Oil Thieves and a Political Vacuum in the Niger Delta

A lot of oil gets stolen in the Niger Delta – as much as 150,000 barrels, every day. That represents a significant portion of Nigeria’s total daily production of around 2.7 million barrels.

Where does the stolen oil go? Some goes into hidden, illegal, “home-made” oil refineries in the Delta, which produce diesel for local consumption. Some goes overseas. One source told the BBC that “about 10% of the snatched oil was being refined locally by gangs operating in the delta’s creeks and swamps. The rest is mainly going to criminal networks in Ukraine, Serbia and Bulgaria, or to Singapore, which is the world’s top refiner.” Some oil also leaks into local waters, adding to the environmental devastation in the Delta.

Where do the profits from illegal oil sales go? The criminal networks involved in oil theft are reportedly quite sophisticated, and allegedly include government officials.

In one indication of how institutionalized such networks are becoming, some of the profits also reportedly go back into local communities:

Another critical development that is said to be frustrating efforts to rid the Niger Delta of criminal oil thieves is the tactical support of communities along the waterways where these illegal operations are being carried out. According to sources, these oil thieves now engaged in community development projects.

“It will interest you to know that these oil thieves now build roads, hospitals and engage in other activities in communities where they carry out their illegal operations.

“So, members of the communities don’t even cooperate with officials of government, as they see these criminals as their benefactors,” a source explained.

The thieves are becoming politicians, or even state-builders, if you like. If true, these reports of community development projects point to the existence of several vacuums in the Delta – a security vacuum, a political vacuum, and a development vacuum. While violence has decreased in the Delta since the government-sponsored amnesty program for militants began in 2009, the extent of the criminality – and the political dimensions it seems to be taking on – shows the extent of the challenges that remain for the state to confront in this region. A naval force is reportedly being deployed to pursue thieves, but military force alone seems insufficient for addressing the interlocking problems that allow criminality to flourish.

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6 thoughts on “Oil Thieves and a Political Vacuum in the Niger Delta

  1. I recall an excerpt from Coll’s book on Exxon that mentioned the U.S. being unwilling to support the Nigerian navy because of its criminal ties.

    Do the thieves-turned-politicians remain local to the Delta or do they move into Nigeria-proper?

    • Haven’t read Coll’s book. I should – someone else mentioned it to me a few days ago. As for whether the thieves move or not, I don’t know.

      • Personally I think it could have been expanded (any one of the examples he looks at would deserve an entire 500-page book) but it’s probably about as much as you can publish and expect the general public to read.

        My interest in the the thieves (or how about politico-thieves) is whether they’re a strange growing political force in the Delta that’s challenging the legitimacy of the national government or if they’re moving into the Nigerian mainstream.

      • In reply to Gyre,

        I do not think they are part of the legal establishment. The establishment don’t need to break pipes to make money. Unlike the thieves, they legally control the national and state treasuries and have full discretion over it.

        Community development??? Thats interesting discovery. But of course, the establishment has the least interest in community development. Decades of oil exploration and production when there were no oil thieves (oil theft is a very recent phenomenon and is just about a decade old) shows little legacy of community development projects in the Niger Delta.

    • That is what you get after 52 years of neglect of the Niger Delta.

      The people of the Niger Delta see the Nigerian Government as an occupying force that has taken their resources by force. That narrative is supported by history of armed struggle against the Nigerian Government.

      Before we get the people of the Niger Delta to “manage their resources responsibly”, they will have to be given a stake / sense of ownership in the resources under their lands. If that doesn’t happen, they’ll simply continue to take “what is rightfully theirs”. If you like, call it “oil theft”.

      • I am not out to cast the thieves (and you are right that that is a politically loaded term) as villains. Certainly I think people in the Delta have reasons to feel and act as they do.

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