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Despite millions spent cleaning oil spills in the Niger Delta, illegal petroleum refiners are still in business

The sunrise in the morning of June 2, 2016, did not only bring vitamin D; it also brought hope to the Ogonis. That day, at a place called Patrick Waterside in Bodo, Rivers state, they assembled; clan by clan, village by village, to watch the arrival of the helicopter that brought the federal government delegation for the official flag-off of the $1 billion clean-up project. The most excited group were young men who used to vandalise pipelines. They surrendered their huge boiling pots to the government, a gesture made in response to the promise to provide alternative means of livelihood if they’d stop illegal bunkering and artisanal refinery. But five years later, this is yet to happen — and business is still in progress for the vandals. ABIOSE ADELAJA ADAMS visited Gokana, the hometown of some of these boys who vow to continue spilling until government keeps its promise

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“We have not seen any empowerment,” Banuna Eric, leader of Ogoni Ex-artisanal Refinery Forum, said with a snigger as he showed me over 100 forms filled by artisanal refiners who had surrendered their pots to the government.

The document is called ‘Empowerment Registration Form’ but according to Eric, the empowerment only exists on paper.

Speaking in pidgin, he said: “When they (government) came, they told us to submit our pots, and that they will settle us so that anyone who wants to go to school can go; anyone who wants to learn a skill can do so; and anyone who wants to do business can. But we have seen nothing.

“Nothing,” he added for emphasis.

“And they said they are doing clean up. Is that thing they are doing there called clean up, or they are just lying to us,” he wisecracked before adding that “I can assure you we are returning to the bush because it is our oil”.

GEOPHYSICIST TURNED BUNKERER

With a master’s degree in applied geophysics and a bachelors in physics education, Lebura Teega is educated enough to find a decent employment — but he can’t. Due to his inability to get a job, he had to join the league of artisanal refiners widely called ‘Kpo Fire’ boys in the area.

“On two occasions the government asked us to surrender our equipment and that they would empower us. We surrendered everything, but as we speak, there is nothing to write home about. If they say we should stop bunkering, they should provide an alternative,” he said, with a sigh of resignation.

Teega also lives on income from his barbershop but says he will return to bunkering once the military relaxes its current clampdown on the activity in the area.

“Coast is not clear now. There is tight security on the pipelines for now in Gokana. But we’ll go back,” he added.

Oboro Tombari, 41, was into carpentry before he joined the illegal business in 2003. From the money made from artisanal refinery, he has trained his children and given them the education he wasn’t privileged to obtain.

“I stopped in 2019. I am not doing anything now because that is the only thing we do here. There are no jobs, no industries. But I want to go back to the business. But if the government can provide us jobs, I will stop it totally,” says Tombari.

‘DON’ OF ALL TRADES

Lekile Paul, an ex-militant still awaiting the government’s settlement

Paul

If it were in the days of Niger Delta militancy — when oil installations were bombed daily and the kidnap of expatriates was rife — no one would dare go near Lekile Paul, a 32-year-old former militant-turned-artisanal refiner.

Paul, called ‘Don’ by his associates, lived like a demi-god during the era of militancy. He took orders from popular ex-militant leader Ateke Tom and pocketed “up to N2 million every night”.

But here in his hometown in Gokana, Paul’s once fiery face is now awash with regrets. With neither education nor skill, Paul is a jack of all trades, subsisting mainly on a slim, irregular income from a small barber’s shop.

“I joined the trade at age 16. I was into house-building, fishing and farming, but when they told me about this business and the money it offered, I went into it,” Paul said.

“I left since 2018. The government told us to stop, that they will give us alternative jobs. I am waiting for the government. They said they will settle us, but they did not.”

Paul is one of the 2,200 boys on the register of the Ex-artisanal Refiners Forum who are still waiting for the government to fulfil its $10 million promise. But as a result of the government’s failings, the young men who had initially surrendered their pots returned to the business.

Several studies have also shown how widespread the business is across the Niger Delta states, especially in Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta. In recent times, the clampdown of the joint military task force on them had reduced bunkering in Gokana, but the boys are planning to return.

WHERE IS THE $10 MILLION?

Look of an artisanal refinery at night  Picture by Advocacy Centre Port Harcourt

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) had in 2011 recommended that in order to deliver on a holistic clean-up that will not result in re-pollution, a sum of $10 million should be spent on providing alternative livelihoods for artisanal refiners.

If you visit the website of Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), the federal government arm implementing the UNEP recommendation, you will see a photo gallery of activities that will convince anyone of the seriousness of land remediation — but not much can be seen about livelihood restoration for artisanal refiners.

According to information on HYPREP’s website, out of the initial $1 billion take-off grant for the clean-up, $360 million has been received. As of February 2020, HYPREP said it had spent U$30 million. HYPREP was approached for comment about its efforts on livelihood restoration but all attempts to correspond with the communications and community engagement officer through calls, emails and text messages proved futile.

BOTCHED LIVELIHOOD PLAN?

HYPREP believes that it’s not only the artisanal refiners that are in need of livelihood restoration and has tried to incorporate every group into its plan. But some of its livelihood programmes seem jinxed as seen in the case of a cassava processing plant that was launched in Korokoro, under Tai local government area in Ogoni.

With a production capacity of five tonnes of garri per day, it was expected to receive 15 tonnes of cassava roots per day as well as other products like plantain and yam flour; and to be replicated.

But when this reporter visited the site, — seven months after— it was found in a state of abandonment. The facility is now surrounded by weeds and non-functional.

‘EVERY NIGER DELTA YOUTH CLAIMED TO BE A MILITANT’

Dumnamene

Fyneface Dumnamene, executive director of Port Harcourt-based Youth and Environmental Advocacy Center, said HYPREP has no excuse for not taking steps to provide alternative livelihood for the artisanal refiners.

“HYPREP said it has received $360 million out of the $1 billion, so HYPREP cannot say it doesn’t have the $10 million they are supposed use for these boys,” he said.

According to Dumnamene, who is also the regional director of the Platform for the Coordination of Artisanal Refiners for Modular Refinery, there is a lot the federal government can do with the money, but a lack of capacity seems to be ruining this aspect of the clean-up.

An HYPREP official who pleaded anonymity told TheCable that there was initially a plan to provide alternative livelihood for them.

“When the project actually commenced, we looked at the programme of amnesty, how it went and we found that almost every youth in Niger Delta claimed to be militant so that they can benefit from the monthly allowance of N65,000 paid to the ex-militant,” the official disclosed.

“In the same way, over 3000 people who were not artisanal refiners also came forward to claim they are, so as to benefit from this programme. So we thought if we go by that list, we won’t reach the target group.  So our plan now is to do a needs assessment study this year (2021) to identify the areas of interest these men want to be trained in. Some of them already said they are interested in modular refinery.”

Dumnamene says modular refinery is a good alternative though it is quite capital intensive.

“Since 2017 when Yemi Osinbajo (Nigeria’s vice president) talked about the switching of artisanal refinery to modular refinery. I have been preparing them for this,” he said.

“I have been sensitising them to embrace modular refinery. We need three licenses to set up a modular refinery. But we are still in the process of forming them into cooperative societies and registering them, after which we will approach the government for the licenses.”

GOOD FOR THE GOOSE, GOOD FOR THE GANDER

Dumnamene also argues that if the Nigerian government deems it okay to give illegally gold mining in parts of the north a legal framework, it should also provide a legal framework for the Niger Delta artisanal refiners.

He explained: “I have proposed what I call PACORDI -Presidential Artisanal Crude Oil Refining Development Initiative. I propose this to be part of what the federal government is already doing in parts of the north and parts of the West, through PAGMI. The youths in the north where able to find gold under their soil, the same way the youths in the Niger Delta found crude under their soil. They went into the mining of gold illegally.

“Now between 2012 and 2018, they were able to realize that 97 tonnes of gold valued at over $3 billion, illegally smuggled out of Nigeria. They packaged what they are doing, refine it very well to meet the standard of London Bullion Market Association, and the CBN buys it from them and keeps the money in the economy. So we are also telling the federal government, if you could do this for them, why not bring these youths together and put what they are doing into a legal framework?”

In June 2020, Nigeria launched the Presidential Artisanal Gold Mining Development Initiative – an initiative that legalises the activities of artisanal miners gold in Kebbi, Osun, Kaduna, Zamfara and Niger states.

Through this initiative, the Central Bank buys artisanally-mined gold, processes and refines them according to the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) standards.

OIL SPILL IN FIVE YEARS

Teega and Tombari

Bunkering — which entails bursting pipelines carrying crude to the export terminals, locally refining it in the bush or creeks and then transporting and marketing it to the end-users — results in severe environmental pollution, especially at the points of tampering with the pipeline, during the process of boiling the crude, and thirdly, at the point of waste disposal.

According to a worrying statistic by the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), there were 3,956 cases of oil spills recorded in the last five years. This amounts to 209,032.729 barrels — 27 million litres — of oil spilled into rivers, mangroves, swamps, and farmland across the Niger Delta.

NOSDRA also reports that most of these spills are caused by pipeline vandals and their activity contributes immensely to the release of more greenhouse gases. According to Carbon Brief, a UK-based website on climate science and policy, Nigeria was the world’s 17th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2015 — the second-highest in Africa after South Africa.

Apart from these alarming effects, the persistent oil spills result in deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and robs locals of their source of livelihoods, such as fishing and farming.

This special investigative report on environmental and climate justice is supported by Bertha Foundation.