Nigeria pledged to hunt down those behind the industrial-scale theft and smuggling of its crude oil, a trade worth millions of dollars a day, warning those caught would be treated as enemies of the state.
Defence Minister Godwin Abbe said the government had set up an investigative panel to fish out Nigerians and foreigners engaged in the illicit trade, known locally as “bunkering” and a financial lifeline for rebels in Africa’s top energy producer.
“Efforts are on to identify those behind oil bunkering and when they are identified and caught they are going to be treated as enemies of the state,” Abbe said at a ceremony for senior officers at the National Defence College in the capital Abuja.
“International assessors who think that our exclusive economy zone is free for them to continue with their nefarious activities of illegal oil bunkering, piracy and smuggling, will soon learn a bitter lesson,” he said.
Nigeria and its partners, including international oil firms such as Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron, lose a sizeable chunk of revenues each year to oil theft, Reuters reports.
Some estimates have put the amount of crude stolen from the Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, at 100 000 barrels a day, equivalent of around $7 million (R51 million) daily, or $2.5 billion (R18 billion) a year at today’s prices.
Human Rights Watch has put the amount stolen at two or three times that level at its peak.
Thieves operating as part of an organised crime network drill into pipelines or hijack barges loaded with oil, often using militant attacks as cover, before shipping the spoils out of Nigeria to be sold on the international market.
Such is the quantity of oil stolen that security experts say they often act with the collusion of local officials, international shipping agents who sign off on stolen cargoes and members of the security forces who turn a blind eye.
President Umaru Yar’Adua called more than a year ago for a global crackdown on crude oil theft and smuggling.
Yar’Adua told a summit of leaders from the Group of Eight rich nations in Tokyo in July 2008 he would present a proposal to the United Nations laying out steps to end the illicit trade.
The government is also in the middle of an amnesty programme in the Niger Delta, under which gunmen responsible for attacks on the oil industry will be granted a presidential pardon if they turn in their weapons.
A top Nigerian presidential aide said yesterday he was confident key senior rebel leaders, who command thousands of gunmen in the oil-producing Niger Delta, would soon hand over their weapons.
Sceptics say amnesty alone will not bring lasting stability to the region and that underlying issues such as widespread poverty and unemployment must be addressed.
Pic: Random oil substation