‘Big business is big politics’: oil bunkering in Nigeria

In Nigeria, oil is siphoned off from every conceivable store and conduit, then most of it is loaded onto barges, carried to sea tankers, and transported to Western markets; most of the income is laundered through Western banks, businesses and investments. Many of the thieves use specialised, heavy equipment and ‘steal tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil’ at a time. Sometimes, it happens within earshot and eyeline of the Nigerian armed forces but, still, ‘no one knows – or will say – what really happened’…

Now, I just want to look at the evidence and understanding of the structure of the illicit oil trade; then, I can use it to test the understanding of the illicit antiquities trade.

Oil crime’s social harm

President Goodluck Jonathan has complained that Nigerian oil theft ‘caus[es] corruption and social disorder‘; and his Senior Special Assistant on Civil Society and International Media, Ken (Saro-)Wiwa (Jr.), has warned that oil theft (which is worth more than the health and education budgets combined) ‘could destabilise Nigeria‘.

International affairs NGO Chatham House agrees that oil theft ‘funds political violence‘ and that theft networks ‘rely on violence… to hold onto their turf and secrecy’ and aid the growth of other transnational organised crimes (primarily piracy, and arms and drugs trafficking), as the networks ‘sometimes overlap’.

In some communities, fights over rights to steal oil weakened local power structures and social resilience, especially when battle lines were drawn between ethnic groups or generations…. Over time, the [illicit oil] trade became part of a larger Niger Delta conflict economy that is lucrative and entrenched.

Yet Chatham House has found ‘little’ that ‘suggests the trade threatens the stability of Nigeria or West Africa’.

Seemingly with regard to the tricky “10%” rule of thumb, Chatham House observes that stolen Nigerian oil is ‘a relatively small part of total Nigerian crude oil production’, ‘a tiny fraction of global crude supply’; and that oil theft is ‘a relatively small phenomenon worldwide’, ‘more likely to be an embarrassment than a scourge’, which ‘does not strengthen the case for action in Nigeria’. But obviously, less than ten per cent of a fuck of a lot can still be a fuck of a lot; the illicit oil trade may be much smaller than the legal oil trade, but still larger than the illicit arms and drugs trades.

Is oil crime a tool for social stability?

Chatham House testifies to the entrenched conflict economy of oil, worth $3b-$8b a year, in which the ‘greatest victims are ordinary Nigerians’; but it counsels against treating illicit oil as ‘blood oil‘ and reassures the international community that the illicit trade isn’t significantly disrupting the legal market in oil.

Indeed, Chatham House avers that,

Perversely, one could also see oil theft as a source of national stability. Historically, public corruption in Nigeria has acted as a kind of [social and political] glue…. The impoverishment of over 100 million Nigerians today could be seen as the price of whatever unity all the stealing buys.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes that violent attacks on the oil industry have reduced ‘remarkably’ since the amnesty. However, it is not reassured by less violent carving-up of Nigeria’s resources (and it backs ‘a Kimberley-type [conflict diamond] process to deal with “blood oil”‘).

As well as ‘directly destabilis[ing] the most powerful economy in the region‘ by funding armed groups and incentivising corruption, bunkering in Nigeria and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (in “peacetime”, when ‘political pretence[s]‘ no longer limit criminal networks’ activities to the conflict zone) have become a ‘threat‘ to Benin; indeed, they are a ‘threat to stability and development‘ across West Africa. So how does bunkering function?

Illicit oil trade structure

All observers, from government officials to intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) to nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to investigative journalists, criminal investigation monitors and illicit oil traders, agree that the problem exists on an industrial scale and mark the dots in the same places (corrupt military, civil servants and politicians; militants, gangs and thieves; and suffering-minimising local communities); but, when they join the dots, their outlines of the trade can look very different.

Cooperative cells

Chatham House has certainly defined the actors most precisely: high-level opportunists control access to (and tax) the trade; facilitators supply materials for operations and launder money from them; operators prepare and perform the thefts; security teams protect turf; local transporters get the oil to internal markets or out of Nigeria; foreign transporters get the oil into international markets; sellers broker deals; and low-level opportunists run protection/extortion rackets. Still, despite identifying groups that regulate trading and gangs that control territories, Chatham House rejects the idea of ‘barons’, ‘kingpins’, ‘mafias’ or ‘syndicates’; it perceives cellular cooperatives instead of hierarchical organisations.

While key members ‘can enter and exit quickly’, and while peripheral members may be casual labourers for the criminal organisations (for example, ‘members of the military [who] moonlight for the criminal gangs or rebel groups, “if the price is right”‘), the core organisation must be stable.

International syndicates

Showing how high criminal networks reach and how stable they are, Delta State Governor James Ibori personally laundered perhaps half-a-billion dollars during his eight-year rule, despite not being protected by President Olusegun Obasanjo; then, under President Umaru Yar’adua, Ibori was untouchable. Indeed, Ibori’s would-be prosecutor, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Chairman Nuhu Ribadu, was sacked, nearly assassinated (twice) and (temporarily) driven into exile (until President Jonathan’s election).

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found ‘highly international’ bunkering syndicates and networks, with ‘”bunkering turf”, territorial control of which is necessary’ for oil export; they sell or barter oil for money, drugs and arms. The UNODC identified one ‘chain’ from theft to local distribution or international export, which is ‘handled by the same gang but generally different units of the same group’, and another chain from international oil transport to import/delivery and marketing/sales (in which, most of the sea tankers’ workers are non-Nigerian).

Evidencing the involvement of (elements within) the military, admirals have been court-martialed, officers have been “retired”, whole battalions have been transferred out of oil-producing areas… In fact, kidnapping-investigating Waterways Security Committee member Omolubi Nuwuwumi judged that ‘soldiers are deeply involved. There is no bunkering activity that is taking place in the Niger Delta that the military is not involved in.’

Nigerian corporate crime

Kenule Beeson “Ken” Saro-Wiwa was the President of the non-violent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) until, in 1995, General Sani Abacha found a way to execute him as ‘a lesson to everybody [else]’. In a show trial in a kangaroo court (a military tribunal), the military regime used false testimony from witnesses who’d been ‘bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell…, all in the presence of Shell’s lawyer‘, in order to convict Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders of masterminding the assassinations of more moderate compatriots.

Accused of ‘conspir[ing] with the military government to capture and hang’ those Ogoni leaders, ‘working with the army to bring about killings and torture‘ of other Ogoni ­protesters, equipping the Nigerian army and ‘help[ing to] plan raids and terror campaigns against villages’, Shell Nigeria settled the case out of court for $15.5m. Since then, Wikileaks have revealed that Shell have ‘people [in] all the relevant ministries‘ and ‘access to everything’.

Nigerian state crime

Maybe no-one knows – or says – what really happens. But one of Shell’s own criminal investigation monitors, Catholic priest Father Obi, finds out:

Why was a massive barge able to hold 10,000 barrels of oil being loaded at 2am with crude? Why did another catch fire? Why were [machine] excavators there? Why were local observers arrested the next day, their cameras confiscated and memory cards destroyed? Were the thieves being protected by the military? Was the company paying workers to clean up oil spilled in the process of theft they themselves were engaged in? Did Shell know its oil was being stolen from under its nose?

And when Father Obi finds out, he says:

Shell must have known what was going on. The military must have known. Everyone knew there was complicity. I am personally sure that Shell knew that its oil was being stolen. If the managers did not know, then those who they put in charge [of the operation] seemed to know. This [theft] could not have happened without the collusion of the authorities and the military.

Shell Nigeria suggests that former oil industry workers may have formed, or been employed by, an organised oil-tapping network (outside the corporation and the state). But the logistics of intercontinental oil supply are incredibly expensive and hardly subtle… An oil trader in Port Harcourt explains,

You know it’s a racket. There is no chance of getting caught because there is no system to catch people. Big business is big politics….

The military now control the oil platforms, not the militants [since the amnesty]. People now have to buy oil directly from the military. The military is a chain of command, so I can only assume this goes to the very top…. If I want to load 200 tonnes of crude, I would have to pay for a lot of security. It is far easier to go straight to the military….

Clearly this is a sophisticated organisation. Where do people get vessels, the money for bribes and security? It costs millions. What the poor take is very small. The racket goes deep into the security and political systems…. All the authorities are involved – the oil companies, the military, the politicians.

Oil bunkering networks, corporations and the state: complicity, participation or command?

Tragically for Delta communities, they continue to endure grotesque poverty in a dangerously polluted environment. Awkwardly for those who control and/or profit from the oil trade, this suffering leaves Delta communities blithely honest about their participation in the oil trade and the identities of their partners-in-crime. The (Delta) Bolo community’s chief and lawyer, Mela Oforibika, explained the operation of their illicit oil refinery: ‘It could only operate with the help of the police and military, The pay-off system to the armed forces and police was well organised.’

Concomitantly, this illicit business cannot operate without the approval of (at least elements within) the police and the military. Observer journalist John Vidal reported that the Bolo community’s refinery had been ‘raided by the military…, possibly because the consortium who owned it refused to pay the authorities for protection‘. And this, for me, is the key to understanding the illicit antiquities trade in Nigeria.

Gangs run drug production, processing and/or trafficking. Politicians, law enforcement agencies and/or security forces “tax” and regulate the illicit oil trade (for their own benefit). Does the state (or do elements within it) choose not to participate in the illicit antiquities trade? Or have academics and journalists missed (or been unable to access) the evidence of institutionalised cultural racketeering? Or is there something about the nature of the Nigerian antiquities market that hinders or prevents organised criminals’ or state elements’ intervention?


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