The sand is still hot under our feet. The oil thieves must have run the illegal oil refinery, which is hidden from the sea by thickets of mangrove, until just a short while ago.
“Destroy everything, boys,” the commander of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps unit, Helen Amakiri, orders.
The job of the stocky, crew-cut woman is to combat oil theft, estimated to cost Nigeria a tenth of its annual oil production. It’s a rate of loss that has dethroned Nigeria as Africa’s largest oil producer.
A paramilitary NSCDC trooper, wearing a balaclava and flip-flops, obeys Amakiri by firing his automatic weapon into the rusty oil containers at close range, setting them on fire.
The flames stink sweetly of diesel. It’s pouring with rain as we surge away in speedboats, the rising column of black smoke smudging the sky.
“My strategy is pretty simple,” the commander shouts above the din of the boat’s roaring engine. “It is to set fire to stolen oil.”
Half of her men are wearing life jackets, the other half bulletproof vests. She says proudly they have destroyed more than 1,800 illegal bush refineries in the almost two years she has been operating in the creeks, the narrow waterways criss-crossing the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta region.
An investment plan
Nigeria’s oil minister announced a $10 billion investment plan last month for the delta, “to ensure zero militancy”. It offers a mix of social programmes, infrastructure investments, and security spending, but no one is certain that it will work.
For a start, oil theft is a long-standing and lucrative business. The environmental consequences are clearly visible in the delta.
For an hour we shoot through the creeks at high speed without seeing one mangrove shrub that hasn’t had its roots coloured black by oil pollution up to the level of high tide.
Not all of this is the work of the oil thieves. The foreign oil companies, working under weak government regulation, are also guilty of turning the area into one of the most polluted in the world.
With traditional industries such as farming and fishing severely damaged, for many, the most obvious occupation is to steal oil.
But there is a difference between local refining, and the really big money to be made from oil “bunkering”.
The refiners meet a local need within communities cut off from commercial suppliers, but also make money smuggling their cheap diesel and kerosene throughout southern Nigeria.
Bunkering is a different order of magnitude. In this case, barges full of unrefined stolen oil is transported to waiting tankers off the coast in an operation worth millions, which requires serious connections.
A history of trouble
The battle against criminality has intensified under President Muhammadu Buhari. The NSCDC has stepped up its patrols, and the army has launched Operation Crocodile Smile against armed militants, young men who claim they are fighting for a greater share of the wealth generated from their region.
The gunmen have responded with attacks on oil installations, the kidnapping of oil workers and assassinations. The military, so far, has avoided the heavy-handed clampdowns that were its tactics in the past.
It’s been a long struggle for the communities in the delta, who feel they’ve always been exploited by the powers that be. A century ago, it was over the valuable palm oil they produced. Now the fight has turned to crude.
What some call the “120 years’ oil war” began in January 1895, when 1,000 ethnic Brass men in 40 canoes sailed to an outpost of the colonial Royal Niger Company in the delta to protest the control the trading company had over the palm oil trade.
It was a violent confrontation, and they took 60 hostages. In revenge, three weeks later, the British Navy attacked a Brass village and massacred 300 people.
Many still celebrate King Koko, the leader of the Brass people at the time, as the first freedom fighter in an ongoing struggle for a fair distribution of oil wealth.
Where did the money go?
In the last five years, Nigeria has earned something like $1.5 trillion from oil. Nobody knows for sure, because the accounting is so opaque. What is also unclear is how much has been ripped off by the foreign oil companies, or a corrupt local elite.
There is little in the delta to show for all the money that’s been made. The neglect gave rise to an armed revolt, which the government eventually chose to placate through an amnesty scheme, and lavish spending on development programmes. The policy coopted militia leaders, and created a new class of wealthy young men with a sense of impunity.
Buhari, who was elected last year on an anti-corruption ticket, tried to put an end to the money drain. Militants again targeted oil production to convince him of the need to reinstate the old system.
Many experts fear that the government’s $10 billion investment plan will repeat the mistakes of the past. It will benefit a new elite, and fail to reach those most in need.
Steal or Starve
“It is a difficult war to win, because almost everyone has a share in the oil theft,” commander Amakiri acknowledges, while we wash sticky oil off our toes. We then move on to the riverside slum of Elechi Beach, where she has received reports that stolen oil is being stored.
Her convoy speeds through the delta’s largest city, Port Harcourt, with sirens wailing. Some streets are flooded. Many houses have old, rusty tin roofs. There are stacks of burning waste by the roadside.
Everywhere are advertisements for salvation and miracles, suggesting people prefer to rely on “Sunday Services” and “Salvation Ministries” than the government and politicians.
An election poster from last year’s postponed poll of representatives to the country’s Senate says: “Let us celebrate peace”. The state has not been able to hold the election yet because of poor security, largely a result of the proliferation of young “thugs-for-hire”, a consequence of the militancy problem.
At Elechi Beach, Amakiri’s men get to work. They yell at people, search their small wooden homes, and soon find a warehouse with oil drums, which they poke holes in with long iron picks.
“Quite a lot of children live here, so we do not set fire to the oil barrels. We care about people,” the commander assures. In a similar situation in this neighbourhood in 2012, the NSCDC blew up an oil storage facility in the middle of the dense settlement.
The soldiers find a young boy, who has been hiding inside a crane, which they believe is used to handle stolen oil. They kick him and then arrest him. “I just want a job,” he says, covering his head.
Amakari denies that he has a point. Locals steal mainly because they are greedy, she insists.
After some effort, I get an interview with three oil thieves, who give their names as Don Wizaro, Kingsley Owen, and Barida Zorasi. Unsurprisingly, they disagree with the commander.
“We could really only choose between starvation or stealing. What would you have done? We are speaking with you because we do not believe we have anything to be ashamed of,” Wizaro says, when we meet at the expensive, yet slightly run-down Presidential Hotel, where many foreign oil workers live.
“We are not oil thieves, because it is our oil. It does not belong to the foreigners. We were born on top of it,” he argues.
A Revolt Gone Wrong
The oil thieves’ abiding argument is that they are the true owners of the oil.
Their most famous champion was the charismatic non-violence campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa. He led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in the 1990s, which created some common ground among the delta’s multi-ethnic inhabitants in the fight for environmental protection and a fairer distribution of oil revenues.
He was hanged by the then military government in 1995. Before his execution, he reportedly said: “the ashes will rise again” – implying that a just cause survives the death of its leader.
This held true for a while. But over the years, those words have gained a more sinister connotation. Today, it’s extremely difficult to find local leaders that truly fight for the welfare of their communities. It seems that it’s the criminals who have benefitted from the struggle.
This year alone at least 10 dubious new rebel groups have emerged, with names such as the “Niger Delta Avengers”, “The Reformed Niger Delta Avengers”, “The Red Egbesu Water Lions”, or “The Mightier Egbesu Brotherhood”.
They typically consist of a mix of hardened criminals and members of former militant groups.
The moral corrosion of the actors in the conflict has been going on for decades. “It is a huge problem that so many of those in power are criminals, and are in it to protect personal interests,” says Siri Aas Rustad, a senior researcher with the Norwegian Peace Research Institute, who has been studying the region.
“Much of the problem lies in the fact that the authorities have no one to negotiate with. A crushing military victory is sometimes necessary to end that type of a prolonged conflict.”
But, despite the military’s promise to use special forces and “surgical strikes” in the delta, no one is under any illusion that it will be civilians and creek-side communities that pay the price should a new offensive come to pass.