Attempts by the Rivers state governor, Nyesom Wike to identify and shut all the illegal oil refineries in local communities of the state have unsettled many in the after areas, leading stakeholders in the affected communities to warn that thousands of youths could be rendered jobless and subsequently threaten the peace and security of the state.

It was learnt that on the average, each of these illegal refineries, which the state governor has asked local government chairmen to identify, employ 30 people and ‘cook’ up to 150 drums of Petroleum Motor Spirit. This translates to about N5 million daily.

In one local government alone, more than 100 illegal refineries have been discovered and, in another, there were at least 35, potentially affecting the livelihoods of thousands of young people.

An illegal refinery operator, who spoke with Leadership Weekend on the condition of anonymity, said the attempt by the state government to stop their activities may lead to a rise in crime in the state.

He stated that since the government began the clampdown on their activities, about 30 youths in his employ had been rendered idle.

He said: "I have about 30 boys working for me in the camp (refinery) but with this attack on us by government people, we have abandoned our camp and all of them are doing nothing right now. It may turn to another thing if they remain jobless for long."

"In the camp, we produce at least 150 drums everyday and we don’t go about looking for buyers because buyers are always there waiting for us to finish cooking."

Apparently toeing the line of the illegal refinery operator, most residents of the state believe that the state government was approaching the battle against illegal refineries from the wrong direction.

Speaking with newsmen recently, former president of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Engr. Udengs Eradiri, appealed to Wike to tread with caution in his ongoing war against illegal refineries and bunkering activities in the state.

Eradiri stated that adopting brute force to stop illegal refineries, blamed for the soot in Rivers state, could only worsen the situation instead of addressing the problem.

While commending Wike for his bold steps, the former IYC president urged him to adopt a strategic and broader stakeholder engagement in dealing with the menace to avoid creating another cycle of armed struggle in the region.

He insisted that if the situation were not effectively and cautiously managed, many youth, who were already engaged in the illegal business activities for survival, would be forced to acquire arms and fight back.

Eradiri, who recalled that the banditry in Zamfara state started when authorities adopted a wrong approach to dislodge hungry youths from gold mining sites, said the problem later came under control when reasons prevailed and authorities decided to set up a committee to harmonise gold mining licences for the locals.

The Ijaw youth leader insisted that the same approach adopted by the federal government in Zamfara state to give the locals an opportunity to benefit from their natural resources should be extended to the people of the region.

He said economic exclusion, hunger, unemployment, high cost of petroleum products, the supply-demand gap of products caused by dysfunctional government-owned refineries and hopelessness were factors fueling establishment of illegal refineries.

Eradiri urged Wike to work with the federal government to tackle the problem, adding that the government had already set up a committee headed by Senator Eta Enang to harmonise the issues in the region.

He said: “The governor of Rivers state has demonstrated courage in declaring this war against illegal bunkering and cooking of crude oil to protect the people he had sworn to govern.

“I, however, appeal to him to exercise caution because the problem has grown beyond imagination following the myriads of youths involved in it. It has now become a cartel and it requires strategic engagement to dismantle it without creating another cycle of violence in the region.

“I appeal to the governor to work with the federal government because the government had already set up a committee headed by Senator Eta Enang to harmonise the issues in the region.”

The ongoing battle against illegal refineries, where petroleum products are refined and distributed illegally in Rivers state, began on January 1, 2022 when Governor Wike officially declared war on those behind the illegal activities.

Wike had in his statewide New Year broadcast linked the activities of the illegal refiners to the soot that had taken over the atmosphere of Port Harcourt metropolis and its environs since 2016.

In the broadcast, the governor directed the chairmen of the 23 local government areas of the state as well as community leaders to locate, identify and report to his office all those behind all illegal bunkering and crude oil refining sites in their localities for prosecution.

Apparently acting on intelligence from local government chairmen and community leaders, Wike, in another statewide broadcast less than nine days after, declared 19 persons, including a commander of a local vigilante group, wanted for operating illegal crude oil refining sites.

On January 13, 2022, the governor, in the company of security chiefs, visited the forest of Ogbodo Isiokpo in Ikwerre local government area and Ibaa in Emohua local government area of the state, believed to be habouring the majority of the illegal refineries in the state.

The governor directed the state’s Head of Service, Rufus Godwins, to query one Temple Amakiri, a director in the Ministry of Energy, for abetting bunkering activities, and hand him over to the police for investigation and possible prosecution.

He also directed the commissioner of police in the state, Eboka Friday, to arrest three prominent indigenes of Ibaa community in Emohua LGA as well as the deployment of a serving Divisional Police Officer (DPO) who he accused of operating an illegal refinery in the area.

However, LEADERSHIP Weekend learnt that the Rivers State Police Command was yet to arrest any of those declared wanted by the governor, even though the police recently paraded and charged to court some persons accused of dealing in illegally refined petroleum products.

Following Wike’s directive to local government chairmen in the state to locate and destroy all illegal refineries in their domain, a majority of the council chairmen swung into action and recorded successes.

In Ikwerre LGA alone, no fewer than 112 illegal refineries were discovered and destroyed by the council chairman, Samuel Nwanosike, while in Emohua, no fewer than 35 illegal refineries, including those still under construction, were discovered and destroyed.

Anti-illegal bunkering task force set up by council chairmen also discovered and destroyed illegal refineries in Etche, Akuku-Toru, Obio/Akpor, and Eleme LGAs.

However, nothing much has been heard about the discovery and destruction of illegal refineries at Okrika and Port Harcourt City as well as Rivers South-East and Rivers West senatorial districts even though Wike had, in a statewide broadcast on January 9, 2022, declared that illegal bunkering activities were going on in the areas.

The governor had said: “We have also identified those behind illegal bunkering activities in Okrika communities, Port Harcourt Township, Rivers South-East and Rivers South-West Senatorial Districts and their names would be soon published and declared wanted, if they fail to voluntarily report to the police.”

Not much has been heard from the traditional rulers following Wike’s directive to them to help in curbing the activities of illegal refineries in their domains as their task seems to have been taken over by the respective local government chairmen.

To the state commissioner for Information and communications, Pastor Paulinus Nsirim, the state government’s fight against illegal refineries in the state was primarily aimed at protecting the environment and putting a stop to the soot menace that had taken over the atmosphere of most parts of the state, thereby creating more health challenges for residents.

Nsirim said: “The emergence of COVID-19 and the concerted agenda to control and manage the pandemic has even achieved a greater urgency now as a result of the protracted air pollution crisis caused by the black soot and exacerbated by the new Omicron and Delta variants, which are said to swiftly aggravate and accelerate respiratory failure.

“A report by the World Health Organisation states that outdoor air pollution causes 4.2 million deaths each year across the world. Additionally, 99 percent of the global population is exposed to a high level of air pollution which puts them at risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other life-threatening medical conditions.

“Black soot, in particular, can be linked to a wide range of severe health effects, including acute bronchitis (an inflammation that causes coughing) and an aggravated breathing situation for asthma patients.

“Governor Wike recognised this in his impassioned directives to the Rivers State police commissioner, CP Friday Eboka, at one of the sites of the illegal refineries, to ensure that the sponsors and operators of these operations are brought to book, no matter how highly placed.

“As of January 13, 2022, when Governor Wike was in Ikwerre and Emuoha LGAs to assess the illegal refineries’ bases, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Nigeria amounted to 249,586, and, according to figures from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the latest numbers show that Lagos State had a total confirmed cases of 97,320 to top the list, followed by Abuja (27,782), Rivers (15,990), as the second and third highest number of cumulative cases, respectively.

“It is common knowledge that in Section 44(3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), the Land Use Act and Petroleum Act vest the exclusive control, ownership, and management of oil and gas in the federal government and not to the state or local government where the oil and gas are situated (Exclusive List).

“But there’s no doubt whatsoever that Governor Wike’s pragmatic offensive against illegal refineries in the state is not only a step in the right direction in the collective effort, with civil society groups, to confront and defeat the continued production of black soot through the activities of these illegal operations.

“It once again exposes the distinctions between opportunistic service and the demands of the conceptual responsibility of service and leadership geared towards protecting and preserving the well being of the people.”

Meanwhile, allegations by Wike that security personnel from the Nigeria Police and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) are engaged in crude oil theft has raised a storm at the federal agencies with the minister of interior, Rauf Aregbesola, heading an investigation into the allegations.

The Rivers State Police Command had also instituted an enquiry into the allegation by the state governor that some of its senior officers were involved in the illegal act.

Personnel of the Rivers State command anti-vandal unit of the NSCDC and their counterparts in the Nigerian Police Force risk being demoted or dismissed if found wanting by the special panel constituted by both agencies to investigate allegations of complicity in crude oil theft and operation of illegal refineries brought against them by the Rivers State governor.

Wike recently accused some police and NSCDC personnel of owning illegal refineries in the state. The governor particularly accused the duo of protecting ‘tapping points,’ where the perpetrators retrieve crude oil from illegally installed taps on oil pipelines and bush refineries as well as soliciting bribes in return for unrestricted passage.

LEADERSHIP Weekend gathered from a top source at the NSCDC Headquarters that the Civil Defence, Immigration, Corrections and Fire Service Board (CDICFB) headed by the minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, and comprising of all heads of paramilitary agencies under the ministry, has commenced probe of all the senior officers named in the criminal act, while a special panel has also been commissioned by the Corps to investigate junior officers.

This is even as the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) named by Governor Wike is also being probed by a panel headed by an assistant commissioner of police.

This was further confirmed by the acting Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Grace Iringe-Koko, who gave assurance that the officer will be punished appropriately if the allegations are confirmed.

The source who spoke exclusively to LEADERSHIP Weekend said that both the minister and the NSCDC boss had vowed not to tolerate any form of indiscipline or criminality, and anybody found guilty would be adequately punished.

He told our correspondent that the NSCDC boss, Ahmed Audi, is embarrassed by the ugly development and has vowed not to spare anyone indicted.

He revealed that at a recent meeting with the top management staff and the heads of the disbanded anti-vandal unit, Audi vowed that indicted officers would be demoted or dismissed, while others would be administratively purnished, depending on their level of complicity.

The Civil Defence boss, who expressed worry that the nation might not be able to end crude oil theft and illegal bunkering if the involvement of security operatives was not checked, said the hard earned integrity of the Corps cannot be dented on his watch by greedy officers.

Audi was quoted to have said, “It is disappointing to hear that operatives who know the locations of illegal refineries usually receive gratifications not to close down crude oil theft rings and maintain an overview of the illegal operations. This is a major challenge and we cannot turn a blind eye to this illegal oil trade. No, this is sabotage and these bad eggs cannot be allowed to continue to undermine our efforts to prosecute infractions.”

He further warned personnel that engage in unethical and unprofessional conduct in all their formations to change for the better.

Audi said, “This is my promise to Nigerians: I will hunt, find and punish any officer who colludes with criminal elements to sabotage the nation’s economy and undermine national security. I pledge to strengthen established policies and measures to sanction identified saboteurs in the service.”

When contacted, the Corps’ director of information, Olusola Odumosu, told LEADERSHIP Weekend that upon receipt of the shocking report of the allegations, his boss directed the acting deputy commandant general in charge of investigation and intelligence to summon all the personnel involved to the National Headquarters, Abuja, for further investigation to determine their level of involvement and/or culpability with a view to dispensing justice appropriately.”

Odumusu said, "The CG regrets that the allegations are not in tandem with his vision for the Corps, and so will not condone any criminal act or act of compromise by any personnel."

He quoted Audi as saying, “Our moral principles are non-negotiable; we are going to rejig the unit and fish out those spoiling the name of the Corps. My fight against vandals, illegal oil bunkerers and those stealing our collective wealth and sabotaging our economy is unflinching and we will redouble our efforts to whittle this act of sabotage and bring to justice anyone not in tune with our vision and mission for the service.” 

By Christiana Nwaogu, Abuja and Anayo Onukwugha, Port Harcourt.

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