When the Senate President, David Mark, on Wednesday March 27 said he will readily endorse a penalty of death for perpetrators of oil theft, commonly called bunkering, he must have expected a wide applause from the Nigerian people as a patriot and from the international community as a seriously concerned Nigerian leader that is determined to tackle the problem with whatever it takes.
Walahi, this time, David clearly missed the Mark because he is looked in the wrong direction for the magic wand against goliath of oil theft.
At the inauguration of a joint committee hearing on the Petroleum Industry Bill, Senator Mark accused “big men” in the country of sponsoring massive oil theft that has seen reasonable cuts in oil production levels saying “few individuals must not make us earn such bad names.”
He said oil theft was becoming a “major embarrassment” for the nation, and the PIB must be crafted to curb that. According to David Mark, “The bill must ensure that the current pace of oil theft is minimized to the barest minimum. It appears we are beginning to get bad names in the international community.
“The law must prescribe huge punishment that will serve as deterrent. If it will attract death penalty, I am ready for it, I will endorse it. Oil theft cannot be overcome with a tea cup, the big men involved in it are powerful. It is an unusual situation that requires an unusual solution.”
Agreed the proposal of death penalty for oil thieves and pipeline vandals looked like a crude recommendation that is out of sync with prevailing global practice where the death penalty is no longer fashionable, it would be very irresponsible of any government to just sit and look helpless in this kind of situation especially when such situation has the capacity to lead to a complete breakdown of law and order or even threaten any sitting government.
No doubt, the escalating problem and international embarrassment caused by the literally free-for-all pillaging of Nigerian crude oil calls for government actions that would provide for severe sanctions to serve as deterrent to the thieves. Produced crude oil from the NNPC joint venture operations worth about $6 billion is lost to oil thieves annually and the figure may even be more since not all the stealing is really captured by official reports.
However, there are some very serious issues to look at in this crude oil theft and the senate proposal to tackle the problem.
Is it possible to lose such huge volumes of crude oil from facilities operated by the self-acclaimed disciplined and morally-high minded operators of the companies that own the facilities being tampered without the backing or rather participation of highly-placed people in both the government and operating oil companies?
Prescribing a severe punishment like death for stealing the nation’s crude oil would not stop the scourge and this is the truth. By the way, who have we been calling oil thieves? Were they not the people employed by the real or rather “big” thieves to work for them? Those haggard looking deck-floor boatmen are really not the oil thieves the death penalty should target.
Since the scourge of this crude oil theft started and several arrests made and vessels and tankers seized and some even scuttled, have we ever heard our security agencies come up to tell us that their investigation led to arrest of one “big man” in Abuja, Lagos or London? Have we ever been told that somebody in the NNPC system or any of the major oil companies have been linked to the stealing of crude oil from oil facilities in the onshore Nigeria Delta or within the nation’s offshore arenas?
By my training (university) and actual field experience, even a pinhole –sized rupture on the very high pressure oil pipeline will immediately show as pressure-drawdown on the control dash board of the nearest flow station. And even with modern technologies, such pressure drops even trigger either a flashing alert or outright alarm.
So how come thieves would drill giant holes on oil pipelines and it would take the companies two- four weeks to notice and raise alarm that their facility has been tampered? If the response to ruptures on trunklines from the companies and security agencies were immediate, the thieves would not have enough time to siphon oil to load a whole marine tanker that are even bigger than my entire village. You see where the complicity lies?
Most of what is happening at the oil facilities in the onshore Niger Delta is mere kids’ play compared to what is happening in the nation’s continental shelf and deep offshore arena. Who supervises crude oil metering and loading in some of these offshore floating production and storage facilities? Is it not supposed to be the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and maybe National Petroleum Investment Management Services (NAPIMS)?
The first assignment for the National Assembly is to find out how these supposedly government agencies handle the logistics of monitoring some of these facilities and their relationships with the oil companies they were supposed to police?
This issue of crude oil theft is more complex than just catching a few and most times innocent and hungry crew on board marine oil tankers/vessels and label them crude oil thieves.
Why are our senators not really very concerned about the menace of corruption in our system? Truth be told, even the problem of crude oil theft and petroleum products pipeline vandalism in this country is directly tied to corruption.
We heard how policemen attached to the Inspector-General of Police Special Task Force on Anti-Pipelines Vandalism Unit allegedly shot dead two Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC) officers at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) pipelines in Ikorodu, Lagos State. Everybody in the case had a different story but the common denominator was that there were some disagreement over something and that thing was who should actually control the pipeline thieves or rather enjoy “the right of way”.
You see it all boils down to corruption and what to gain from the activities of the thieves by both the police and the civil defense people.
If the federal government is to be seen as being sincere to Nigerians, the National Assembly particularly our senators should first make corruption in public office a capital offence. Corruption is the bane of our country’s socio-economic and political development and all other economic and financial crimes are mere fall-outs of massive corruption in the nation’s socio-economic system.
Agreed we need severe measures to address the menace of crude oil stealing and pipeline vandalism, we should also not pretend to be ignorant of the fact that oil thieves are the reflection of our decadent economic and socio-political system. Finding the cure for that decadent system is what our Senate and everybody in government should be focusing on.
Ifeanyi Izez is an Abuja-based Consultant.