Monday, 30 July 2012

In Bayelsa, crude oil thieves meet waterloo

Recently, several government agencies raised the alarm on the huge revenue being lost to the activities of persons involved in illegal oil bunkering and refining. Soon after, the Defence Headquarters challenged members of the armed forces to redouble their efforts and safeguard the nation’s oil industry

Almost immediately, the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) Operation Pulo Shield began the registration of vessels, barges and motorized boats operating in the Niger Delta. And since then, trouble no longer rains for crude oil thieves; it pours.

It began with the Nigerian Navy (NN) which, through the newly installed Regional Maritime Domain Awareness Centres (RMAC) monitored the movement of vessels along the Niger Delta waterways and actually provided graphical details on how a vessel, MT VANESSA hoisting a Belgian Flag, was for two weeks stealing crude oil  in the creeks of Brass/ Akassa  waterways.

The RMAC printout obtained by Daily Sun showed how MT VANESSA, between June 6 and June 18, kept moving between a location of 100 nautical miles (nm) off Brass/ Akassa to another location about 10nm off the Brass/ Akassa area. From its movement, it was discovered that the vessel moved towards the Brass/ Akassa area in the night and moved back into the deep ocean in the early hours of the day.

This unusual movement had immediately made the surveillance team to dub the ship ‘a vessel of interest’ and when they eventually assigned NNS ZARIA to move in and arrest the vessel, MT VANESSA was stealing 500,000 barrels of oil per day. And for the two weeks, it has lifted 8.5 million barrels.

Investigations revealed that NNS ZARIA intercepted the vessel with 15 crewmembers comprising six Romanians and nine Filipinos. And upon interrogation, the vessel could not give any cogent reason for what the Navy called ‘its suspicious movement in our waters.’ The NNS ZARIA consequently decided to arrest it.

But sensing that the game was up, the vessel resisted arrest and sped off. For about three hours, NNS ZARIA was in hot pursuit until she eventually caught up with the fleeing vessel, which was then forced to anchor at Brass from where she was escorted by NNS THUNDER to Bonny Anchorage.

The Navy said it had established that the registered owner of the vessel was Sea- Tankers Shipping (SAS) and that the vessel departed Lome Port on June 5 and arrived Akassa on June 6. It stated that the vessel had no papers from the Nigeria Port Authority (NPA), Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Nigerian Custom Service, Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and the Nigeria Navy ( NN) for operation in Nigeria’s waters.

Curiously, the crew of MT VANESSA admitted that the owners of the ship directed them to be roaming the waters without any specific location in mind, fuelling suspicions that it was indeed on an illegal trip.

The presidency was allegedly alerted to the development and it is currently interested in the investigation being conducted by the Navy, it was learnt.  Though the foreigners who were paraded at the Central Command headquarters in Yenagoa looked unfazed as they sipped from the bottle of water provided for them, the Flag Officer Commanding Central Naval Command, Rear Admiral Johnson Olutoyin has assured that the Navy would do a diligent job in its investigations.

He said: “It is pertinent to reiterate that in line with the Federal Government of Nigeria’s directive for all illegal activities, especially crude oil theft, to be stamped out of our waters, the NN has continued to maintain zero tolerance for all such activities in our maritime domain.

The NN and the Central Naval Command in particular will continue to maintain vigilance over our waters and fish out all persons or vessels engaging in these illegal activities. For the avoidance of doubt, vessels without proper clearance and documentation for their operations or activities in our waters are to clear off our maritime domain. Any vessel failing to do so would be arrested and handed over to the appropriate agencies for prosecution accordingly.

Also foreigners being lured to engage in illegal activities, especially crude oil theft, are hereby warned to keep off Nigerian waters and desist from such activities. The NN wishes to re-assure all those who intend to engage in legitimate businesses in our waterways of their security and safety.”

Few days after the incident, the JTF team in Brass arrested another Vessel, MT PRINCESS NNENA also along the Brass waterways. The Commander of the 343 Battalion, Lt. Col Mukthar Adamu was said to have personally led a special squad where the vessel, which was placed on surveillance, was arrested while attempting to transfer crude oil from drums in Cotonou boats into the vessel. However, the operators of the Cotonou boats jumped into the river and escaped.

The media coordinator of the JTF, Lt. Col Onyema Nwachukwu said the parade of the suspects was to send out a message that the security outfit was not prepared to back down in its current efforts to send oil thieves packing from the Niger Delta.

The JTF went a step further to lure two persons of interest to its headquarters. They included a woman who claimed she contracted the vessel and a man who claimed to be the Managing Director of the company that owns the vessel. At the headquarters, the two were immediately arrested. Both the man and the woman, who had thought they would be able to negotiate with the JTF on the release of the vessel, are currently undergoing investigations.

An excited Lt. Col Mukthar said this was just the beginning, saying his team was battle ready to clamp down on all oil thieves within its jurisdiction.

“This is part of our vicious war against crude oil theft. We would hand over the vessel and the suspects to the EFCC. We did not want to destroy the vessel because we wanted the prosecution team to have enough evidence. We don’t prosecute but the EFCC does, and we have to provide evidence for them. We want the EFCC to take all the necessary evidence to ensure that they face the law. Let me reiterate that there is no going back on the fight against crude oil thieves. Every step we are taking is in the interest of the national interest”

Of interest to the people of the Niger Delta region is what would be the end of these arrests made by the Navy and JTF. Both insist their duty is to carry out preliminary investigations and hand them over to the EFCC. If experience would be a guide, the people are unsure whether the arrests would end in prosecution and conviction or the suspects would be allowed to walk away into freedom

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