Oil theft continues to plague Nigeria leading to enormous revenue losses. Confronting vested interests, especially in the military, will be required if President Bola Ahmed Tinubu wants to fight this scourge, writes Uche Igwe.
Nigeria has become the world’s capital for oil theft. Nigerian crude oil is stolen on an industrial scale every day. Official sources claim that the loss is up to 400,000 barrels per day. The amount stolen in the four years before 2021 reached 2.5 trillion naira. Chatham House, a London-based think tank, estimates that the revenue shortfall caused by theft may be up to £1.2 billion per month. A report from the Nigerian Presidency’s Advisory Council put the losses at £11 billion between 2009 and 2020. For a country whose total debt profile rose to 46.25 trillion naira (£81 billion) in 2022, curbing oil theft alone could help overcome the country’s ballooning debt burden.
The illegal extraction and transportation of oil have produced unquantifiable effects that go beyond a hole in the economy. Taking crude oil illegally is a risky and technical endeavour. Some of the stolen oil gets refined locally through make-shift artisanal refineries. These illicit operations lead to an increase in cases of oil spillages that leak into rivers and creeks, causing catastrophic environmental pollution in the region described as one of the most polluted ecosystems on the planet.
Finger-pointing and little action
The former National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, observed that the theft of oil has grown in sophistication with the collaboration of unscrupulous international actors. Efforts by the government to curb this menace over the years have amounted to little. Recently, a committee in the House of Representatives resolved to investigate the alleged stealing of crude oil and the attendant loss of revenue to the nation.
Multiple sources point at security agencies operating in the region as complicit in oil theft. In 2018, members of the Ijaw Youth Council alleged that the Nigerian Navy and the Joint Task Force members are part of the criminal syndicate stealing oil from the Niger Delta. In 2019, a report by civil society groups Transparency International and Civil Society Legislative and Advocacy Center revealed that military officials in the Niger Delta engage in oil theft by providing security cover to the culprits.
Seizure and destruction
The vessel MT PRAISEL was recently intercepted carrying an estimated 8,100 barrels of suspected stolen crude while being escorted out of Nigeria’s territorial waters by a naval gunboat. The naval authorities later issued a statement describing it as a misrepresentation of the facts to suggest that crude oil thieves had the backing of the agency.
In July, the authorities intercepted another vessel, MT TURA II, carrying about 150 metric tons of stolen crude heading towards Cameroon and later set it ablaze. This action sparked suspicion among stakeholders, who described the seizure and destruction as hasty. Observers suggested that the move was to cover the tracks of offenders by destroying the evidence. In April 2023, military authorities reportedly destroyed 50 illegal refineries operating in the Niger Delta region. Environmental Rights Action, a civil society organisation based in Benin City, described burning vessels laden with crude oil as a problematic and environmentally unfriendly way of curbing oil theft. Despite these complaints, officials from the Nigerian Navy insist that the agency will continue to set ablaze vessels intercepted with stolen crude.
In 2022, a private security outfit known as Tantita Security Services Limited was contracted by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to support the fight against crude oil theft. Since the deployment of this outfit, discoveries of multiple illegal pipeline breaches used for oil theft have been made, with one operating near a military post.
The breakthroughs recorded by this private security firm continue to rattle the military authorities. Officials of security agencies deployed to the region continue to frown at the fact that the operations of private security firms in the region seem more effective, creating an impression that conventional security agencies are ineffectual. The dilemma is about how far the Nigerian government can go in sustaining the cost of the operations of the private security firm running parallel with the military. Some describe it as a way of abdicating government responsibility to mercenaries. The Nigerian government, including the parliament, insists that hiring a private security firm to curb oil theft in the Niger Delta is the ‘right decision’, thereby validating speculations about the dishonesty of security agencies, indirectly passing a vote of no confidence on them.
New president, same problem
Cases of corruption and impunity in the Nigerian military are not new. However, the level of economic damage from oil theft is symptomatic of the oil curse plaguing Africa’s most populous nation. Ending oil theft will entail stepping on toes and dismantling deep-rooted vested interests.
Questions about whether the Nigerian President can muster the political will to end oil theft continue to linger amidst multiple pressures and legitimacy challenges. President Tinubu insists that he will not tolerate oil theft, but a move against oil thieves is yet to happen to scale.