Abaezi refinery carnage and Nigeria’s invincible oil thieves

The gory sight of scores of burnt out bodies at the toxic refinery in the forest of Abaezi in Ohaji Egbema local government of Imo State is a sad reminder of how cheap life is in Nigeria. Imo State government was curiously honest in its account of what it knows about the illegal refinery.

The state government admitted that it knew about the existence of the toxic refinery and that it even made rather cursory attempts to shut it down.

Ironically, Declan Emelumba, the state commissioner for information and strategy said the state commissioner for petroleum is from the village that hosted the illegal refinery.

Since the illegal refinery is located in the petroleum commissioner’s village, few will believe that the commissioner does not know the owner of the refinery that exploded and killed 110 people.

Emelumba argued that the state government’s effort at shutting down the toxic refinery yielded no dividends as the criminals re-armed and came back with full force. That is strange.

It means that the criminals running the toxic refinery are more powerful than the government of Imo state which has the mandate of millions of voters to make and enforce laws that would secure people and property in the state.

A government that cannot enforce its own laws is less valuable than the paper on which the laws are written. Imo State government is clearly more powerful than the few criminals that own the toxic refinery in the forest of Abaezi village. It is handicapped by Nigeria’s intractable corruption.

One source lamented that there are 34 checkpoints on the road leading to the toxic refinery and that the check points were mere toll gates for security agencies to extort money from operators of the refinery and consumers of its products.

Corruption takes Imo State government to the battle against the toxic refinery with it hands tied to the back. Under that circumstance, no one has the power to enforce the law against illegal refineries.

Everyone in the three tiers of government in Nigeria knows precisely where the illegal refineries are. They equally know who owns them. The same factor that kept the refinery in the forest of Abaezi thriving for years until the fateful Friday night in April 22 is responsible for the survival of hundreds of others in the creeks of Niger Delta.

In the wake of the cataclysmic inferno in Abaezi, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike (NEW), the cantankerous governor of Rivers state argued a point that pointed to Nigeria’s abhorrence to state police as one of the reasons for the success of the illegal refineries.

The governor said that a divisional police officer (DPO) in Rivers State owns and operates an illegal refinery in the state.

He said that after enormous pressure was mounted on the state commissioner of police, the DPO was merely transferred from the division close to his illegal refinery. The governor wants the police officer posted out of Rivers State, but under Nigeria’s centralised police command, that is beyond his powers.

Even the police commissioner’s hands may equally be tied. He may not have the power to transfer a senior police officer out of his command. What he did (transferring the criminal to somewhere far away from his illegal refinery) may be everything he could do.

If River State had its own police, the head of the police will report directly to the governor. Under that circumstance, he has no option than to do what the governor wants.

State police commissioners report directly to the inspector-general of police (IG). If the state governor, the chief security officer of the state, issues a directive to the commissioner and the IG counters it, the commissioner obeys the IG.

That really is not why the illegal refineries are thriving. Wike himself may know some of the owners of the refineries but cannot deal with them because of their closeness to some influential members of his cabinet.

Wike’s recent directive to the chairmen of local governments indicates that government officials know where the refineries are and who owns them. The governor ordered all local government chairmen to identify the refineries and their owners and ensure that they were closed. Everyone is waiting anxiously for the outcome of the directive from Wike on illegal refineries.

If the directive is executed to the letter, the federal government will be the first beneficiary of the move against illegal refineries. Oil pipeline vandalisation will be curtailed drastically while government will record some improvements in crude oil exports.

Illegal refineries are intractable thorns in everyone’s flesh. They are dangerous to the economy and calamitous to the environment. They have been blamed for the millions of tons of toxic waste raining on Rivers State with catastrophic consequences on human health. The theft of crude oil by operators of the illegal refineries is eating deep into federal government’s revenue.

Besides, they have rendered the land infertile and endangered aquatic lives irreversibly.

They have to be shut down permanently if we must not add refinery explosions to Nigeria’s alarming insecurity.

Nigerian Navy is obliged to end the operations of illegal refineries and oil theft in general. The Navy flaunted strange figures on crude oil and refined petroleum products seizures after the calamity in Egbema.

It announced the seizure of 6 million litres of crude oil in the illegal refineries raided by its men. The expression of the quantity of seized crude oil in litres might have been designed to dazzle ignorant Nigerians on the quantum of the seizures.

The truth is that the navy’s seizure amounts to a slap on the wrist of crude oil thieves. One barrel of crude oil contains 157 litres. Consequently, the six million litres seized by the navy is a scant 38,216ibarrels of oil. That is a tiny fraction of the 200, 000 barrels stolen every day.

In its decision to flaunt the seizure from illegal refineries, the navy was curiously silent on the hundreds of thousands of barrels stolen every day and hauled in barges to international waters where criminals are waiting to buy at a discount.

That is where most of Nigeria’s stolen crude oil goes. The quantity stolen by operators of the illegal refineries that the navy chases every day is insignificant when compared to what is hauled in barges to international waters.

That is where everyone expects the navy and other law enforcement agencies to focus their attention if Nigeria must evade the looming bankruptcy.

Those who steal crude oil from well heads are more dangerous to Nigeria’s treasury than operators of illegal refineries.