A new report detailing the complexities of ongoing massive oil theft in Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta says there is extensive evidence that some corrupt members of the Joint Task Force, JTF, actively participate and profit from oil theft and illegal oil refining.
The report, published by Stakeholder Democracy Network, SDN, in October this year, says the entire oil theft is carried out under the watch and protection of the JTF. The report is the first that explains the complexities of the oil theft business in the Niger Delta region and relied on observation and anonymized respondents.
JTF, a joint operation of Nigeria’s defence outfits, is currently trusted with protecting Nigeria’s oil investments and ensuring most physical oil theft is stopped.
The JTF was deployed in the region at the peak of youth restiveness in the Niger Delta to combat militants that almost crippled Nigeria’s oil production. But that approach failed, forcing the government to adopt an amnesty strategy to end the blockade on Nigeria’s oil production in 2009.
In January 2012, following the recession of militancy in the region, and the escalation of oil theft, the JTF’s mission in the region was restructured to fighting crude oil theft – Operation ‘Pulo Shield’.
But the SDN research suggests that a “relatively small number” of top ranking JTF officers have criminal ties to the tap point owners, oil theft unions and camps managers – the most profitable part of the chain.
The reports adds that at the top of the oil theft chain, the tapping point, the most lucrative part of the business chain, top ranking JTF officers own shares alongside technicians and couriers.
“A consortium typically made up of at least three key parties (security, technical capacity and operational access) own each tap point,” the report said. “During the tapping process, the JTF ensure the surrounding waterways are clear so workers can install the tap without disturbance.”
The research also suggests that lower ranking officers are criminally involved in the low earning segments of the business. They “share the relatively small “transportation taxes” from distributor vessels as a supplement to their official wages,” the report said.
Outside the tapping points, some members of the JTF and marine Police collect cargo-by-cargo “transportation taxes” from boats carrying stolen crude or illegally refined products.
“Essentially a kind of protection money, these fees grant vessels open passage through the transport corridor. During their routine patrols of the inland waterways, officers will stop vessels and demand payments in cash,” the SDN report said.
Refiners interviewed for the research claimed JTF officials collect a flat rate fee for each trip, which sometimes vary depending on how much product a ship was carrying.
“If harassed by the security agencies during transportation, the middlemen pay security fees ranging from N20, 000 – N30, 000 per trip,” an informant in Delta State claimed.
A source in Bayelsa claimed that “sometimes, the JTF collect N10, 000 from us per trip but still seize our products.”
In some cases, camps in a given area network, pool their funds to make “regional payments” to security force members involved in protection rackets.
“Where the need arises, we pay a security fee to the security agencies of N300,000 monthly. We group together to make payments of N20,000 per refining camp, which is collected and handed over to them; they then advise us to “be careful.”
Camp operators pay security fees to the JTF to avoid raids even though these fees do not guarantee they will not be targeted if a clampdown is ordered by top officers.
In 2012, the Commander of JTF, Johnson Ochoga, a Major General in the Nigerian Army, claimed he ordered 7,585 of such clampdowns and seized 638 pumping machines, while 178 illegal fuel dumps and five surface tanks were destroyed.
During that same period, 133 barges, 1,215 boats, 187 tankers trucks, 18 ocean going Vessels were seized, and 1,945 suspects arrested – 38 of the suspects were foreign nationals from Ghana, India, and Lebanon.
“Also destroyed were 36,504 drums of illegally refined products, 638 pumping machines and 326 outboard engines,” General Ochoga said early this year.
Within the first ten months of this year, the JTF carried out far less clampdowns but said it recorded greater success, even though the crime is still booming.
Between January and October, the JTF captured 46 oil theft vessels, 70 badges, 994 Cotonou Boats, and 481 other boats.
Within the same period, the JTF “scuttled” 38,348 drums, 1518 surface thanks and 3110 plastic reservoirs belonging to 1647 illegal refineries.
The JTF also recovered 42 Engines, 70 generating sets, 469 pumping machines, and 27,842 jerrycans.
The JTF spokesperson, Onyema Nwachukwu, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Nigerian Army, said 1703 suspects were arrested and handed over to the Nigeria Police Force for prosecution.
In January this year, when Major General Johnson Ochoga was handing over leadership of the JTF in Niger Delta, he admitted the presence of “black sheeps” within his folds.
“In term of discipline, there is no organization that is devoid of black sheep. But we have sustained our zero tolerance to crimes,” he explained when probed about officers captured neck deep in oil theft.
But the current JTF command in the Niger Delta dismissed Ochoga’s “black sheep” comments as his personal opinion, arguing that no member of the JTF has been convicted [court martialed] over oil theft.
Although the JTF command in the Niger Delta admits some of its officers have been investigated for oil theft, it says referencing its officers in the report is biased and unfounded.
“JTF cannot be complicit in oil theft. If there is no oil, our salaries will not be paid, so we defend it with our lives,” JTF spokesperson, Onyema Nwachukwu said. “We are passionate about our mandate because it is not just the right thing to do but also because we must save our country from the ineptitude of some of our countrymen who are hell bent on plunging our nation into an abyss of economic unsustainability. It is a serious national security challenge, when a nation’s economic means of survival is threatened.”
The JTF insists it has rigorous checks on its officers that makes it impossible for them to get involved in oil theft; and when that system fails, it does not condone such officers, even though no officer has been convicted so far.
“JTF … cannot condone oil theft in whatever form it may come,” its spokesperson said.