How FG continues to fight militants over control of oil
The government has battled militants for control of oil in the region for years and there's no clear indication it'll stop anytime soon.
The country sits on top of one of the largest oil reserves in the world, but years of struggle for control of the oil in the Niger Delta has made it a restive region as the Federal Government continues to wage a costly war against dissenting militants and oil thieves.
Both sides are trying to exercise some form of control over the gains from the resource and the crisis, despite its consequences over the years, doesn't appear like it'll end anytime soon.
Tensions most notably kicked off in the early 1990s when a number of local minority ethnic groups started feeling exploited by the foreign oil corporations who were largely responsible for oil production in the region in partnership with the Federal Government.
Local ethnic populations felt sidelined because the gains of oil production, which the country's economy grew to be dependent on, was not being felt by the citizens in those areas, and the country as a whole. The years of oil spills, environmental destruction, and corruption didn't ease the tensions.
With the particular aim of acquiring control of regional petroleum resources, the region saw an upsurge in militant groups who engaged in oil bunkering which involved stealing oil from pipelines.
In 2013, Nigeria was the second-most-pirated nation in Africa as militants had resorted to hijacking ships, kidnapping sailors, and sometimes killing oil workers. A number of foreign employees of oil companies were abducted and held hostage for ransom.
Militant activity dried up around 2009 when then-president, late Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, signed an amnesty deal to pardon all militants in the Niger Delta region in exchange for their demobilisation and disarmament.
The situation took another turn when President Muhammadu Buhari reached the decision to phase out the Presidential Amnesty Programme after he was elected in 2015.
The limited success of the amnesty programme, criticised for being a half-measure, and the government's roll-back on it has meant the region continues to suffer.
The rise and rise of illegal oil refineries
During a recent trip to the creeks of the Niger Delta, VICE correspondent, Gianni Toboni, reported on the ongoing conflict for control between militants and the government.
According to her report, illegal oil refineries are buried deep in the creeks of the Niger Delta where they are notoriously difficult to access. Locals who engage in the practice of illegally refining crude oil are protected by paramilitary groups who secure the operations from the intrusions of the instruments of the state.
While exploring an illegal refinery, Toboni described it as looking 'post-apocalyptic' with an entire town block burnt to the ground and covered in oil and rot.
The process of refining the oil starts with pumping the crude through hoses into what is called the crude oven where the process happens. From the oven, it goes through another pipe into the cooler where they use water to cool the product, and then through another hose into the reservoir where the final product goes before pumping it into kegs which are used to export into town.
According to the guide at the scene, the process usually happens at night to avoid the authorities sniffing around.
The oven, where the crude oil is first stored, is set on fire as waste is poured into the fire to heat it and achieve the best possible results.
The guide said, "When the temperature increases, the lightest of all the products is fuel, gasoline; so that one comes out first. Then after that, kerosene follows."
In the video report by VICE, operatives of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) carried out a raid on a warehouse where illegally refined products were processed for sale.
As is protocol, they destroyed the drums of what was described as adulterated products and released it into the local river.
The Rivers State Commandant of the NSCDC, Mohammed Haruna, disclosed that they come in contact with warehouses used to sell illegal products quite often, with that particular warehouse being their second time.
He said, "We destroy whatever we see there. We cannot set them it on fire, we cannot do anything because this is a residential area."
Despite the difficulty in accessing the creeks where the illegal refineries primarily operate, Toboni reported that the NSCDC also carry out routine operations to put them out of business.
This routinely involves setting the equipment used in the process on fire and abandoning them hoping they can never be put to use anymore.
One of such facilities is raided in the video as operatives set fire to the equipment by shooting at them and hoping this ignites a fire based on the combustible elements in the environment.
The environmental costs of war
The crippling environmental damage that oil production has caused in the Niger Delta has been an issue long before local groups started to scramble for control, and it has definitely not helped that they have joined in.
When militant groups who operate the illegal refineries have to dump wastes that are gotten from their operations, they are left with little option than to dump them directly into the abundant waterways, a practice that has led to widespread pollution.
Also, the burning of the crude oven typical releases huge plumes of smoke into the air so devastating that it has led to an ongoing air pollution crisis in Port Harcourt in the form of soot, a black powdery substance consisting largely of amorphous carbon.
The actions of security agencies have made this even worse as they do the same damage as the oil thieves.
Despite admitting that releasing confiscated product into the waterways is dangerous, the NSCDC commandant said he's left with no other options.
He said, "It is more dangerous when you take it out of this place. If you don't destroy it, it will get into the society and it goes to the local market. They will put them in the vehicle. It's not good for society, so it is destroyed here."
When operatives also raid a camp and set the equipment on fire, it basically has the same effect as when the militants cook the product and pollute the environment.
The effect on the local communities is catastrophic as it has led to contaminating the main source of fishing, agriculture and drinking water.
In the VICE report, local fishermen complained of getting a burning sensation in the body after eating fish caught from the contaminated river. Fishing nets also regularly come back out of the river covered in oil.
In 2011, a landmark United Nations report revealed widespread contamination of the Niger Delta by Shell and other oil companies.
The report read, "At 22 of the 33 investigated sites along Shell Petroleum Development Company pipeline rights of way, soil contamination exceeded the limits set by the Nigerian national legislation."
Despite the environmental devastation that has resulted from oil production in the Niger Delta, little has been done to rectify it despite several promises from oil companies and the Federal Government.
Is there an end in sight?
For the people involved in the trade of refining oil illegally, it is a way of life.
According to Toboni's guide, "This is how our people survive. What you see here is a means of survival. We're fighting to eat."
One of the people working in the refineries in the creeks said, "To say the truth, I don't have any other hand work. I survive with this little work I am doing illegally."
Another said, "The oil is there. A lot of people are taking it away. So the guys, the people start experimenting how they get their resources under their own feet. So, I said 'Join them.' Me, I'm selling it."
Yar'Adua's amnesty program derailed because it was riddled with controversies such as accusations that politicians were making money off it by bringing in people who were not former militants to benefit from the program at the detriment of real militants who needed rehabilitation and reparation.
The amnesty was never going to completely solve the situation anyway as the region has always witnessed the rise of one powerful militant group replacing another on the wane.
In 2017, militant activity reduced Nigeria's oil output to its lowest level in over two decades.
This was mostly due to the operations of the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) who began their campaign in 2016 and carried out relentless attacks on oil installations in the Niger Delta region so much that it started to cripple operations.
Between January and November 2016, the group took credit for at least 45 attacks that led to the shutdown of countless oil terminals and forced major oil companies like Shell, Agip and Chevron to cease operations and withdraw their staff.
Even though the group currently has a ceasefire deal with the Federal Government that has lasted over a year now, it has repeatedly threatened to walk back on it and resume its destructive bombings.
A member of the NDA that spoke to Toboni said, "We are sick and tired of this shit. I feed you, you get fat, you make money, you live large and you keep me in the poverty stage? It's not possible.
"This trouble is not all about me, it's all about the Niger Delta people. We have kids coming up. The future, we are not looking at the present, we are looking at the future.
"We are out there to stop the operation. We blow up the pipelines. We are not out there to kill humans - just the pipelines."
The NDA's major demand has always been to ensure people of the region benefit from the rewards of the product of their lands.
Under the country's derivation principle, oil-producing states receive 13% of the oil revenue, an allocation that has been deemed too little to rid the Niger Delta region of massive infrastructure decay, widespread poverty and environmental degradation.
Locals keep demanding that the federal government create more jobs and development from the gains it is making off the Niger Delta region and failure to do that means resorting to violence to force the government's hand as it has been determined to be an effective way to command attention.
In a bid to end crude oil-related criminalities in the Niger Delta region, the Federal Government announced in 2017 that it was exploring options to legalise the operations of illegal oil refineries in the region.
"Our approach to that is that we must engage them (militants) by establishing modular refineries so that they can participate in legal refineries," Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, said.
It remains to be seen if this is the one move that finally puts an end to the battle for oil resources between militants and the government, but it could be a start.
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