Home Niger delta N/DELTA SOOT ARMAGEDDON: Nightmare for citizens, cash cow for criminals

N/DELTA SOOT ARMAGEDDON: Nightmare for citizens, cash cow for criminals

Residents of Rivers and other states in the Niger Delta are living on borrowed time from systematic organ failure, if medical prognoses of the effect of prevailing soot pollution are anything to go by. Hapless in the face of governments’ indifference, corrupt security operatives’ collusion with criminals, residents are wondering, when, not if, they would pay the supreme prices. SOUTH-SOUTH REGIONAL EDITOR, SHOLA O’NEIL, strings together connections between Federal Government’s failures, corrupt security operatives connivance, acquiescing state and local leaders; how it weakens the fight against pollution, effects on the delicate balance of peace, security and pollution across the Niger Delta.

In the early hours of Tuesday, January 18, 2022 this reporter left Mile 1 area of Port Harcourt, driving through the popular Aba Road where Governor Nyesom Wike is completing the last of six flyover bridges to tackle the infamous traffic gridlock that has made driving in the city a horrendous task. The governor is revitalizing infrastructure, especially roads, and the city is regaining its lost glory.

Early morning is the best time to explore the rejuvenated city, as the roads are freer (of human and vehicle traffics), with just few pedestrians, mostly street sweepers, early morning joggers and other early risers, on the road. It was a good time to be up, out and about

It was almost sunup (at 6am) – but a thick cloud of darkness enveloped the landscape. Rather than crisp morning air, the sky was heavy and the air thick and pungent. A first time visitor could easily mistake the ominous cumulous overhead for Harmattan or rain, but it is indeed a specter of death that is steadily spreading across the skylines of the Niger Delta, as oil thieves become more emboldened and prosperous from their nefarious act.

One could feel the wind scorching its way through the nostril into the lungs. As the vehicle traipsed through eight-lane highway from Air Force Base towards Artillery, the overcast overhead grew thicker, the air even more so, and its sting harsher. By the time the vehicle ascended the Artillery flyover, there was the eerie feeling of being caught in toxic haze. The distress was not only felt in the nostril and lungs, but there was a stinging sensation in one’s bleary eyes.

Two hours later, the sun was yet struggling to break through the fog, but it was eclipsed by the sheer weight of the pollution. The dark apocalyptical fog was even larger, covering every space of the sky that the eyes could see atop the Eleme Flyover and the burning sensation on the eyes was unbearable, same with the harshly peppery sting on the skin. It was like showering under toxic rain of fine molecules.

Hours later, well over midday, the gloom over the city continued to defy and subsume the sun. There was no sight of the blue sky. It was one of the worst days since the deadly pollution over five years ago. Its wing spanned over the city from Obigbo to Choba, through Emuoha to outside the city.

This is a regular feeling residents have been contending with for several years in the face of soot invasion. Soot (also known as lampblack or carbon black) has become a familiar feature in skylines of towns and villages of the oil producing areas.

Experts say soot is “a product of incomplete combustion,” which effects could be fatal for victims, as those in Rivers State. Illegal crude refiners have taken over the Niger Delta, unleashing pollution on a scale that is unseen or felt since oil was first discovered in Oloibiri in the 1950s.

Illegal bunkering and local refining of crude oil started in the 1990s when youths took up arms to protest the region’s relegation in the scheme of the Nigerian state. From selling crude oil to international rogue traders in exchange for arms, they learnt how to produce fuel to power their speed boats. Now it has become a booming business for criminals, including ‘repentant militants’. As their operations spread, the pollution from the unregulated ‘industry’ has increased.

The footmarks of this killer are felt in every home. Every day, people wake up to black particles in their living homes. Housekeepers spend hours mopping floors to remove the unwanted visitor, but the victory over soot is only momentary, because the purveyors never stop. Air-conditioner filters now need to be changed more frequently because of the constant invasion of the dark particles that penetrate and clog them.

People, including the aged, children even day-old wake up with pain, their nostrils are darker than the exhaust pipes of smoky cars; phlegm from their throats is blacker than a chimney pipe. Mrs. Happiness Josiah, a resident of Igboetche Road said: “No matter how many times you shower in a day the water will come out black.”

Chest pain and respiratory diseases are more commonplace than malaria and other ailments. In 2020 a report produced by the Prof. Roseline Konya-led technical team showed that over 22,000 persons were either admitted or required medical treatment for respiratory tract related ailments in five years. But medical experts at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH) and other health centres said the number has more than tripled just two years after.

Konya, a former Commissioner of Environment in the state, blames pollution resulting from illegal bunkering activities and gas flaring. The finding only affirmed what residents and other groups already knew. Most of those who spoke on the situation said they were aware that the putrid air poses severe health hazards.

There are no official records of the number of deaths resulting from the pollution, but it is believed to be in thousands. The situation is worrying enough for wealthy inhabitants and those with options to seek safer places away from the polluted areas. But there is no option for those without means and others whose jobs are in the area.

“What can we do? Even if I want to relocate, I don’t have the money. If I get a job that will take me out of this pollution, I will not think twice about leaving. This is not the Port Harcourt we lived in in the ’90s and early 2000s,” a resident of Akpajo suburb of Port Harcourt told our reporter

Chigozie (surname withheld), a driver who lives in Oyigbo, told Sunday Nation that the pollution is worse in communities around Imo River, Eleme, Ogoni, where numbers of illegal, local refineries have grown vastly in the last few years. He is one of those who has root in the area and so cannot leave. He has spent his savings to complete his dream home.

“From morning to night there is no break. Sometimes we wake up from sleep in the middle of the night choking; it is like breathing in chemical that you don’t see yet it is burning your chest and every other part of your body. You try to cough but it is dry and your nose is blocked. When you finally cough the mucus is black like condemned oil. We cannot open our windows, even if there is no light, because it will be worse,” he lamented.

Those living around those areas for prolonged periods of time risk early death, numerous reports have revealed. A study by the Centre for Peace and Environmental Justice (CEPEJ), an NGO, said soot particles, which are easily inhaled or absorbed through the skin, and/or assimilated into the human body, can caused up to six kinds of cancers – lung, breast, pancreatic, prostrate and sarcoma.

Speaking at a ‘Stop the Soot’ conference organized by Rotary Club Eco in Port Harcourt, Dr. Denye Briggs said research undertaken at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH) found “structural abnormality in the sperm cells of majority of men living in Port Harcourt.” Such defects, he said, could affect their ability to impregnate their spouses.

Worried residents, NGOs and CLOS have embarked on protests to draw the attention of government and environmental agencies to their plight. Yet, there has been no action, until recently, and the air quality has worsened.

The menace is not restricted to Port Harcourt or Rivers State, according to CEPEJ Country Chair, Comrade Sheriff Mulade, who hails from Kokodiagbene in Warri Southwest LGA of Delta State. He said the situation is worse in the suburbs, villages and communities with oil locations and pipelines right of way.

Travellers on the East-West Highway from Elele junction through Ahoada to the Bayelsa State axis as well as on the Port Harcourt – Enugu Expressway would agree. The suffocating air around those paths is a bother for travelers on the busy roads.

The situation is even worse in riverside communities, where soot has added to the devastation of the ecosystem; the air, water, land, and everything within are blackened, corrupted and polluted by illegal refinery operators who pour waste and oil in drinking water sources and farmland without caution.

FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’S FAILURE, ILLEGAL REFINERS’ GAIN

Illegal refineries, which produced crudely extracted diesel and kerosene from oil stolen from pipelines and wellheads, have defiantly waxed stronger in a nation where government-owned refineries are wobbling and fumbling. Law enforcement agencies frequently reel out figures of numbers of illegal refineries they destroyed and set afire, still more are springing up in huge numbers and at locations that question the sincerity of those involved in the fight.

An industry expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said up to 60% (or higher) of diesel sold at petrol stations, including those of major marketers, are sourced from illegal refineries.

“Some of them simply blend the unskillfully extracted diesel (kpofire in local parlance) with imported ones. The percentage of kpofire and pure diesel depends on the greed, mood and temperament of the sellers. Even some tank-farms are not left out in this brisk business: what separates one from the other is the ratio of pure to kpofire.”

Our source said because of the huge profit involved, marketers from all over the country are joining in the business “From far and near they are financing locals to refine and sell directly to them,” he revealed.

Numerous factors are responsible for increased demand for cheaper products in recent years. Among the drivers of this growth are the high cost of importation in the face of falling naira, inflation and failure of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to tackle endemic corruption in various institutions within the oil and gas sector.

“Demands have gone up for kpofire because it is cheaper. The crude oil used is stolen, the ‘industry is not regulated and provides a local alternative to the essential fuel as kerosene and diesel that manufacturing companies, all industries, SMEs and even households rely on run plants. Epileptic power supply nationwide also means that businesses and individuals operate their own ‘power plants’ and other means to cut the cost of diesel are welcome,” a small business owner said condition of anonymity.

“At a pump price of N230 per litre, kpofire diesel is 50% cheaper at just around N120 per liter, depending on purity and proximity to the source. Kerosene sells for N441/liter making Nigerians pay more for it than any other oil producing country in the world. Data from globalpetrolprices.com shows that N441 would get a drum (200lt) of kerosene in Iran, where it sells for N2.15. This is why despite risk of explosion risk most households continue to cling to this cheaper option, which sells for about N120/l.”

The recent astronomical rise of cooking gas price also pushed consumers to explore the use of the locally refined kerosene. In 2021, the prices of cooking gas went up 200 percent: refilling a 12.5kg cylinder spiked to N13,000 in some parts of the country from N4,4000. For poor families already battered by high cost of living, falling purchasing power, the switch to stoves powered by kerosene was an easy choice.

BOOMING BUSINESS AT THE ‘EXPORT TERMINALS’

– Military, police collaboration

Hundreds of trucks leave northern states and other parts of the country for the Niger Delta daily. In the past they brought farm produce and livestock, and went back with ‘products’. Now they come mostly empty just to load petroleum products. These trucks have fabricated massive storage tanks, different from their fuel tanks. These have capacity to conceal up 100 drums (up to 20,000 litres) kpofire products.

The main ‘loading bays’ for these trucks are scattered across communities in all oil-bearing states. Some of the busiest points are between Elele-Junction and Ahoada, and Koko-Ugbenu junction (Delta State) on the East-West Highway, as well as earth roads in hidden locations across the zone.

From midday they start trickling into the point around Ahoada. By dusk the line of trucks and tankers would increase until they totally choke the highway, sometimes reducing traffic to a single lane. The bolder ones could start filling their tanks in broad daylight; while others wait for the cover of darkness to take the stolen goods. The volume of these products lifted from the areas is not known, but it easily runs into millions of liters weekly.

Smaller vehicles fitted with stronger suspensions are used to transport the products from different locations. Motorcycles specially tweaked to carry up to 400 litres loaded in nylon packs or jerry cans are the preferred ones for trucks taking smaller capacities.

It’s good business for its sponsors, owners of tankers, who could be marketers, drivers, hirelings, menial workers at the site of production, motorcyclists and cart operators, who easily earn the national minimum wage in hours.

Some local chiefs and community/youth leaders are not left out. They issue ‘operating licenses’ to operators, grant right-of-way to transport the products through their areas. Sources in various several communities told our reporter that political stalwarts, influencers and enforcers are not left out of the illegal deals.

Last year Governor Wike ordered the demolition of a growing shanty and meeting place between buyers and sellers of the products near Ahoada. Bulldozers razed makeshift shops to the ground, but this did not stop the operators. The trucks and tankers and their collaborators started operating directly through pipeline right-of-way to load, sometimes with the assistance of security operatives.

At 3:00pm on 19th September 2021, this reporter took a photograph of a military Toyota Landcrusier pick-up, with some armed men in Army fatigue providing cover for a heavy duty truck that was waiting to be loaded with product in public view along the East-West Highway.

“The brazen manner in which the trucks go in and come out, even in broad daylight tells you the rot starts at the very top. Police, soldiers and other security agents now openly assist criminals to break the law under the watch of President Buhari who prides himself as pious a leader,” a resident in the community said.

There are no roads with higher density of security checkpoints as routes where stolen petroleum passes. On every part of the East-West Highway, police and NSCDC checkpoints are so closely sited – even within hearing distance.

Elele to Mbiama junction is a distance of 20 miles, but we counted 10 checkpoints mainly targeting transporters of stolen products. There are IGP Task Forces on pipeline vandalism, NSCDC, oil industry trade unions such as IPMAN’s and others. Men of the NSCDC use a simple testing kit – made of pet soda bottle with a string tied to its neck – to verify product sources. Our reporter watched them at work in Patani in Delta State, for over one hour. There were no arrests made, but ‘handshake’ between drivers and officers. Fees of between N1,000 and N10,000 are paid by trucks, depending on the quantity (seen from the size of tanks).

Nights are usually busier at Ahoada loading point. As the night falls more security operative join the fray. Most of them drive their personal cars and SUVs. Among them are those on official duties (roadblocks) and those who sacrifice their personal cars for the job.

“They are on mission targeted at the illegal products trucks, yet arrest or seizures are hardly made. The ones you see being displayed are just scapegoats who are used to justify presence on the road,” a community source at Okobe, Ahoada, told our reporter.

The wanton manner the security agents take bribes from drivers confirm rumours that the rot reaches the high echelon of the forces. It was noticed that some of the tankers/trucks do not give money at all the checkpoints, ostensibly because they have ‘settled’ ahead of time. They simply drop a name or place a call to ‘higher authorities’ who in turn would speak to the checking officer and ask that the consignment had been cleared.

Busoma (may not be the correct spelling), a motor-boy our reporter met at Bomadi Junction (Delta State), said: “We do not know about the arrangements; our bosses (truck/cargo owners) make the arrangements and give us number of the person to call when we run into trouble.” He added that “some ‘stubborn ofsa’ (officer)” sometimes demand ‘settlement’ in spite of the calls. He said such callous ones are usually given N500 to N2,000. It depends, also, he said, on the rank of the superior who had been settled ahead of their departure.

Comrade Mulade, who is Country Chair, CEPEJ, affirmed that security operatives not only aid and abet the illicit trade, but are active operators who own bunkering depots across the region. He made the claim before Rivers State Government accused a Divisional Police Officer (DPO) of owning an illegal refinery in the state. A local government council chair too was allegedly stopped from invading an illegal refinery by men of the NSCDC, who were allegedly securing the site

“They (security operatives) are working with crude oil thieves and they own most of the bunkering spots along the riverside communities. They own vessels and assets that are beyond the capacity of locals. The youths and women that you see engaging in this trade are mere casual (menial) workers for highly-placed Nigerians. That is why when arrests are made, calls from ‘high quarters’ and ‘Abuja’ lead to release of the arrested vessels and persons,” Mulade said.

Rivers State Commissioner for Police, Mr. Eboka Friday, said the command was committed to the war against illegal bunkering and assures the public he would not spare any officer indicted, no matter how highly placed they may be. The Acting Police Public Relations Officer, Grace Iringe Koko, who spoke on behalf of the commissioner, said news of a DPO’s involvement was concerning, adding, “the officer was immediately redeployed and a panel headed by an ACP inaugurated to investigate the matter.”

CRUDE OIL THIEVES IN POLITICAL OFFICE

Our findings showed that beyond the influence of security operatives, some perpetrators have political connections. A secret report commissioned by one oil multinational years ago revealed participation of local politicians in the illicit deals. The report said proceeds from illegal bunkering are used to finance elections and political campaigns in return for appointments that give them protection.

Furthermore, our independent research revealed that communities in Delta, Bayelsa and Ondo are falling into the grip of some oil thieves. “They amass arms and ammunition that give them the firepower to face military task forces. They hijack local leadership positions and security apparatuses and install their stooges. With this they acquire a platform to continue their activities.”

Earlier this January, Rivers State Government revealed that a top director in its Ministry of Environment (names withheld) would be queried for alleged involvement in illegal bunkering activity. Kelvin Ebiri, Special Assistant to the Governor, said the Head of Service was directed to query the suspect “for abetting bunkering activities and handed him over to the police for investigation and possible prosecution.”

The director was among a number of high profile individuals and heads of local security operatives (vigilantes) fingered for illegal bunkering in a sweeping effort to arrest the trend. Governor Wike also ordered LGA chairmen to identify sponsors and operators in their areas, go after them and destroy such operations.

Nevertheless, Bibi Oduku, Commandant General, Riverine Security (Coast Guard of the Federation) while offering assistance in the war, urged Wike and other governors of the region to do house cleaning if they must win the battle.

“Some governors’ aides and supporters are using the governor’s office with security agencies for illegal bunkering business. The security agencies are very much aware of the happenings in their areas. He (Wike) should change the security units in riverside communities because they are so attached to oil bunkering and they are partners too.”

This is easier said than done. Feelers across the region indicate that operators have unions that are heavily funded from the proceeds of their crimes. They are able to ‘buy’ security operatives, including the local police chiefs, who are offered luxurious gifts, such as cars and houses. They engage good lawyers who are drafted when members run into trouble.

GOVERNMENTS WATCHING CITIZENS DIE

Stakeholders who spoke on the effort to clear illegal bunkering are unanimous that all tiers of government need to do more to earn citizens’ trust. The government, they said, has failed to protect the people living in oil producing communities, neglected their plight in tackling the illicit trade.

Mulade lamented dearth of health facilities in critical areas affected by oil pollution. Bassey Edoho, a commentator, was suspicious of the Rivers government’s frenzied response to the pollution, wondering if “he (Wike) did not know about them and the effect of what they have been doing for four years now?”

Richard Yiranee, President, Luawii Student Union, however, commended the governor’s actions as “steps in the right direction.” He said Wike and his team should be applauded for the great job they are doing to stop oil bunkering.”

Others insisted that governments have failed to protect their people from the debilitating effects of environmental pollution caused by oil exploration and exploitation activities over the years.

For two decades, residents of Ubeji, Jeddo, Ekpan and others in Delta State, have contended with soot and gas flares from the Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company. Several protests and petitions failed to move the state government to action. A gas torch has been burning nonstop in the centre of Gelegele, Edo State for several decades.

“Soot Armageddon is not only happening in Rivers State, the reason why we hear about Port Harcourt soot is because the governor put it on the front burner. People are dying in their 40s, 50s or 60s years. Soot in Delta is worse than Port Harcourt, but there is no one is speaking out,” Mulade said.

He said governors of the region failed to allocate part of the 13% derivation fund to tackle effects of environmental pollution, and prepare for future health and metal fallout. He lamented the absence of functional radiotherapy centers in the South-south region. “There are three of such equipment in the country, but the nearest to the Niger Delta is in Enugu, and others in Lagos and Ibadan.”

Mulade and other stakeholders urged federal and state governments, intervention agencies such as the NDDC and oil multinationals to take steps and provide remedial health measures for those worst hit by soot in Rivers and other affected states.

The Nation Online by Shola O’Neil

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