Fighting Off Vandals

It was a tortuous journey on miles and miles of nothing but water as far as the eyes could see. The open-air three inflatable boats with a total of 29 passengers, including Defence correspondents, senior naval officers and personnel of the Special Boat Services (SBS), had on a certain Thursday set off from the jetty of the Western Naval Command (WNC), Apapa, Lagos, by 12pm.

On water, the impressive convoy all rode but there was no one to admire them saves for some water hyacinths, dirts and quite a few curious fishes who bobbed up their head as they tried to escape the innocuous traps set by fishermen.

After 27minutes of voyage, the crew suddenly came upon the reason for the visit-hundreds and thousands of gallons filled with products suspected to be Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), submerged in water and hidden in thick water-hydrangeas foliage trees.

It can at best be described as a theatre of pipeline vandalism. The discovery was mind-boggling. It was a money-producing business with instant returns. Welcome to the Majidun-area of Ikorodu, one of the many riverine communities that dot Lagos.

Prior to the operation, the community had been having a field day vandalising, siphoning and selling off the products in a trans-state booming cartel. There have been instances in the past where the police and the civil Defence will go on raids there, but the vandals always seemed to gain the upper hand.

Operation Awatse

That was until last week. The operatives of the Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) BEECROFT, the operations body of the Western Naval Command (WNC) had taken war to the doorsteps of the community.

Codenamed Operation Awatse, an Hausa word for 'Scatter', the ongoing operation saw military personnel drawn from the NN and the Nigerian Army (NA), storm the riverine community in a bid to sanitise it and curb the economic sabotage.

The operatives had stormed the creeks while the vandals were still operating in bliss. After the initial resistance when they thought it the usual drill with the police and civil defence, the vandals were said to have downed their arms, jumped into the river and swam to safety.

If they thought the operation was flash in the pan, they were sadly mistaken as more personnel were drafted when it was discovered that it was not a week's job. With the loss of their means of livelihood, some of them went back to harvesting foliages and drying it to be used as thatch for roofs and mats.

But it was all the women as the men who were not arrested had fled once the military had descended on the community, leaving their wives and kid defenceless without their protector.

Expectedly, the operation caused a hitch in the free flow of traffic as the personnel were stationed strategically not just on water but on the land especially on the bridge axis that connects the two sides of Majidun.

With the patrol on the roads, more vandals were apprehended as they attempted to carry some of their rescued stolen products to safety.

Intensifying the onslaught against pipeline vandalism which is the vision of the current Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Usman Jibrin, which is 'Zero Tolerance to crude oil theft and pipeline vandalism', no fewer than 10, 000 gallons of stolen products siphoned from several vandalised Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) pipelines.

The taskforce had unearthed the illegal gallons of fuel, stored in 25 and 50 litre kegs, which were covered with leaves and hidden under the swamp and in some houses of the residents living in the area.

The products, suspected to be Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), which were carted away to the jetty of the WNC, Apapa, in 20 trucks, were estimated to be worth over N60million.

The petroleum products were afterwards handed over to the NNPC Area manager in charge of Mosinmi Depot, Mr. Remi Eluyefa by the commander of operation, Commodore Tekumo Ikoli, who also doubles as the Commander NNS Beecroft.

With the huge revenue derived from crude oil, these criminalities no doubt portend grave dangers for the nation's economy. According to statistics, in 2000 alone, over 200, 000 to 300, 000 barrels of crude were stolen per day.

This statistics were further backed by a study from the International Centre of Reconciliation which puts the total value of stolen crude oil and disrupted oil production between 2003 and 2008 at approximately N14 trillion.

However, despite checks put in place, the trend seems to be on the increase as backed by further reports and statistics. In 2011 alone, Nigerian recorded about $7billion loss to crude oil theft, a clear but whooping difference from the value of crude oil lost between 2003 and 2008.

Trans-border Trade

Boarding another military vessel, the crew headed down to another side of Majidun where the trans-border trade of the stolen petroleum products are sold off.

The route from Ikorodu to Arepo in Ogun State, another hotspot for pipeline vandalism, to the unbaptised would seem curvy and confusing. After a wide expanse of water, the route then forks into two, with the one on the left leading to Arepo from where the product is sent to different parts of the country.

Also, THISDAY gathered that the entire process is run like a cartel whereby the vandals siphon the products, package it and then sail with it to the trans-border creek linking Lagos and Ogun.

Already, the vandals have a market where these products are sold to the highest bidder. The market is also hidden out of sight and inwards the creeks.

From the market, it is then easy to ferry the products from Arepo in Ogun State, from where it is transported to different parts of the country and sometimes to neighbouring African countries.

Modus Operandi

THISDAY gathered that the modus operandi of the vandals begins with vandalising the NNPC pipeline of their choice. Raising questions of complicity, it was further gathered that the vandals sometimes have an in-house source that simply unplugs the particular pipeline and connects it to the vandal's hose, which are buried underground.

The siphoned products then run undetected into a tank where the products are put into the gallons and tied together with chains, which are then pushed into the water from where it is loaded on their flatboats to be sold to the highest bidder.

Navy Reacts

Addressing newsmen afterwards, the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), WNC, Rear Admiral Samuel Ilesanmi Alade, said the suspects were in custody but would not be paraded so as not to jeopardise investigations.

He said the ongoing raid was in tandem with the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Usman Jibrin's zero tolerance to illegal bunkering and pipeline vandalism.

He said, "As you may be aware, over time, the Federal Government of Nigeria has been confronted with the challenges of combating illegal oil bunkering and pipeline vandalism.

"These illegal activities have not only led to significant loss in revenue accruable to the federal government but it has also led to damages of strategic installations which require colossal amount of money to repair.

"Pipeline vandalism particularly has led to pollution of the maritime environment and in some cases, fire disasters resulting in the loss of several lives and properties.

"Particularly worrisome at this time are Majidun, Arepo, Ogolonto and Makoko in Ikorodu Local Government Area of Lagos State.

"These Communities are renowned for illegal oil bunkering and pipeline vandalism. The perpetrators use self-propelled barges and wooden boats to ferry the stolen products to their destinations. They are usually armed to confront any one that attempts to stop their operation."

He added, "Thus the operation was conducted to dislodge the perpetrators of these nefarious acts. The operation which is initiated by the NN and supported by the NA and is still ongoing.

"It was planned sequel to directives by the CNS last week. It has yielded successes so far and many arrests have been made and products suspected to be stolen refined petroleum products have been recovered.

"Also, products and wooden boats popularly called Cotonou boats were intercepted and destroyed by our personnel insitu.

"The products would be handed over to the PPMC for storage pending termination of the operation. Some of the perpetrators were arrested and would also be handed over to appropriate prosecuting agencies.

"At the end of the operation, the Nigerian Navy may consider establishing a Naval base so that we can sustain the gains recorded.

"I want to warn the perpetrators to seek legitimate employment instead of living on illegalities. I must emphasise that the CNS has zero tolerance to any forms of illegalities within the maritime space.

"I would want to appeal to the general public to provide useful information that would help us sustain this fight and apprehend these perpetrators. We really need cooperation from members of the public. There is need for residents around Majidun, Arepo and Ogolonto to provide us with information."

On sustainability, he further said upon completion of the operation, the navy would consider establishing a base in the area, If it gets such approval, to be able to carry out effective patrol of all areas used by vandals in Ikorodu and its adjourning communities.

Residents Speak

One of the residents living in the area, Mrs. Kafayat Ibrahim, said she was aware of the oil bunkery but never knew it was illegal.

Another resident, Mr. Abiodun Ojoyemi said he never knew there was such illegal operation around his neighbourhood until he saw soldiers around his area.

Also, a fish seller in the community who was simply identified as Iya Toyosi said the vandalism has affected their water wells.

She said, "As a fish seller who dries the fish with fire, I am always scared because fire outbreak could occur in this area. We are even scared to apply any type of fire outdoors for fear of explosion."

The Public Relations Officer of Ikorodu Youths Association, Moshood Adebayo, who lauded the efforts of the military in a statement lamented that the

Ikorodu Community has been labeled over years as a place occupied by vandals and criminals.

He said, "We wish to state that vandalism is not associated with those of us living in this area as we are working with government to ensure that the property and infrastructure on ground are safe and well protected."

Security Agencies and NNPC's Role

All these criminal activities which have thrived over the years have been placed squarely on the doorsteps of security officers and officials of the NNPC, whom many allege turn a blind eye to these nefarious activities.

There have been allegations and counter allegations on the complicity of the above mentioned persons in helping the vandalism trade boom especially in Majidun, thus corroborating the saying that when security agencies collaborate with criminals, crime fighting takes the back seat.

Corroborating, Adebayo, continued in his statement, "We the youths of Majidun in Ikorodu Local Government Area of Lagos State applaud the efforts of the NN and NA for the joint operation carried out to rid the community of bad eggs that inhabit the area.

"Today, we now know that those who are responsible for the unwholesome acts are from outside the community, as well as those who are supposed to enforce the law and protect the infrastructure are those involved.

"We give kudos to the Armed Forces because the arrest of 50 suspects from within a community in connection to vandalism is not an easy task.

"Also, the arrest of the five policemen among the 50 persons arrested shows that the police are truly behind the illegal act which have given the community a bad name and by implication it justifies why they referred to the Civil Defence as trespassing into their territory.

"We therefore appeal that government should look into the matter critically so that in the name of espirit de corps, the five policemen will not be released leaving the other non-uniform persons to suffer.

"Also, it should serve as a basis for government to revisit the case of the police and Civil Defence in Ikorodu for the sake of justice."

On the allegation that some of the oil thieves have the support of some traditional rulers in the area and some officials of the NNPC, Alade said they were not aware of that, adding that ongoing intelligence gathering would reveal the brains behind the act.

Also, Eluyefa who commended the navy for the major breakthrough it recorded in helping them tackle the huge economic sabotage and loss of products, said he was not aware of any complicity between the vandals and NNPC officials.

He said, "We are not security personnel so we have always depended on security agencies to provide security on their pipelines. The security of the pipelines is not the work of NNPC. And we are not aware of any complicity between our personnel and vandals.

"We depend on security agencies to provide us with cover because most of us are engineers who do not know much about security. We are glad that the navy has delivered."

With the laudable harvest of stolen products by the Alade-led operation, many opine that the operation be extended to other parts of the state where these vandals have a field day with their illegal gotten products.

Also, many called on the Federal Government to put checks and balances in place to eliminate cases whereby security agencies tacitly encourage pipeline vandalism, thereby encourage economic sabotage.

Quote: These illegal activities have not only led to significant loss in revenue to the federal government but it has also led to damages of strategic installations which require huge amount of money to repair

SOURCE: THIS DAY

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