Nigeria's oil thieves say government leaves them no choice

Tue Jan 15, 2013 5:42am EST
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By Akintunde Akinleye

RIVER NUN, Nigeria (Reuters) - The wooden fishing boat navigating Nigeria's mangrove swamps is powered by a generator balanced above its volatile cargo.

Shimmering crude oil fills its hull, almost indistinguishable from the polluted water in the creek.

Here and there on the banks, people coated in oil wade through greasy mud in patches of landscape blackened and stripped of the thick vegetation that makes Nigeria's oil-producing delta so hard to police.

Plumes of grey or yellow smoke fill the air as men who will give only their first names go to work in an illegal industry that the government says lifts a fifth of Nigeria's output of two million barrels a day.

Oil 'bunkering' -- hacking into pipelines to steal crude then refining it or selling it abroad -- has become a major cost to Nigeria's treasury, which depends on oil for 80 percent of its earnings.

Major General Johnson Ochoga, who leads a military campaign against bunkering that was stepped up last year under orders from President Goodluck Jonathan, told Reuters nearly 2,000 suspects had been arrested and 4,000 refineries, 30,000 drums of products and hundreds of bunkering boats destroyed in 2012.

Yet the complicity of security officials and politicians who profit from the practice, and the lack of alternatives for those who undertake it, cast doubt on the likelihood of success.

Forty-year-old Goodluck, who shares his name and tribe with the president, says he would much rather have got a respectable job, except that, despite the billions of petrodollars coursing through the region's creeks over decades, there aren't any.   Continued...

Ebiowei, 48, carries an empty oil container on his head to a place where it would be filled with refined fuel at an illegal refinery site near river Nun in Nigeria's oil state of Bayelsa November 27, 2012. Locals in the industry say workers can earn $50 to $60 a day. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye