukola Saraki of Kwara State, argued that the presence of the task force was still needed in the region due to the threatening rise in illegal bunkering in the region.

The governors stated that "The forum is of the view that the people arrested engaging in the unwholesome venture must be decisively dealt with in order to act as a deterrent to others that may be interested in engaging in this type of economic sabotage, and names of the illegal bunkerers be made public while drastic measures must be taken against them. There is a need to have more stringent laws on illegal bunkering."

Investigation however showed that some ex-militant leaders and foreign nationals have been found to have formed a cartel involved in the rising spread of illegal refineries within and outside the Niger Delta.

The cartel, according to military authorities, have mobilized to attack the task force over a recent clampdown on such illegal sites in Bayelsa and Rivers states. The attack on the men of the JTF, investigation revealed, is coming in form of petitions and political pressure to tarnish the names of officers within the task force.

In one of such attacks, unidentified groups have placed advertorials in the print media asking that some officer including the Bayelsa Sector Commander of the JTF, Col. Victor Ezeaogu, be removed for alleged illegal activities.

Independent investigations conducted by newsmen on the addresses given by these groups have yielded no fruit as many of the addresses were either fake or used as canteens or beer parlours. Some politicians, including the leadership of the Action Congress (AC) in the state led by Comrade Miriki Ebikibina, described the rising petition of the illegal oil thieves against the JTF as a pointer to the successes recorded by the military authorities in the anti-oil bunkering campaign led by Col. Victor Ezeaogu.

Col. Ezeaogu, according to reports from fellow officers and indigenes of the Niger Delta region, has done well in his official interaction with the people, including ex-militant leaders who were skeptical about the peace programme of the Federal Government.

Information released by the JTF command last year showed that the authorities had destroyed over 600 illegal refineries in different parts of the region in the last few months, and intelligence reports indicated that there were over 1,000 illegal refineries in different parts of the Niger Delta and they are operated by individuals, including ex-militias and other expatriates involved in high sea bunkering.

The Commander of the Joint Task Force in the region, Major General Sarkin Bello, while speaking last year on the recent clampdown on illegal refinery operators in Gokana Local Government of Rivers State, said the rising wave of illegal refineries was of great concern to the Federal Government because of the economic and environmental impact on the nation.

He said the new menace has taken a grave dimensions "since people now know what people do with crude oil. It may move to other parts of the country where there are oil installations. Before now, kidnapping was restricted to the Niger Delta, but today it happens in every part of the country. Illegal oil refinery is like any other crime. It mutates as the criminals try to find other means of livelihood".

He pointed out that the aerial photographs taken by the Force showed vast areas of devastation as a result of the activities of the illegal bunkerers and illegal refinery operators.

"I can't see how such area can be useful in the near future with the level of degradation. The illegal refinery was an economic crime that involved people from all levels of society and not necessarily ex-militants" said the commander.

"It's a complete crime on its own and you may find ex-militants, non-militants and even foreigners. It cuts across all levels of society. We would not be deterred by threats from criminals that they would react by attacking JTF personnel for destroying their so-called means of livelihood".

In the report released by the JTF this week on the operations against illegal refineries between October and December 2009,it showed that over 600 illegal refineries were destroyed and in the operation, 22 drums of illegally refined and adulterated petroleum products; 27 empty jerry cans and two steel funnels. Seven suspects were also arrested while three motorcycles as well as a Mitsubishi bus were impounded.

The report also indicated that the illegal refinery operators sabotage the pipelines owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC),the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and Agip and siphon the crude oil for onward sale to ship anchored on the high sea and to the refineries in various parts of the region.

Confirming the report on the worrisome incidence of illegal lifting of the nation's crude at a recent meeting held with the Bayelsa State Executive Council (SEC) in Yenagoa ,the authorities of the Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC) expressed concern over the rising incidence of crude oil theft and disruption of the attainment of full production 55,000 barrels per day and said the oil production level in Bayelsa has plunged to 38,000 barrel per day.

According to the NOAC Managing Director, Mr. Ciro Antonio Pagano, though no cases of abduction violence and explosion from the illegal activities of the oil thieves were recorded in the vandalized areas, the activities of the oil thieves is having a multiplier effect on the economy of the nation.

Pagano, while making a presentation before the Bayelsa State Executive Council led by Governor Timipre Sylva, said the bunkerers scooped crude oil from the vandalized pipelines and sold at ridiculous price, which in turn was having negative effects on the economy of the country as well as affecting its production output.

The meeting between Agip management and the state government has led to a resolution on the need to set up a tripartite security team, made up of government representatives, NAOC representatives and security operatives.

Briefing newsmen at the end of the meeting, the Overseer of the State Ministry of Information, Hon. Nathaniel Egba, said this became imperatives, as the negative effects of oil theft on the economy of Bayelsa State and the country was unacceptable.

According to him, the government was worried at the drop in oil production as a result of illegal bunkering, sabotage and community disturbances.

He stated that the government has set up an investment recovery team to monitor oil production in the state with the aim of improving its revenue profile adding that the team would look into all issues raised by the management of Nigeria Agip Oil Company in the interest of the state.

The JTF Commander, however, urged those engaged in illegal refineries "to re-channel their talents to legitimate endeavors that will benefit not only themselves, but their communities and the nation in general. Bello said all the suspects arrested so far in connection to illegal refineries and illegal oil bunkering had been handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for prosecution.

The operatives of the Joint Military Task Force code-named Operation Restore Hope yesterday announced the interception of a vessel owned by a Greek firm known as Blossom S.A with over 800 metric tonnes of stolen crude oil from a facility operated by Agip.

A foreign national, Mr. Minzaw Tinmaungyaw from Myanmar , formerly known as Burma, in South-East Asia was arrested on board of the vessel identified as MT Glory.

It was gathered that the vessel was intercepted by midnight on the 31st of March by the operatives of the Joint Military Task Force along the Lagosgbene community of Brass Local Government area of Bayelsa State by the operatives of the Joint Military Task Force.

It was gathered that aside from the Myanmaris national arrested by the JTF, other crew member on board the vessel reportedly dived into the sea and escaped. But another investigation showed that the arrested vessel was a courier to larger vessel with over 25 crew of Myanmari nationals on board waiting outside the nation's territorial waters.

A security source close to the Sector Command of the JTF led by Col. Victor Ezeaogu confirmed that the Nigerian front with the arrested vessel had made a N2 million bid for the release of the suspect and the vessel but was turned off with the tactical plan to arrest those involved in the attempted bribe.

In his submission to newsmen and other senior officers of the JTF, led by the Sector Commander, Col. Victor Ezeaogu, the coordinator of the Joint Media Centre of the JTF, Lt. Col. Timothy Antigha, said the arrest has further shown the resolve of the Federal Government to put a stop to the cases of illegal bunkering activities along its territorial waters.

Antigha stated that though the vessel had the capacity to load over 2,000 metric tones of crude oil, over 800 metric tones had been loaded before it was apprehended, saying, “all we have done is to conclude our report on the arrest and it will be forwarded to the appropriate authorities for further action."

He pointed out that the JTF will also hand over the arrested vessel to the authorities of the EFCC for investigation and prosecution of the suspects.

The arrested Myanmaris national, Minzaw Tinmaungyaw, confirmed the illegal loading of the crude oil but denied any involvement in the act, saying he was only a passenger on board the seized vessel.

No comments: