By Emmanuel Nduka and Obinna Ezenwa
While militancy in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region has declined sharply, activities of local refiners (Artisanal Refiners) have spiralled. The refiners have blamed their decision to enter the business on lack of jobs and abandonment by the Federal Government. There is also the factor of feeling of ‘entitlement’ from the Federal Government in the minds of Niger Delta youths, for no other reason than because their land spews the oil which funds the national purse.
Sadly, youths in the region have failed to separate politics from existential issues. They have failed to observe that the Niger Delta region is in real trouble as a result of their activities. The devastating health effects and environmental degradation that comes with the activities of these refiners, further stretches the poverty among the vast majority of the population and sees the region heading towards self-destruction.
‘Kpo fire’ as the craft is codenamed among the refiners, is mostly perpetrated by unemployed and restive Niger Delta youths. Kpofire, simply put, is the process of hitting crude at bunkering sites or dumpsites to extract refined petroleum products. From interaction with some of the leaders of the local refiners, it was gathered that their activities are well coordinated. Among them, there are graduates and professionals in engineering, welding, petrochemicals, just name it.
They puncture pipelines carrying crude oil to Nigeria’s export terminal and refine it using primitive and highly hazardous methods. Many die from explosion in the process, but they don’t care, it is already a way of life. They have a camp where they refine the stolen oil. In there, a pit is dug in which the stolen crude oil is stored before refining begin. The finished products are ferried to clients both within the country and across the Nigerian borders to neighbouring countries like Chad, Cameroon, Togo and Ghana.
Dumnamene Fyneface, Environmental Activist and Executive Director of Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre, in a telephone chat over the weekend, told our correspondent that the operations of these refiners is grossly illegal. Describing their activities, Fyneface who is also the national facilitator of several projects with artisanal crude oil refiners for modular refineries in the Niger Delta, said: “The activities of artisanal crude oil refining involves the process of crude oil theft by breaking pipelines, connecting valve to it and then transporting the product through boat or using valves host to connect the product where they want it. Then they move the product from where they are to either their camp where they refine or bolt it and take it outside the country which is the illegal bunkering. Now when they do that, they sell and make money out of that process. This cannot be achieved without the involvement of security operatives that pilot the water ways in the Niger Delta and the Nigerian territorial waters. Then those who get the crude on shore, they set up their facility, refine the crude and then in the refining process, they get DPK which is kerosene, they get PMS which is premium motor spirit, and they have AGO which is diesel. Diesel is what they actually target most because it is more expensive.
“So when that is done, they move these products to where they sell them, and in the process of movement, they have to pay their way through all the road blocks and security checks. The major tools they use are welding machines used to connect the valves to the pipelines, and then boats that they use to transport the crude from point A to point B. And then you also have the tankers that they use to convey the products, both the refined product and crude oil depending on where they want to supply it to across the country. So in the process of all these they use a lot of tools that help to do that. One of the tools I must also mention that help them are guns that they use for protection. Like some of them have their guns they use to protect themselves in the business”.
Speaking at an engagement meeting with the Nigerian Government recently in Abuja, Fyneface warned that the network of the illegal refiners is as big as a drug cartel, and that if the situation is not quickly nipped by the Government, it may soon become overwhelming. He further revealed before the presence of top Government officials, including the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Niger Delta Affairs, Sen. Ita Enang, that under the current Government, their locally refined products are packaged, shipped out and re-imported into the country with papers reflecting that “they are imported refined products from overseas with raw materials from Nigeria”.
Strikingly, the proliferation of this business seems to be filling the gap left by the country’s dysfunctional refineries, as well as superficially enriching the communities. A stakeholder (name withheld) had told journalists that in one night, he earns between N1.3 million and N2 million, and makes between N39 million and N60 million in a month from boiling stolen crude, which he sells to both host communities and tanker drivers who travel from as far as Sokoto and Kano in Northern Nigeria.
Only recently, the strong man of Rivers State, Governor Nyesome Wike, embarked on a gestapo-styled mission to end the activities of the artisanal refiners. He gave an emphatic marching order to all 23 Local Council Chairmen to hire bulldozers and destroy every identified sites of the kpofire guys in the state.
In a statement by his media aide, Kelvin Ebiri, after meeting with the Council Chairmen, the State Commissioner of Police and the Commandant of the Civil Defence in Port Harcourt, Wike issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the chairmen and asked them to furnish him with a comprehensive list of all illegal refinery sites and their operators within their area.
“One thing I want to say and which is very clear, and like everybody knows, I am not against anybody making money. But we cannot allow people to make money, while others are dying. You know in Nigeria, we don’t believe that anything can happen. We don’t take government seriously, but in our own case, they have no choice, they’ll take us seriously.
“Look at how, everyday, in your house, you see the soot. I mean, how can you allow that? So, this one that we can solve, we will solve it. We have assured the people of Rivers State, we will fight this issue to the last until I leave office,” Wike exploded.
Chief Benson Agadaga, Chief of Staff to the Bayelsa State Government in a chat with newsmen recently, had also raised alarm over the marketability of the Niger Delta youths, especially in Bayelsa State. He questioned their resolve and capacity to prosper with clean hands.
“Young boys must have something doing instead of going to sing praise to get money from politicians, and the moment they don’t get, it means they have to look for other illegal ways of getting it. This is why many of our boys want to identify themselves with a cult group to be able to raise money from politicians. It is also surprising to know that in Bayelsa State, when you want to build a house, almost all the artisans you can get, are from Togo, Ghana and other places. Our boys are not skilled, but they want to have money and enjoy life. All the mechanics you see here are from outside the state, even painters, plumbers, electricians, are all outsiders,” he decried.
In 2017, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had announced the Federal Government’s plan to build modular refineries in oil-producing communities in the Niger Delta to enable the region benefit from their resources and eliminate sabotage. But since then, the Government is yet to match its words with action to the detriment of residents. Not much have come out of the modular refineries.
On its part, the National Oil Spill and Response Agency, NOSDRA, had posited that the soot pollution has become a source of concern to the agency. Thus, the agency declared support for the current efforts by the Rivers State Government towards tackling the environmental scourge.
“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,” NOSDRA said.
The Environmental Effects
Aside land degradation and other effects, the activities of these illegal refiners causes air pollution and leaves residents breathing in soot. This worsened after the artisanal refiners began to move into residential areas with the aid of unscrupulous security personnel. According to experts, residents in soot polluted areas are at risk of chronic heart diseases, stroke, cancer and other health defects.
Seemingly scared of the health hazards, residents now wear face mask to ward off the effects of soot pollution on their health. The situation has also forced many people to relocate to some other places they consider safer to live. Many a times, they have met their rivers covered with oil, thus making it difficult for fishes to survive in them. The few fishes that survive, come into the plate with a taste of kerosene when cooked. Farmlands are also not spared. They are covered by oil because of these activities, and thus becomes less fertile.
During last year’s yuletide, many residents who travelled out of the region for few days, said they came back to meet their homes covered by black substances as a result of soot pollution, despite their doors and windows properly shut. They said it took up to three days of constant mopping to make their apartments come clean again.
Kpofire has caused series of infernos and has sent many to early graves. In Rumuekpe community in Emohua, Rivers State alone in October 2021, 27 deaths were recorded at an illegal refining site, while properties worth millions of naira destroyed, and many residents displaced from their homes.
According to Oraye St. Franklyn, a former aide to Wike who left the country since last year, 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”.
Promising To Turn A New Leaf
In recent years, the artisanal refiners have had two separate engagement with the Federal Government to convince them to grant them proper licence, and empower them if possible, to make their work official. They have promised to alleviate the seasonal scarcity of petrol and other crude products if given the platform they seek. The Government on it’s part, has not responded positively. They have only reeled out political rhetorics without a clear pronouncement.
In terms of revenue, the kpofire boys rake in so much money. First, “from refining the product locally and then fro the sales gotten from big boys who are connected with Abuja and Lagos,” Fyneface said. “From the last summit, the total amount estimated to be made by these guys annually is 3.2billion naira annually”.
In support of the refiners, the Federal University of Petroleum, FUPRE in Delta State, at the last engagement meeting, said it had conducted due diligence on the procedures and products of the refiners, and concluded that they are up to date with global standards. Making this affirmation, Vice Chancellor of FUPRE, Professor Akpofure Rim-Rukeh, thus charged the Nigerian Government to scale up the process of licensing these refiners, and subsequently sent some of them to FUPRE for further education on the trade.
Speaking exclusively to our correspondent in a recent interview, Member representing Khana/Gokana Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives and Chairman House Committee on Host Communities, Rt. Hon. Dumnamene Robinson Dekor, said the Federal Government must urgently make a strong pronouncement to drive the licensing of the refiners.
“Some of these products that are used here that the Federal Government is paying subsidy on, emanates from the Niger Delta. They refine, transport them in batches, move them from batches to the vessels on the high sea, load them and then return them as imported products. So why don’t you engage them and have a cleaner environment and improved practises. You take away the issues of criminality because the crude will no longer be stolen, the residues from the crude will be better disposed and it will be an opportunity for a cleaner environment,” he said.
“I might be right or wrong. There was a company called National Fertilizer Company of Nigeria, NAFCON. Certain forces in this country had to kill it because they wanted to run their own fertilizer plant. This is the same issue we are having today with the refineries. Certain forces have also killed the refineries to create opportunities for some others to make money. It is because Nigeria cannot refine these products that is why the huge leap in the price of oil in the international market is affecting us negatively. In everything that we think that we are doing in an attempt to short-change the people, we find ourselves in the position where we are today. If solid minerals like the ones you find in Kogi State is celebrated and mining license is issued by the Federal Government, what is the difference? What is the difficulty in doing same for those who are in the Niger Delta?” he said.
Supporting the move by Governor Wike to fight oil theft, he said: “Since the Federal Government is not prepared to take the bull by the horn, the Rivers State Government has to do that. This is so because all they are interested in is the benefits of the oil. They are not concerned about those who live within the area where oil activities are carried out, if not, they own the police, army, civil defence and all of them are they not aware that River State has been over polluted for God knows how long? Has there not been calls, pleas and cries even up on till this moment? What has the Federal Government done to show that we are part of this country? Therefore, what the Governor of Rivers State has done should be saluted all over the world because he has taken a step to defend and protect his people and those who live and do business in the state because the level of pollution is frightening”.