From Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
The discovery came first as a shocking incident; then it ignited fury across the nation. Expectedly, the recent offensive operation launched against crude oil thieves in the Niger Delta region by Tantita Security Services, the pipeline surveillance company owned by ex-militant leader Chief Government Ekpemupolo aka Tompolo, has been generating ripples across the land.
True to his reputation as one of the most influential Niger Deltans, Tompolo has approached the quest to rid the oil rich region of crude oil thieves with the same zeal he had used in agitating for a better region under the auspices of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
Since his company Tantita was awarded the pipeline oil surveillance contract by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited, (NNPCL), Tompolo, who dropped from limelight after his ordeal with the Federal Government, spearheaded by the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFFC), has bounced back into national prominence with the onslaught against crude oil thieves in Delta and Bayelsa State.
Saturday Sun investigations revealed that, since September 27 when the security company, made up of about 1000 youths from various communities, in company of the Navy, Army and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence (NSCDC) personnel, simultaneously embarked on its first operation, stunning discoveries have been made about the sophisticated dimension oil theft had assumed in the region.
Aside from operators of illegal refinery camps, who willingly surrendered their camps, the Tantita security team has made stunning discoveries on the depth of crude oil theft in the region. Part of the discoveries made were the major tapping points on the Trans-Forcados/ Ramos pipeline in Delta State through which oil has been stolen over the years. It was learnt that the discovery of 16 breaches was made by Tompolo’s company. The pipeline, operated by the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) at Yokri community, runs from Otumara and ends at Forcados Terminal, all in Delta State.
Keston Pondi, a key member of Tantita security team, said, for the six weeks the operation had been on, the team was still excavating and making new discoveries. According to him, the team “will follow the pipeline until we get to Ogidiben and Madangho communities.”
“Many people are complicit in these illegal oil activities, whether it is in the security sector, community sector, even in the oil industry. That is why Tompolo is coming,” Pondi had told journalists.
Saturday Sun further gathered that, on October 8, Tantita security team intercepted a crude oil tanker, MT Deinmo, with International Maritime Organisation (IMO) number 7210525 and registration number L85 B9.50, which had loaded 650 cubic metres of stolen crude oil in five compartments. The operation, led by Epibade Kari, the Operation Head of Tantita Security Services and Chief Security Officer to Tompolo, insisted that the arrested ship must be taken to Oporoza in Gbaramatu, headquarters of the company. Kari was reportedly offered N25 million equivalent in dollars to let the tanker off the hook, but he turned down the offer. The arrest of the vessel was said to have been applauded by concerned stakeholders as a sign of good things to come in the fight against crude oil thieves. Also, the patriotic attitude displayed by Kari in rejecting compromise, has reassured industry stakeholders that Tompolo’s team means business.
However, the sudden burning of the vessel before the commencement of investigation has been condemned by stakeholders in the industry. Many saw the action as a way to cover the tracks of oil thieves.
Chief Nengi James, national Vice- President of the Ijaw National Congress (INC), in an interview with Saturday Sun, said the burning of the vessel was in bad taste.
James, who was recently conferred with the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) for his contribution to the Niger Delta environment by President Muhammadu Buhari, declared that it was a cover up to hide the truth.
“The burning of the arrested vessel is part of the diversionary tactics to hoodwink Nigerians. They know that without burning the vessel, people would know those involved in the crude oil theft. It is all a cover-up. I was the first person at a conference that had top military brass to have given a graphic tree of oil theft in the Niger Delta region. The next step now is to probe the naval personnel who burnt the vessel and who ordered them to burn the vessel. We need to get to the root of this case.”
Also speaking in an interview with Saturday Sun, Chima Williams, Executive Director of the foremost Environmental Rights Action/ Friends of the Earth, Nigeria, and (ERA/FoEN), said the burning of the vessel is a cover up, further degradation of the Niger Delta region and a loss of revenue to Nigeria.
“The burning of the vessel is just to cover up. This is to prevent people from knowing those involved in the crude oil theft. Also, this will further destroy the ecosystem of the area. Aquatic life around the area is now threatened; so also is the health hazard to people around the area who would now inhale the poisonous substance released to the air. More so, it is a loss of revenue for Nigeria. The stolen crude could have been sold to make money for the country.”
Speaking also on the issue, Mr Alagoa Morris, ERA/FoEN programme officer in Bayelsa, said the action of the burning of the vessel should be condemned.
“This tactic of trying to hide evidence and degrading the environment is sad. It is unacceptable. It is like the burning of evidence, which should at least assist the government in its investigation of the owners of the vessel whether they are Nigerians or foreigners. The burning further contributes to the degradation of the environment. Also depending on the pronouncement of the court, it could be resold.
“Setting ablaze a seized vessel is unacceptable, whether it is by the military or the security company working for the NNPCL. Even the illegal refinery sites (Kpofire) should not be set ablaze, because we are talking about how to clean the Niger Delta and not to further degrade the environment. If the pipeline contract does not involve evacuation of illegal refinery camps, the government should provide more funds for that.
“The security company handing the contract should buy pumping machines to pump the crude oil from the camps or from the arrested vessel to a big vessel expected to take it away from that environment. We need a process and procedure to ensure the sustainability of our environment. Burning of crude oil increases the presence of carbon in the atmosphere. There should be a designated depot for seized crude oil, whether in Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers and Akwa-Ibom and Ondo states, and not to be setting it ablaze.“