In the Nigerian Delta, government authorities and oil firms have found themselves at odds with a large network of illegal refiners. Miles of pipelines run through the area’s waterways, stealing crude oil away from legal processors. Though an amnesty was agreed to with 26,000 militants in the Niger Delta three years ago, oil theft remains a huge issue for the country and involved oil firms.
Shell is currently the largest operating firm in Africa, and claims that 150,000 barrels of oil is stolen every day from Nigeria. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Finance Minister, has said that as much as 20 percent of the government’s revenue is lost to oil theft.
Illegal refiners are able to operate under the neglectful eye of Nigerian authorities, largely due to the state’s internal corruption. Corruption between security officials and politicians has left many of Nigeria’s legal refineries out of use and has opened a hole in the market that the illegal operators are willing and ready to fill. “We’re doing what they can’t,” one of the oil thieves told Reuters.
In Diebu Creek, Reuter’s reporter Joe Brock spoke to men working one of the many illegal refineries. Only one man was willing to give his name, Peter, and he described the process. “We carry the crude, put it in these drums and then we cook it and it runs down these pipes. First we get gasoline, then kerosene and then diesel.”
What Peter doesn’t describe is the effect of the refineries on the surrounding environment. Broken pipelines bleed oil into the creeks, while the micro-refineries are subject to violent fires sparked by mismanagement. As part of their crackdown on the illegal operations, Nigerian soldiers set the refineries ablaze, leaving the Delta’s ecosystem the central victim of it all.
The United National Environment Programme (UNEP) has stated that it would take 30 years and an initial investment of $1 billion to reverse the effects of pollution and damage to Ogoniland, an area that is just a portion of the Delta. The same report found that a community within Ogoniland had been drinking water containing deadly levels of benzene, a cancer-causing compound.
Since the call for amnesty three years ago, the level of violence has gone down in the area, but the refinery system remains broken. “Yeah, we got amnesty, but nothing changed. This is all we have to do,” said one of the thieves. Tensions between the illegal refineries and Nigeria’s Joint Task Force built to stop them remain high, and could lead to the revival of the same violence.
“If nothing changes we’ll be back to the guns,” another of the former militants said. “We’ll kill the oil companies, the JTF, all of them.”