It is called Kpofire in the local parlance. While the government has declared their activities illegal, many illegal refiners of crude oil are still on the prowl, leaving on their trail environmental disasters in their neighbourhoods. EMMANUEL MASHA reports from Port Harcourt
Few years ago, youths that engaged in kpofire, the illegal refining of stolen crude oil into fuel, diesel or kerosene in Niger Delta communities where pipelines crisscross were regarded as brave men.
They were men, who dared the Federal Government by forcefully taking what rightfully belonged to them. The youths usually armed themselves with dynamites, and other tough tools needed to hack into the pipelines to access the crude before carrying out the refining.
At every step of this very dangerous exercise, there are men on the look-out for raids by security operatives. Some who didn’t even benefit in any way from the business even tipped off the perpetrators during raids by security operatives.
That stance was understandable and condoned given the level of neglect of oil bearing communities in terms of infrastructure, and the widespread unemployment in such communities.
Some ex-agitators that were granted amnesty by the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua administration claimed they were easily recruited into “the Niger Delta struggle, “because they were jobless and had very low educational qualifications and had no skills.
To make matters worse, most of those in the region’s wealthy class appeared to be ignorant of what it truly meant to create economic opportunities,” said one observer.
“It is strictly a two-way traffic when it comes to creating opportunities in the Niger Delta. It is either the real big men who have the cash, build hotels or they buy up lands and properties. But what they don’t realize is that hotels thrive in places where tourism also thrives.
The people of the region are too poor to patronize the kind of hotels they construct,” he added. For some youths in the region, whatever it takes to survive should not be criminalized.
It is common for unemployed youths, or those who feel that there was nothing wrong with kpofire or bunkering to network among themselves where to head to for jobs in communities near oil bearing communities that accommodate active pipelines.
Currently, however, the destruction kpofire has caused in some Niger Delta communities has forced a rethink among some concerned individuals, who have since realized that kpofire is one of the biggest threat to the environment. Rivers have been polluted with sticky, black oil, which is formed after intense burning and processing of the crude for petroleum products.
This waste has proven highly poisonous to aquatic animals that many used to hunt in commercial quantity. Also, some farmlands very close to the creeks or rivers where these illegal refiners carry out their operations are no longer fertile because the after product of kpofire flow into such farmlands especially during heavy rainfall that instigate flooding.
A father of one who supervises the operations of youths working in a creek not far from the Abonnema Water front area in Port Harcourt, said that illegal refiners headed by “chairmen” usually worked in clusters near the site of a targeted pipeline.
For work to take place on any particular day, he noted that the coast must be clear; that work takes place on a day that security operatives, mostly officers from the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC “must not show up” during patrols.
“Whenever they come, it means that something has gone terribly wrong somewhere. It means that somebody has refused to take the necessary action to ensure that work goes on without any distractions,” he said.
“When you don’t make the necessary arrangement to commence operation, you endanger the lives of the boys working for you, because just one gunshot or metals knocking each other can ignite fire and cause deaths to happen,” he added. There are some cases of explosion during the heating of the stolen crude.
The sight is like the burnt bodies of people scooping fuel at the site of a fallen tanker that exploded. Often, those who manage to survive the fire after months of treatment hardly ever return to their normal lives. In some riverine communities in Rivers State, there are illegal refiners, who are in business because of shoddy security surveillance or monitoring that has made it possible for tankers to drive deep into the communities to load refined products.
The loaded tankers then transport the product to neighbouring states. According to those familiar with kpofire, the more refined the products (fuel, kerosene or diesel) turn out, the more the Niger Delta environment suffer.
This is because the crude is subjected to more heat or cooking to turn out well and usable, while the waste that turns out from this process is the very dark, sticky or greasy oil that blacken the river and destroy aquatic animals.
This has subjected fishermen and farmers into more poverty Sometime ago, there was a lethal brand of kerosene in some parts of Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom and Delta states that exploded in stoves and lamps, which killed or inflicted serious injuries on its victims. According to a kpofire watcher, such kerosene was not well treated before being loaded.
In Port Harcourt, some of the survivors of kerosene explosions are usually rejected at private hospitals because they lack the needed facilities to admit such patients.
The two main safe havens for victims are the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH) and the state owned Braithwaite Memorial Specialist Hospital (BMSH). One of the reasons kpofire remains lucrative is because illegally refined petroleum products are cheaper and has been accepted by the people. The scarcity of petroleum products is common in most Niger Delta communities, with most residents willing to buy products churned out through kpofire. A few years ago, tankers carrying illegally refined petroleum products were set ablaze in some designated spots.
These operations were coordinated from the then 2 Brigade, Port Harcourt. Soldiers on patrol were sent to intercept tankers following tip off by informants and concerned members of the public. Many were arrested, while filling stations linked to the tankers were also sealed up. Those arrested were mostly tanker drivers, conductors and other small players in the business.
Those behind the business where “chairmen” who ran the shows from the shadows were hardly nabbed. But the hunt for perpetrators of kpofire to a large extent has reduced in some communities where it once thrived. More than a year ago, the army uncovered a massive illegal oil bunkering site about one kilometre from the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) in Port Harcourt. During the raid, 13 suspects were arrested.
Then commander of 2 Brigade of the Nigerian Army, Port Harcourt, Brig.-Gen. Stevenson Olabanji, disclosed that thousands of litres of illegally refined diesel were discovered at the site following a tip-off.
“This discovery is unprecedented because since we started our operations 10 days ago, this is about the biggest that we have uncovered.” According to Olabanji, the operatives also discovered additional 150 drums loaded with about 3,150 litres of diesel in 21 Cotonou boats.
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