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Report: The Oil Thieves of Nigeria

Report: The Oil Thieves of Nigeria How a violent conflict in the resource-rich Niger Delta has wrought ecological and economic devastation f...

Report: The Oil Thieves of Nigeria

How a violent conflict in the resource-rich Niger Delta has wrought ecological and economic devastation for a generation

January 28, 2023 | EASTERN PILOT 

As the three women from Otuabagi tell it, the Niger Delta’s woes began with a simple yet consequential misunderstanding. The European engineers came to the village in 1956, four years before Nigeria’s independence, to dig holes around the surrounding creeks for reasons that were hardly apparent to the local residents. The engineers found what they were looking for, came back with heavy equipment and announced that they were going to establish camps in the area — which, in fact, they did not know the name of.

“Our people were not too much educated,” explains the oldest of the three women at the table, who would have been a young girl in those years. “When those white men came, we did not understand [their language] well.”

When the Europeans asked what the village that lies along those oil-rich creeks was called, the residents thought they were asking what district the village belonged to — because, after all, the white men had rarely shown any interest in what names Indigenous people assigned to things, preferring instead to impose their own names and administrative concepts such as “ward,” “district” and “Nigeria” on the region’s geography. The villagers responded accordingly: We are part of Oloibiri district.

Thus, the first oil well in Nigeria was christened “Oloibiri Well 1.” To this day, Nigerians are taught that oil, the precious commodity that typically funds half of the federal budget and accounts for approximately 90% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, was first discovered outside Oloibiri town in present-day Bayelsa state in 1956. The people of Otuabagi, for their part, claim they have never recovered from this initial confusion.

“The name is one of the problems in our community. It is affecting us till [this] date,” a second woman from the community says, as thunder rolls and rain falls outside the rundown hotel where we are meeting in Bayelsa’s capital, Yenagoa, one afternoon in July 2022.

“Any good thing that will come, whether scholarship, whether hospital,” a younger woman around the table interjects, referring to the limited “corporate social responsibility” performed by oil companies in the delta, “they will take it to Oloibiri community rather than Otuabagi.”
A sign marks the site of the first oil well drilled in Nigeria (now capped), the Oloibiri Well 1, in Bayelsa state. (James Barnett)

These days, Oloibiri is a small town with a few medical and educational facilities lining the main road. Otuabagi, by comparison, is a decrepit fishing and farming village, except that the creeks have long been depleted of fish and the farms cannot grow much because of the oil spills that have repeatedly occurred since 1956. Relations between the smaller Otuabagi village and the larger town of Oloibiri are poor, owing to the lingering resentments and, more recently, violence between rival gangs known as “cults.”

“When the oil now pour, we don’t have anybody to complain to. It will just spill [into the river]. We will be packing it; we will be drinking it,” explains the oldest woman. “Sometimes, when the rain fall, it black.”

The plight of Otuabagi is a fitting microcosm of the Niger Delta, a swampy stretch of southern Nigeria where the country’s largest river empties into the Gulf of Guinea. The delta is both the country’s economic lifeblood and one of West Africa’s most perennially volatile regions. The people of Otuabagi may describe themselves as the first victims, but it is hard to find anyone in the delta who does not believe that their community has been denied both recognition and recourse.

Since the 1990s, the Niger Delta has been embroiled in a violent conflict rooted in competing visions of who owns Nigeria’s oil — and what is owed to those who have suffered from the ecological and economic devastation wrought by decades of corrupt governance and poorly regulated oil extraction. The conflict has largely faded from view in recent years, as myriad insurgencies have sprung up in different parts of the country, but it has not receded so much as assumed a new form.

Today, among all the other challenges weighing down Africa’s most populous state, Nigeria must struggle to maintain a steady production of oil in a region where militants and ordinary citizens alike increasingly steal it straight from the pipeline. Oil bunkering, artisanal refining, coal fire — there are several names to describe the business of siphoning crude and distilling it at unofficial, jerry-built refineries into various gasoline products. While illegal, oil bunkering has developed into a sophisticated and far-reaching industry that thrives because of high-level collusion among many of those responsible for ensuring Nigeria’s oil production.

Oil bunkering poses an acute economic and national security crisis for Nigeria. Estimates of the oil that is lost to theft and pipeline vandalism vary from 200,000 to 700,000 barrels a day — essentially anywhere between 10% and one third of Nigeria’s total production, except no one seems to know how much oil the country actually produces anymore for this precise reason, so estimates are of limited use. Beyond the physical theft itself, the general environment of insecurity in the Niger Delta deters companies from investing in exploration and new licenses or even making basic repairs to existing facilities. Three of Nigeria’s largest terminals were shut down for several months (or more) in 2022, in a troubling sign of the state of the country’s oil industry. Traditionally, the country has been ­Africa’s largest oil exporter, but production appears to have nearly halved since the start of 2020, based on available data. “We will not allow a few criminals to have unfettered access to the nation’s crude oil supply,” declared the generally taciturn President Muhammadu Buhari in August 2022, in response to concerns over the security of the nation’s core commodity.

To many in the delta, however, oil bunkering is an act of protest and desperation, an alternative livelihood for unemployed university graduates, single mothers and savvy entrepreneurs who otherwise lack opportunities in a resource-rich yet underdeveloped region. “We call it drinking from your well,” one illegal refiner explains. “It’s not theft. It’s our resources.” Yet those who justify the trade will not deny that bunkering is also highly dangerous and a source of immense profit for some of Nigeria’s most notorious militant leaders.

This article explains how Nigeria’s bunkering enterprise has expanded and evolved in recent years, further battering the region’s delicate environment, exacerbating corruption and empowering militants. It is based primarily on interviews with several dozen individuals in the Niger Delta, ranging from local officials to environmental activists to the illicit refiners and militants themselves. Many of the sources requested anonymity or pseudonymity in order to candidly discuss their activities and perspectives. Most of those involved in bunkering are not only concerned about potentially being identified by the authorities but also by rival gangs or militant groups, which are increasingly fighting each other for dominance over the illegal oil trade. These individuals paint a picture of a complex, at points confounding, network of militant, private-sector and state actors dealing, double-dealing and backstabbing one another in pursuit of profit and power, with competition intensifying as Nigeria heads into elections in February 2023. The illicit oil economy in the delta is always in flux, explain two cultists in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State and the delta’s primary economic hub. Bunkering pushes rivals into business while turning brothers against each other, the young men tell me.

Indeed, as they leave our meeting spot in the city one rainy afternoon, I notice that they depart in separate cars staggered some minutes apart. “Those two are old friends, but they joined rival cults. They cannot be seen together because, according to their oaths, they are supposed to kill each other,” explains my intermediary.

Nigeria would not be the state it is today — some argue there would be no state at all — without oil. It is a blessing and a curse that has shaped every stage of Nigeria’s history since independence, a commodity that has been responsible for marked economic growth as well as profligate corruption and bitter internal divisions.

In 1966, several youths from the Ijaw ethnic group, led by a young soldier named Isaac Boro, took up arms in protest of the exploitation of the delta’s oil by a distant federal government and international companies. Declaring a “Niger Delta Republic,” they fought with government forces for 12 days before being defeated, leaving a legacy of resistance and martyrdom that looms large in the delta to this day.

During the country’s brutal civil war from 1967 to 1970, both the federal government and the breakaway Republic of Biafra sought to occupy the delta in the first months of hostilities, with the region’s inhabitants caught in between. The government captured the oil fields and subsequently won the war. Nigeria’s fortunes soared over the next decade, as a result of the Arab oil embargo and attendant hike in the price of Brent crude, sparking a boon in government spending and infrastructural development. The prosperity was neither widely shared nor sustained, however, as kleptocratic military regimes pilfered chunks of oil revenue or spent it on vanity projects that today lie in disrepair.

Most communities in the Niger Delta, for their part, saw no dividends over these years — only spillage. The international oil companies (IOCs) often failed to maintain their equipment, delta communities allege, which, after decades of use, began to corrode and leak crude oil into the waterways. Authority Benson, an environmental scientist at Niger Delta University, describes the cumulative effects of these spills as ecocide. “It’s killing everything. The water becomes dead water. The forest is dead. If it’s a river, it’s a dead river, because there are no nutrients cycling.”
The second oil well drilled in Nigeria, located in the bush outside Otuabagi community in Bayelsa state, continues to leak crude despite being capped. (James Barnett)

Certain individuals in the delta managed to profit from the environmental destruction nonetheless, including a number of activists who were co-opted by the IOCs or military regimes, as well as some well-connected Deltans who discovered that, by secretly vandalizing pipelines, they could win lucrative contracts for the subsequent cleanup. “People were beginning to learn that everything is a business,” recalls “Peter,” a colleague of mine in Bayelsa, when speaking of that period. But it was a business in which only a few profited and most struggled to survive.

Environmental destruction in the Niger Delta gained global attention after the military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha executed nine environmental activists in 1995, leading to international sanctions and censure at the United Nations. The Nigerian government was unfazed. Oil revenue was more important than Nigeria’s standing in the international community and aggressive tactics were used to ensure a steady supply of petroleum. Even when Nigeria transitioned from military rule to democracy in 1999, newly elected President Olusegun Obasanjo listed the “crisis in the oil-producing areas” as the nation’s chief emergency in his inaugural address. He subsequently dispatched thousands of troops to the region to quash growing agitations.

Fyneface Dumnamene, an activist and NGO director in Port Harcourt, believes the troubles that erupted in the 1990s can be understood through what sociologists call reference group theory: The youths were exposed to wealth that was just out of reach, creating feelings of both resentment and ambition.

“They see how those who work for the IOCs are living large in gated compounds here in the city. They see how politicians take billions from the delta to live lavish lifestyles in Abuja and Lagos. They feel that they should be allowed to live like that. … They see this as their land and their resources,” Fyneface explains.

By 2003, organized street protests had morphed into full-fledged armed conflict, as youths mobilized against the government under loose coalitions such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF). Local cults — essentially university fraternities that evolved into highly sophisticated mafias — similarly expanded their reach from campus into the cities and then the hinterlands. With colorful names derived largely from Western culture — e.g., Greenlanders, Icelanders, Chelsea and KKK (that one is a bit perplexing) — many of the cults acquired military-grade weaponry and aligned themselves with various militants in an ostensible liberation struggle. The myriad groups purported to fight for the same demands, chief among them a federal restructuring to grant the oil-producing states a greater share of the oil wealth theretofore hoarded by the government in Abuja. To make their demands heard, they blew up pipelines and kidnapped expatriate oil workers with shocking regularity throughout the 2000s, sending Nigeria’s oil production tanking and sparking concerns about the future of the Nigerian state.

Although the militants spoke about the Niger Delta as a collective, they often mobilized around highly local concerns. Henry Eferegbo, a councilor representing Obelle town in the Emohua local government area of Rivers State, narrates how one oil spill in 1998 irrevocably pushed his community into violence.

That February, the casing on a Shell oil well in Obelle failed some 100 feet beneath the ground, causing gas to escape to the surface and subsequently catch fire. The inferno lasted more than two months, burning over 60 acres of land, including farms, forest and wildlife. Most residents left Obelle for fear the fires would spread into the town. “The whole community were smelling gas,” Henry recounts one evening in Port Harcourt.

Shell eventually put out the fires by pumping chemicals into the ground, but residents claim that this, in turn, poisoned the community’s aquifers for years to come. Henry learned that Shell eventually published two reports after the Obelle spill, one on the equipment malfunction and the other on the environmental impact of the chemical response. Yet, despite multiple petitions from Henry and his community, the company never shared the reports.

“I saw later that Shell claimed that it did a newer report on environmental issues in the area with community consultation. … But they never came to our community. They’ve never even showed photos that they held community dialogues or such things.”

Around the mid-2000s, some local youths formed a small gang called “New Wave,” with the ostensible purpose of forcing Shell to pay compensation for the 1998 spill. After some agitation, the youths eventually met in person with Shell representatives in Port Harcourt in 2008, according to Henry. It is unclear what was discussed at the meeting (Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary did not respond to questions about its engagement with New Wave or other aspects of its relations with members of the Obelle community) but the young men returned to Obelle and shortly thereafter killed 12 people, including the traditional chief of the community and the head of the local vigilante outfit.

“The boys claimed that Shell had told them that they [Shell] had been paying those community leaders to avoid paying a larger compensation to the community,” says Henry during our interview one night in Port Harcourt. “So, it was a revenge on those who had taken bribes.”

Whether those claims are to be believed, the result was that the upstart cult gained a stranglehold over the community and began clashing with rival gangs in Emohua.

“Till [this] date, my community has no peace,” Henry laments, flipping through his phone to show photos of the informal camps for internally displaced people that have popped up around Obelle as residents desert the town. “The funny thing is that the same people who said they are fighting Shell no longer talk about Shell. They are killing Indigenes.”

Henry could just as easily be speaking about the conflict in the Niger Delta as a whole, which began as a broad-based insurgency in opposition to exploitation and impunity but almost immediately devolved into a fractured melange of rival warlords. Veterans of the creeks will rattle off the noms de guerre of the various “generals” (as militants refer to their commanders) and their ever-shifting allegiances as if recounting the mid-season trades of sports teams. (“Asari turned on Boyloaf in 2007” — “No, no, it was Asari who was betrayed, and it was 2009,” and so on.)

The militants were never fully unified but, as their divisions grew, their activities came to resemble a hybrid of criminal violence and insurgency. Expatriate oil workers may have originally been kidnapped to send a political message but it was hard to ignore the fact that those with Western passports would fetch a hefty ransom. As expatriates relocated, kidnappings of Nigerians spiked for reasons that seemed to have little to do with oil or related grievances. By the late 2000s, high-seas piracy in the Gulf of Guinea had become a global concern, as militants began attacking commercial shipping and offshore oil installations. The “generals” always purported to carry on the mantle of the liberation struggle, but it seemed that they pursued increasingly parochial interests.

Faced with an intractable conflict that it could not win after more than a decade of military efforts, the Nigerian government opted to make peace with the militants in 2009. Under the presidency of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, perhaps the only northern Muslim who is revered in the delta to this day, Nigeria initiated the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP), promising the militants not only a legal amnesty for their actions but also temporary stipends, professional skills training and a host of other development programs.

The PAP was, in many ways, a success when one considers how dire the situation seemed throughout the 2000s. It helped quell the worst of the violence and attendant oil loss, giving Nigeria a degree of stability just before it began to face an even bloodier insurgency in the north with the Boko Haram Islamist militant group. But the amnesty was never the gold standard of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (“DDR”) that Nigerian officials have sometimes claimed. In fact, the amnesty itself may have been less significant in stabilizing the delta than the attendant “surveillance contracts” that the government quietly offered several militant groups — that is, payouts to hastily formed private security companies run by the militants in return for safeguarding the pipelines. In other words, the federal government sought to buy off its erstwhile adversaries.

This co-optation was a top-down affair that left a wide gap between the militant leaders and the rank and file. The “post-conflict” trajectories of several of the various warlords point to an emerging class of conflict entrepreneurs who parlayed their reputations for fighting prowess into positions of official or semiofficial authority. The MEND commander Farah Dagogo entered politics, heading to Abuja as a member of the national House of Representatives (ironically, the man who avoided capture as a militant landed a stint in jail in 2022 on seemingly politicized charges). The governor of Rivers made the notorious cultist Ateke Tom a ceremonial chief in the same communities of Okrika he had once terrorized. The NDPVF founder Asari Dokubo, a convert to Islam and self-styled mujahid, became an internet personality known for parading his fighters around Port Harcourt and loudly selling his endorsement during elections. The unofficial leader of MEND, Government Ekpemupolo, aka Tompolo, eschewed the limelight adored by many of his peers, opting instead to quietly amass a fortune through surveillance contracts. With his political and business savvy, he is, one often hears, the “shadow government” of his native Delta state.

The average fighter who entered the amnesty has far less to show for it. Some ex-militants claim they never see their monthly stipends, at least not in full: Abuja pays the commanders who, in turn, are supposed to distribute the stipends to their “boys,” but, of course, this leaves ample room for siphoning funds. The amnesty has also been plagued by allegations that contracts for the job-training programs were awarded to politically connected individuals rather than organizations with the requisite qualifications to steer thousands of ex-militants back into society. To make matters worse, there was no meaningful effort to provide psychosocial support to the former militants, explains one community organizer who conducted an external review of the program.

“Most of those boys had so many psychological issues,” says Emem Okon, director of the Kebetkache Women Development & Resource Centre in Port Harcourt. “I remember a boy in one of the camps who ran up to me and shouted, ‘Put your hand on my head! Put your hand on my head to see if it will stop the dreams!'” Seated beside her co-workers in her crowded office, she lets out a sigh.

“There was another boy who said he kept hearing the screams of the girl he had killed,” Okon recalls. “You cannot simply return these people to their communities and call it peace.” If the Nigerian government failed to prepare those who accepted the amnesty for a transition to civilian life, the bigger failure is seen in all those fighters who never laid down arms in the first place.

“Antonio” is one of those fighters. The intermediary who arranges for us to meet at a secluded bar in Port Harcourt warns me that he is “a very deadly man,” a veteran militant who now oversees some oil-bunkering operations and rarely enters town. For his own part, Antonio describes himself as an active member of MEND, one of “Tompolo’s most loyal,” who has stayed in the creeks for years.

It shows. Antonio has the face of a young man and the hands of an 80-year-old. Bony, cracked, covered in blotches, Antonio’s long fingers awkwardly grip a bottle of Budweiser as he describes the hardships of militancy. “Malaria don kill us,” he remarks in pidgin English of life in the creeks, with all the bitterness of someone who has come close to death more than once. At one point, he begins to unbutton his shirt to show me the bug bites that cover his body before I hastily advise him against creating a scene.

Antonio naturally blames the government for the delta’s woes and complains that Abuja has not been sincere in its pledges to spur development. But he is also inadvertently candid about the role that he and his fellow militants play in perpetuating the violence. Those militant kingpins who accepted the amnesty, multiple sources such as Antonio attest, never intended to commit to more than a partial demobilization. They enrolled some of their boys in the amnesty but also kept some of their best fighters in the creeks, calculating that, to exercise influence in the delta in the 21st century, you have to maintain a credible threat of force.

“Formerly, we were not carrying guns,” Antonio says of the youths who would go on to form MEND. “But we got to understand that the only language government understand is violence.”

He takes a sip of beer, then adds with a smile, “If you don’t shoot gun, they don’t hear you.”

Oil theft has been a central feature of the Niger Delta conflict for many years. The militants realized early on that they could finance their operations by siphoning crude from pipelines and selling it on the regional black market. Antonio claims that MEND has historically acquired some of its arsenal through a crude-for-weapons trade involving international arms dealers. “I have seen whole lot of them,” he says, pointing to my white skin. “They will sell us guns for oil. … We do [it] with barges at night,” he elaborates.

The sale of unrefined crude onto the global market remains a mainstay of militant activity, but it has also been matched, if not surpassed, by a rise in oil theft for purposes of local, illegal refining. The barrier to entry is low and the returns on investment are high, making it a veritable cottage industry. As one young refiner says, “It is a family business now. Men, women, children … Everyone gets involved.”

The growth of illegal refining is not simply a question of abundant supply but also unmet local demand. While Nigeria produces crude oil in abundance, the country does not have a single functioning state-owned refinery (a private refinery established by the billionaire Aliko Dangote is set to come online in the first quarter of 2023, after many delays). Similarly, despite government subsidies, the cost of imported diesel is high and the government hardly imports any kerosene. Yet both of these are household essentials in a country with one of the most notoriously inconsistent power grids on the planet.

Local refiners therefore focus on producing those three products: gasoline, diesel and kerosene. While gasoline is the most profitable, it is also the most difficult to produce and is therefore primarily the domain of the larger bunkering sites managed by the militants who have the requisite connections to sell it onto regional and international markets. Those with smaller operations tend to specialize in diesel and kerosene, as there is high demand within the delta for these products and so the logistical costs are lower than with gasoline.

Those involved in bunkering prefer the term “artisanal refining” because they feel — and not without reason — that their work is a craft. The techniques are similar to what Deltans have employed for generations to make “kai-kai,” a pungent moonshine derived from palm wine that, for the uninitiated, can make the right side of the face grow numb and twitch (or so my experience suggests). These distillation techniques were first put toward refining oil during the civil war, when Biafran secessionists sought to exploit the delta’s oil without the benefit of formal refineries. The techniques have grown more sophisticated since, especially in the past few years as the business has expanded.

As refiners explain it, their sites have massive steel “pots” several yards long in which crude oil, having been delivered either by boat or makeshift pipeline to the site, is “cooked” with fire. The vapors are passed via pipes into a separate tank where they cool and condense into various fuels (gasoline, kerosene, diesel) depending on how long they are left in the tank. Increasingly, the refiners use large conical “condensers” to catch more evaporation in the cooling process and thereby maximize how much refined product they can distill from the crude. Depending on the quantity and type of refined product produced, it can be loaded into anything ranging from jerrycans and small fuel drums to massive 12,000-gallon fuel trucks for transport and sale.

“We have more experience, and more [university] graduates into it,” explains “Francis,” an artisanal refiner in Port Harcourt. Francis turned to bunkering after he failed to secure a steady job with his engineering degree. Using his old campus connections, he got a job building “pots” for the cultists and eventually made enough money to set up his own operation.

Showing me pictures of the equipment on his phone, he smiles: “Refining is getting more sophisticated. We’re less careless than we used to be. Mistakes and risks are fewer.”

“Mary” is somewhat less sanguine in discussing the risks associated with the trade. A single mother in Bayelsa with more limited education, she says she turned to artisanal refining after her previous business venture failed and a neighbor introduced her to the trade.

“Me, I really want job. If I have a good job, I will stop,” she says when we meet outside Yenagoa, expressing a degree of embarrassment in describing her trade. “But the sweetness of the business will not let me go out.” Starting with a limited investment to purchase a 7-gallon drum, she moved her way up to a 70-gallon operation and now runs a medium-sized site that employs more than a dozen workers, a site manager and a secretary. Her output is still well below that of some of the militants, whose operations can produce five 12,000-gallon tankers of gasoline a month. (“They have the money, they have the power,” she says.) But she does far better than in any other job she has ever held, earning up to $2,000 a night in revenue, of which she may take home roughly a third in profit after paying her workers, security, shipping expenses and related costs.

At a time when the Nigerian public faces record-high inflation and frequent fuel shortages, many ask, if only rhetorically, what the hell is happening to all of the oil the country supposedly has. To answer that a sizable chunk of it (a tenth? a quarter? a third?) is being stolen straight from the pipeline by unemployed university graduates and single mothers would seem implausible. And it would indeed only tell part of the story. An enterprise as complex and far-reaching as this could not function without significant collusion from both government and private-sector actors.

Bunkerers need to know when oil is flowing through a given pipeline in order to properly tap the line and divert the flow. They often get this information from sources “upstream,” they say, meaning either employees of the oil companies or the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). In order to sell illegally acquired crude or refined products on anything other than the local black market, the bunkerers need certificates and permits from any number of government agencies, particularly if the oil is to be exported internationally. The documents are easy to acquire from corrupt officials, says one Port Harcourt businessman involved in various aspects of the illegal oil trade. “NNPC is neck-deep in it; the security is neck-deep in it; immigration is neck-deep in it; customs …”

In a recent TV interview, the Nigerian navy’s top official hinted at such high-level collusion, describing a trend in which naval forces will seize tankers on the ocean that lack necessary permits, only for a government official to hastily update its manifest of approved vessels to include the impounded tanker, forcing the navy to release it. The Port Harcourt business owner similarly suggests that much of the paperwork that bunkerers acquire is actually ad hoc and sloppy. After all, once the bunkerers (or whomever they sell their product to) leave Nigerian waters, any official they encounter is unlikely to be able to know the particulars of the Nigerian oil exportation bureaucracy. Simply having some papers with the right letterhead can therefore make a product seem aboveboard.

The collusion is not limited to mid-level bureaucrats. “Politicians, they are behind us,” says one bunkerer in Port Harcourt, who claims to have done “cooking” on behalf of several elected officials. Essentially everyone I interview in the delta agrees that politicians are some of the biggest investors in bunkering, and the militant or cult affiliations of different chairpersons, senators and governors are discussed as an open secret. It is not hard to see why politics and business go hand in hand. Political campaigns in Nigeria are expensive and cutthroat. Bunkering, in all its forms, generates a tremendous amount of revenue (presumably in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, if not higher). Politicians therefore rely on proceeds from bunkering to fund their campaigns during election season, which is one reason they only ever selectively attempt to curb bunkering activities while in office, explains Fyneface, the activist and researcher in Port Harcourt.

Bunkering also persists because of corruption within the security sector. Military, police and paramilitary forces are deployed in heavy numbers across the delta to protect critical oil infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, a number of them are in on the cut.

Two senior government officials in the delta say that the multi-agency security force tasked with countering bunkering, known as the Joint Task Force (JTF), has been undermined by corruption. “We cannot rule out that the JTF has been compromised,” one says, while the other is blunter: “We’ve seen a lot of compromise.”

“There are some coordinates [of bunkering sites] we give. They don’t touch those coordinates,” says the first official. “Sometimes the soldiers will tell us not to set fire to a certain camp,” he continues, suggesting that this is because such sites are linked to local military commanders who have invested in bunkering themselves.

Every artisanal refiner I interview says that they bribe security forces. “Government pay some policemen 65,000 naira [about $100] a month,” claims Francis. “You come to our camp, we will pay you and your boys 500,000 naira [$800]. You are paid for months,” he says with a satisfied smile.

When I ask Mary, one of the bunkerers in Bayelsa, if she pays bribes, she laughs.

“Of course! We Nigeria; we are corrupt!” When caught, Mary will beg for a grace period to gradually wind down operations in order to make a limited return on her investment, though implicit in what she describes is a quid pro quo of some sort. “They will give us little time. … They will say, ‘You people have spent money to set up pot.’ They understand. So, they will give us two weeks.” She leans back and opens her arms as if to preemptively deflect judgment. “They are human now. They will pity you.”

Still, the military has made a number of high-profile raids on bunkering sites and seized several massive tankers carrying illegal crude since the summer of 2022. After seeing news of one such seizure in September, I sent a message to a contact close to the bunkerers in Bayelsa to get their sense of whether this marked a shift in approach. “Historically, government will make a show to crack down on bunkering ahead of elections,” my contact replied. “The refiners are hoping this will reduce after February.”

Between the overcast weather and the muted colors of a polluted landscape, the highway linking Port Harcourt to Yenagoa makes for a bleak drive on the days my colleague and I traverse it. The slow traffic caused by heavy seasonal rains washing over poorly tarmacked road is compounded at several points by obstructions: tanker trucks that have either been impounded or, in one particularly disquieting instance, charred in a fireball caused by leaking contraband.

The palm trees and mangroves that flank us are stained black for a yard or so upward from the roots. “When it floods, if there has been spill, the water is black, so it will leave its mark on the trees,” my driver explains. The foliage at the top, he adds, is only green because the rains have recently washed away the soot. Otherwise, the forest canopy would also be black. Soot is one of the two principal waste products of artisanal refining. The initial burn-off of the crude produces high volumes of the semi-toxic matter, particularly at the less sophisticated refineries, which snakes into the air and is dispersed for miles around via the wind. Health officials attribute an uptick in respiratory and skin diseases to the enormous quantities of soot that have blanketed the region since the upsurge in bunkering a few years ago.
The second oil well drilled in Nigeria, located in the bush outside Otuabagi community in Bayelsa state, continues to leak crude despite being capped. (James Barnett)

The other principal waste product is a thick discharge that results from the final stage of the cooling and storage process. Some refiners claim they are learning to make new products from this discharge — road construction companies will buy it for tarmac, I’m told, and some mechanics use it as grease or engine oil. But many freely admit to burying a sizable quantity of this pollutant in the ground at the end of each night.

“The water in my community is completely black because of the waste from artisanal refining,” one official with an environmental agency says.

That bunkering is contributing to environmental degradation is not lost on those involved in the business. It simply takes a backseat to basic economic logic.

“Some white men came to tell us about the [environmental] effects of illegal bunkering,” recounts one militant in Rivers who took part in the 2009 amnesty.

“They put us at that hotel near airport for one week,” he says, remembering the premium accommodation he received far more vividly than the substance of any workshop held by some Western NGOs (given the years he spent in the creeks, it is hard to blame him).

“But nothing came out. They said we would get salary [from the amnesty] but nothing was coming out. So, we went back.”

I ask him if he believes what those white men told him, that oil bunkering — now his primary trade — is harmful to the environment, and if that bothers him.

“Of course!” he replies, offended at such an asinine question. “We can see it with our eyes.”

“But that Shell, those spills,” he continues, “are they not harmful? At least with our own, we can eat.”

It would be easy to brush off the young man’s attitude as self-interested whataboutism, but he raises a crucial and hotly contested question: To what extent is bunkering responsible for the oil spills in the Niger Delta?

Unsurprisingly, views diverge sharply on this question. The oil companies maintain that pipeline malfunctions and equipment failures are rare and most spillage is a result of sabotage. A number of officials I interview concur. The engineer Enai Reuben, head of the petroleum and pollution department in the Bayelsa State Ministry of Environment, speaks candidly and does not refrain from criticizing the IOCs during our interview. But when I ask if most of the oil spills in his state are the fault of the oil companies, he shakes his head and rolls his eyes, as if he has had to answer this question more often than he cared.

“Sometimes we have 20 to 30 incidents in one month. Out of those 30, only one might be an equipment failure. The most are caused by oil theft,” Reuben says.

He acknowledges that his numbers do not give the full picture and that communities and oil companies will disagree over the cause of a leak, since the question of compensation may be at stake. But, he insists, from a purely technical standpoint, the spillage from tapping oil pipelines tends to be much more significant than that caused by equipment failures.

Morris Alagoa, the head of the Niger Delta branch of one of Nigeria’s leading environmental NGOs, contests claims such as these. Seated in a cluttered office beneath detailed maps of the delta’s waterways and a set of portraits of the late activists Isaac Boro and KenSaro Wiwa (“the wall of heroes”), Morris argues passionately that the government has lost all credibility when it comes to investigating and preventing oil spills.

“The government is straight bedfellows with the oil companies. It is regulatory capture,” Morris says, adding that the IOCs are allowed to operate with dismally poor safety and environmental standards. “What they are doing here in the Niger Delta they cannot do in their own countries.”

Morris’ team has conducted field assessments across the delta and found that, contrary to the claims of the oil companies, many spills are the result of “first- or second-party” failures, meaning that either the pipeline owner or the maintenance contractor is at fault. Morris suggests that “third-party” spills are rarely the result of sloppy bunkering operations — the “local boys” have gotten good, after all — but are instead intentional acts of vandalism, with either a political motive (e.g., militants blowing up a pipeline) or an economic one (e.g., local business owners causing spills in the hopes of getting cleanup contracts).

Nonetheless, Morris is no apologist for the bunkerers. Whether it is illegal refining or equipment malfunction, “It’s like a bullet coming out of the gun,” Morris says. “The environmental impact is the same.”

Shortly after our meeting, I travel on Morris’ recommendation to Ikarama, a Bayelsa village that he says has suffered from the highest rate of oil spills of any community in the delta. At a small lounge at the edge of the village, I meet an elderly resident named Washington and a former youth leader named Benjamin (“Comrade” Benjamin, as many self-described activists prefer). Both men lay the blame for the community’s troubles at the feet of Shell and Agip, the two companies that maintain pipelines in the area. And the troubles are plenty.

Whenever there is a spill, the crude floods straight up to the villagers’ doorsteps, in one instance drowning a small child. Ikarama suffers unnaturally high rates of cancer, although no one has proper statistics, as no hospital in Bayelsa has the resources to diagnose it, meaning that those who are able to will travel out of state for treatment. The community has also experienced tremors in recent years, which Washington suspects are due to drilling in the area. To make matters worse, the oil companies will always blame the community for vandalism, even when everyone knows it is equipment malfunctions causing the spills.

Having heard that bunkering has taken off in this part of Bayelsa, I cannot help but question the assertion that all of the spills have been the fault of the oil companies. But, at a certain point, the question loses relevance. No one is held accountable in any case and, as with Morris’ gun analogy, the result of any spill is the same: Ikarama is barely habitable.

To illustrate this point, the two men take me across the road to an oily patch of water, eliciting some suspicious looks from the soldiers guarding the adjacent pipeline (that the security forces protect pipelines rather than ordinary citizens is a bitter refrain in the delta).

“I dug it as a fishpond last year,” Benjamin says, standing on the edge of the pond, “and I saw crude coming from the ground.” Unsurprisingly, there are no fish.

As Benjamin moves around the pond to inspect the stunted crops in the neighboring plot, I ask Washington how many spills have occurred in Ikarama in his lifetime. He thinks for a moment and then replies, “Fifteen, if memory serves.”

I ask if the oil companies ever pay compensation for the spills. He shakes his head. Benjamin, circling back to where we are standing, concurs: “The community gets nothing.”

“If you hold guns like the militants, it is then you [who] can get something,” Washington adds with a chuckle.

Though neither man makes any other mention of militancy that day, it is clear that Ikarama, like every community in the delta, lives under the shadow of those who hold the guns. Not long before my visit, an activist and a village chief in the neighboring community sought to put a stop to bunkering activities, after seeing how the waste product was damaging farms. Cognizant that some local cults were involved in the business and recruiting the village youth with promises of easy money, the two took pains to dialogue and reach an arrangement that would satisfy all parties.

The cultists murdered them instead.

The man sitting across the table starts our interview by giving his “bush name,” as the pirates refer to their nom de guerre, which in his case seems to be taken from a character in a popular action film. It is a bit incongruous, given his small stature and bizarre proportions, to say nothing of his awkward smile and soft voice. Not exactly the stuff of Hollywood characters, whether heroes or villains. The story he begins to narrate, however, is quite cinematic, if of the more graphic variety. It contains anecdotes of human sacrifice (the small man is a “priest” for his gang), a narrow escape from a bloody ambush laid by an erstwhile ally and daring assaults on global shipping lanes hundreds of miles off the Nigerian coast.

The small man’s gang is one of a handful that have earned the Gulf of Guinea the unenviable distinction of being the world’s most pirate-afflicted waters several years running. He is violent and unremorseful and seems to derive satisfaction from describing in detail the tactics he would employ to kidnap me if I were to leave our secluded meeting spot by boat (I have made other arrangements). He does not remember, or perhaps care to admit, how many people he has killed and kidnapped, but he does not deny that it is substantial. Yet, the short man claims, he has not had the need to kill or kidnap so much these days. “Now, this present time, pirates we dey calm because of this bunkering,” he explains in pidgin English. “As this bunkering come, we no dey high seas. Bunkering dey sustain us.”

Piracy, he elaborates, is a high-risk, high-reward activity. You might board a big tanker and kidnap a few “oyibo,” as white people (or, more broadly, non-Africans) are known in local parlance, collecting tens of thousands of dollars as ransom after holding them for weeks or months onshore, with all the stress and logistical expenses that entails. Or you might sit in a crowded skiff on the ocean for a week, waiting in vain for the right target to appear before heading back to shore empty-handed. Plus, you have the various West African navies, principally Nigeria’s of late, conducting patrols throughout the ocean. Staying on the mainland and kidnapping local travelers in the creeks is less risky and resource-intensive than high-seas piracy, which is why this type of kidnapping actually constitutes the bulk of what gets labeled “piracy” in Nigeria. But the payouts tend to be smaller.

If you have a decently sized artisanal refining operation, by contrast, you can expect to have revenue of roughly $2,000 each night of operations from an activity that generally poses much lower risk.

This gets to one of the more significant, and perhaps controversial, claims that I hear from diverse sources across the delta: While bunkering is increasingly dominated by some of the most hardened militants and cultists in the region, it is precisely for this reason that the trade has contributed to a degree of stability. In this telling, the rise in bunkering has been the primary factor behind the decrease in kidnappings, high-seas piracy and other forms of militancy over the past few years.

“For some time, there has been this artisanal refining. … It has shifted the focus of young men,” explains Precious, an NGO worker, describing the situation in her community in Rivers State. “It might not be a legal means of livelihood, but it has shifted their attention [from kidnapping] to something else.” When the government cracked down on bunkering in her area in 2022, she says, the youths retaliated through kidnappings, rape and attacks on the community.

One government official in Bayelsa agrees. “A lot of these boys were already criminals. They now see this as an economic outlet to improve their money,” he explains. The artisanal refiners I interview suggest that, most days, their business is essentially nonviolent. The primary risk is that of accidental explosions during the delicate refining process, though they also worry about their sites being shut down by security forces or raided by rivals. To avoid the latter, they generally maintain armed security at the refining site and when transporting the product along the creeks. Many pirates, militants and cultists do not, in fact, work on artisanal refining sites themselves — that requires some technical expertise. Rather, they tend to own the larger refining sites and hire local craftsmen to run day-today operations, or they serve as private security for the smaller artisanal refiners in a de facto protection racket. Mary, from Bayelsa, for example, says she pays militants around 100,000 naira (about $150) per night to escort her product on the creeks in order to prevent “community boys” from stealing it. For this reason, bunkering is a heavily militarized trade. “Ninety percent of bunkerers are arms-bearers,” says the MEND fighter Antonio, although he clarifies that he means those who sponsor or manage sites more than the refiners themselves. “It’s like a drug business.”

Antonio claims that the weapons serve as an effective deterrent. Bunkerers talk business far more than they fight each other, he says.

“You can’t leave your own territory to my territory excepting it is for business. You can’t come to steal. We can sit down with other cult groups to discuss business, selling oil,” Antonio adds.

The picture Antonio paints is a bit rosier than the reality. Rival militants and cultists certainly collaborate and transact. So long as the different gangs respect their rivals’ territory, clashes over bunkering operations are rare. But this is not always the case.

Officials in Bayelsa describe one “General Endurance Amagbe” as the most dangerous militant in the state. Little is known about him, as he and his gang seem to have recently emerged from relative obscurity to strong-arm their way into the bunkering business, possibly in collusion with local politicians. His men have violently overrun several communities in Bayelsa to set up refining sites, and he is suspected of blowing up a pipeline and clashing with pirate gangs in a battle for supremacy (whether he or the pirates hold the upper hand is a matter of dispute).

Peter believes that bunkering has become more violent over time as men like Amagbe have entered the business.

“All the criminals, all those with guns, are now involved in bunkering, which has made it a deadly trade because they don’t care about life,” he tells me, referring to the cultists who murdered the village chief and activist near Ikarama in 2022. Many artisanal refiners will join cults for protection, Peter adds, meaning that even some of the young men who turn to bunkering as an alternative to violent crime are soon a part of that world nonetheless. Francis, for example — the former engineering student who turned to bunkering after failing to secure a job — has since become a “striker” (hit man) for the Icelanders cult. “Artisanal refining” no longer exists as an innocent cottage industry insulated from the region’s gang warfare, if that ever was the case.

The militants, of course, have every incentive to present oil bunkering as the lesser of two evils so long as they are profiting from the industry. And indeed, their claims carry an unsubtle threat: If the government cracks down on bunkering, we will retaliate.

Several of the militants I interview hint that pipeline sabotage and kidnappings will increase in the lead up to the February 2023 elections, as “the people of the Niger Delta” can no longer contain their anger at the government’s approach of “theft and neglect.”

Needless to say, I am not the only one they are passing this message to. And it seems to pay dividends for at least one set of militants.

In September, Tompolo received a new surveillance contract worth an estimated 48 billion naira (about $110 million) from the NNPC. The results were so abrupt and remarkable that they strain credulity. Within weeks, his men helped authorities “discover” nearly 60 illegal tapping points across the delta, one of which connects to a well-engineered 2.5-mile “secret” tap line that snakes through the sea and unloads at an offshore platform.

In a different country, these “discoveries” would be a major embarrassment — to Shell (which operates the pipeline that the “secret” 2.5-mile tap line is attached to), the security agencies, the NNPC and every politician from the local to the federal level who represents the delta or is otherwise responsible for oil-related matters there. Yet there seems to be little soul-searching. Tompolo may be receiving official accolades for his “partnership” in tackling oil theft and bunkering, but some of his own men profess to be involved in the trade. And while critics may blame the incumbent All Progressive’s Congress (APC) for Nigeria’s dismal oil output of late, few in the delta are under any illusions about the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which holds the governorships of Rivers, Delta and Bayelsa states.

In fact, before the “discovery” of “secret” pipelines by Tompolo’s men, it was the Rivers governor, Nyesom Wike, who led the charge against oil bunkering earlier in the year. The ostensible impetus for the campaign was to reduce the levels of soot blanketing Port Harcourt and neighboring communities (the campaign was successful in this regard). But many in Rivers believe that Wike’s efforts targeted only those sites linked to his rivals within the PDP, amid a major schism within the party. Others suggest his interest was in putting young cultists out of the refining business so that they would have to rely on him for handouts in return for doing “jobs” come election season. With a highly contested gubernatorial election on the horizon, one veteran cultist with a history of what Nigerians call “political thuggery” warns that “Rivers will be the most bloody [state] in the delta” in 2023.

Finger-pointing is therefore a futile exercise in the delta. The economic logic of oil theft, corruption and warlordism is too powerful to lend itself to technocratic fixes or swapping one party for another. Those in the delta who see a way out of the present conundrum say that it must involve a restructuring of the oil industry and, by extension, the country’s political system as a whole.

“If there is simply a crackdown, a total crackdown on illegal refining and crude oil theft without alternatives, the Niger Delta is going to be hot again,” believes Fyneface, the activist in Port Harcourt.

The alternatives that Fyneface proposes, alternatives that the bunkerers I interview endorse, primarily focus on establishing modular refineries, i.e., simplified refineries that produce less oil but are also less capital-intensive than the larger sites preferred by most oil companies. Advocates, including some government officials, say that those involved in illegal refining already understand the basic process and would need only limited training to operate and profit from modular refineries regulated by the government.

“There should be an organized way to do this [refining] lawfully and properly,” says Iselema Gbaranbiri, the commissioner for environment in Bayelsa, when I visit his office in Yenagoa.

But even among supporters of the idea, optimism is tempered. The government promised to establish modular refineries in 2017, when the vice president toured the region after a resurgence of militant activity. That was the last anyone heard about those plans. And even if the government were to commit to modular refining, skeptics note, it could take years to construct the necessary infrastructure, which would test the patience of the powerful militants who are already reaping significant profits — directly and indirectly — from the business.

Most Deltans hope that modular refineries would be only part of a broader restructuring of the country’s revenue-sharing arrangements, with more oil revenue flowing to the delta rather than Abuja. The government has billed the wide-ranging Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) that was signed into law in 2021 as the culmination of two decades of heated debate around restructuring. Among other things, the law promises to improve relations between oil companies and “host communities” by having oil and gas companies donate 3% of their annual operating expenditures to fund projects in these communities.

But the legislation, which has not yet been fully put in place, has been received with mixed reactions in the delta. For example, the Ijaw Youth Council, a powerful sociocultural organization of the Ijaw ethnic group, has hedged in its response.

“Inasmuch as the PIA and the 3% to oil-producing communities is going to go well, we are in support,” Clever Inodu, a chair of the council in Bayelsa, tells me. “Inasmuch as the PIA does not reflect the interests of the people, we are going to reject it.”

In Bayelsa, Peter is skeptical. “Invariably, the IOCs are going to be the judge of their own case,” he says, in reference to the fact that the IOCs will appoint the board of trustees for managing host community relations.

Also of concern is the fact that the PIA stipulates that if host communities disrupt oil operations through protests or vandalism, the companies may reduce their annual contributions to those communities.

“Moses,” an exceptionally intellectual former militant who now works as a groundskeeper, expresses this concern when we meet for a chat on a typically gray, rainy-season afternoon in Yenagoa.

“What is to stop the oil companies or the government from staging a crisis in some community to avoid making payment?” he asks rhetorically. We are seated outside a fuel station, watching drivers line up to spend their naira, each day worth less because of inflation, on a commodity that is sitting in abundance right beneath the soil.

Moses says that all the talk of the PIA and restructuring is meaningless if the government does not negotiate with the militants and bunkerers directly, as it did in 2009. Unexpectedly, he asks if I agree with his recommendation of dialogue.

I tell him that I don’t know. Dialogue is preferable to violence. But it seems that some of the militants have become powerful through the conflict. Would they be good-faith negotiators?

Moses shrugs and concedes that it doesn’t matter what we think in any case. “It is not likely that the government is going to sit down with the militants and offer them anything new, since they believe they offered them everything with the amnesty [in 2009].”

But, he insists with confidence, many militants would be ready to lay down arms.

“Anybody doing something illegal must have some issues of conscience,” he says of the men in the creeks.

It occurs to me that he is likely speaking from personal experience.

On my last day in Bayelsa, Peter and I drive out to Otuabagi with one of the women from the community we had previously interviewed. She serves as our guide to see the first oil wells in Nigeria, named (to the frustration of those from Otuabagi) Oloibiri Wells 1 and 2.

The wells have not been functional for some years. They sit capped, if imperfectly, and are now the domain of Aiteo, a Nigerian energy firm that bought the site in 2015. Plagued by bad publicity and diminishing returns stemming from the insecurity, the IOCs have begun divesting from onshore oil production in favor of more capital-intensive offshore drilling, handing over their wells to under-resourced Nigerian companies like Aiteo that many Deltans say are even more corrupt and careless than the multinational behemoths they have long loved to hate.

The first well is easy enough to spot, situated as it is at the junction of two small roads and marked by a large sign as well as a small monument that, according to its plaque, is the foundation stone of a yet-to-be-built oil and gas research institute. The second well is hidden in the bush without any fanfare. We leave our truck on the road and trek through tall grass and soggy ground for 15 minutes before reaching a small clearing. At the center is a hunk of rusted metal sitting atop a small pool of rainwater. If it were the dry season, my guide explains, we would see oil seeping out from the ground. Instead, the well seems to hover above this small puddle, which is dark, shiny and slimy to the touch. The surrounding ground is black and barren for about a yard in every direction as if cleared by fire. But it is wet and sticky.

Peter is insistent that we do not stay more than a few minutes at the well. Dusk is approaching, a dangerous time to travel by road, and the Otuabagi axis has witnessed several killings by cultists in recent weeks. We turn and trudge back to the car as thunderclouds gather in the sky.

As we drive back to Yenagoa, Peter and our guide discuss the recent spate of insecurity around Otuabagi, Peter’s eyes cautiously scanning the jungle on each side of the road as he drives.

“They are not in this world anymore,” Peter says of the cultists. “Their thinking system is very obscure. Killing a human being, to them, for sacrifice and other things, means nothing.”

When we reach the junction with the highway, Peter pauses to watch a young man on a motorbike zip past a rudimentary police checkpoint. The officer shouts and belatedly picks up his AK-47 that he has left propped beside a log. Strapped to the bike that is now zipping out of sight is a large canvas sack of the sorts that ferry bunkered oil around the communities. Had the young man stopped, Peter explains, he would have had to pay the police several hundred naira (a dollar or so) to pass through with his product intact.

As if on another train of thought, Peter now speaks more loudly and emphatically. “Before these companies began exploring in this area, no one cared about this fucking oil in the ground.” He shakes his head. “Now, everything is a business.”

Of course, it is not another train of thought. The leaking crude that kills the crops and the fish, the young men who kill their neighbors for arcane rituals and parochial rivalries, the politicians who outsource the killing while speaking grandiosely about harnessing the Niger Delta’s potential for development — everything is a business.

I look at my boots, which are covered in the tarry mud from the second well. Despite washing them once I return to the hotel, I don’t seem to get it all out. It may just be in my head but, months later, if I look closely, it seems as if the chunks of mud have melded into the rubber soles of the boots, a violent collision of the organic and the inorganic, now inseparable.

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