The relative peace in the restive Niger Delta region of Nigeria has been widely attributed to the 2009 Presidential Amnesty Program (PAP) which granted a state pardon to the armed militias who had violently protested against the lack of inclusive oil governance and development in the oil-rich region. Unknown to many people is the persistence of one of the spin-offs of the conflict, in the form of a thriving parallel economy centered on the illegal refining of crude oil in make-shift artisanal refineries and the sale of petroleum products in the rural areas of the Niger Delta region. This occurs despite a public outcry against air pollution from the fine particles of soot emanating from artisanal refineries scattered across the rural areas in the region.1ThisDay (2022). Editorial: Menace of Soot in Rivers. ThisDay Newspaper, 24th January, 2022; Naku, Dennis (2022). Illegal refining: Port Harcourt residents choked, remain in endless battle with soot. Punch Newspaper, 26th March 2022. The federal government’s action against the growing levels of oil theft partly blamed on operators of artisanal refineries calls attention to the urgent need to address the economic, security, and environmental challenges posed by the operations of illegal artisanal refineries.
This paper is based on my African Peacebuilding Network (APN) 2022 Individual Research Fellowship (IRF) funded project titled: “Artisanal Refineries and Resource Conflict in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria.” The study showed how artisanal refining operators secure the cooperation of the host communities, how they protect their crude oil supplies and refining sites against other groups, how disputes among operators and with the host communities are resolved, and the linkages of the artisanal refineries with the wider resource conflict context in the region. As a syndicate, many people ranging from the political elites to the jobless youths participate in the illegal oil refining business. There is evidence of collusion between community and youth leaders who grant free passage to operators, security agents who extort money from the illegal refiners and marketers, and some complicit oil company technical staff who provide insider information on pipeline vulnerabilities and inspection schedules. Recruiting labor from the host community is part of the strategy of operators of artisanal refineries to ensure the security of both the refining camps and refined products. They also make generous contributions to the development of host communities in the form of financial support for community projects. Artisanal refiners and marketers also form cooperatives and pay protection money to secure their businesses.
Artisanal refiners interviewed believe that they are making ‘legitimate’ contributions to the local economy by generating employment opportunities for youth and meeting the demand for essential petroleum products which are in perennial short supply in a region that paradoxically hosts Africa’s most prolific oilfields. The value chain and ancillary activities of artisanal refineries not only support a large number of families but also serve as substitutes for the major livelihoods of farming and fishing, which have been adversely impacted by oil pollution and environmental degradation. As organized ‘business enterprises’ that have become part of the oil region’s informal economy, the involvement of almost everybody in the rural communities in the artisanal refineries and supply chain of the refined products have brought some relative peace and stability to the restive Niger Delta region.
Artisanal Refineries: Oil Theft or a New Form of Protest?
In the Niger Delta region, which is associated with crude oil extraction and production, the marginalization of the host communities by oil companies has historically fueled non-violent and violent protests across the region. Violent protests have often straddled communal conflict, insurgency, and criminal acts such as the abduction and ransoming of oil workers, the sabotage of oil installations, the theft of crude oil from oil installations and pipelines, and the artisanal refining of such illegally tapped crude oil by local small-scale operators. Oil theft and illegal refining of stolen crude oil have also been resorted to as a form of protest by indigenous ethnic minority groups agitating for the control of oil (a valuable resource) produced from their ancestral land and waters. Artisanal or illegal oil refining referred to locally in the Niger Delta region as ‘kpo-fire’ is a high-risk and labor-intensive processing of crude oil into various refined oil products such as petrol, kerosene, and diesel, using locally fabricated equipment in makeshift refineries. Their use of rudimentary equipment and tools in the refining process enables small-scale artisanal oil refiners to move from one location to another and quickly resume operations after military raids and the destruction of illegal refineries. This can be seen as an aspect of the panoplies of counter-hegemonic resistance deployed by some aggrieved Niger Delta people.
Numerous reports have quantified the loss of oil and national oil revenues as a result of oil theft, also known as illegal oil bunkering, which in turn fuels illegal refining in the Niger Delta. For example, Boris put the quantity of stolen crude oil at more than 300,000 barrels per day.2Boris, H. O. (2015). The Upsurge of Oil Theft and Illegal Bunkering in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6(3), 235–245. In 2022, the government announced that Nigeria lost $2 billion to oil theft between January and August.3Omorogbe, Paul (2022). Nigeria lost $2bn to oil theft between January and August this year. Nigerian Tribune, 22 November, 2022. The National Security Adviser (NSA) to the President, Major General Babagana Monguno, has predicted the federal government may lose $23 billion in 2023 if crude oil theft continues.4Aduloju, Bunmi (2022). Nigeria may lose $23 bn to oil theft in 2023. The Cable, 6th December, 2022. The Nigerian Government set up the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) comprising of the army, navy, police, and other security agents in 2003 with the mandate to secure oil installations, curb the activities of insurgent militias and criminal gangs, and, more recently, to stop oil theft and illegal small-scale oil refining in the region. Over the years, the JTF has destroyed thousands of artisanal illegal refining camps in the region.5Zibima, Tubodenyefa (2014). Structure and agency: Understanding the social dynamics of the proliferation of artisanal/illegal refineries in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Port Harcourt Journal of Social Sciences, 5(1&2), 147–159. Reports of the arrests of oil thieves and kpo-fire operators, and the destruction of artisanal illegal refining camps by the JTF feature regularly in Nigerian news media.
It can be argued that crude oil theft and artisanal refining have been deployed as part of the local protest by the people of the region against the extraction and control of oil produced from the region by the federal government and oil multinationals. In contesting the ownership of the oil in the region by the state, militant Niger Delta youths claim ownership of the oil produced from their ancestral lands and waters and argue that it is unjust to accuse them of stealing what rightfully belongs to them.
What the state sees as oil theft is seen by militant Niger Delta youths as self-compensation for exploitation, environmental pollution, marginalization, impoverishment, lack of employment, and underdevelopment in the region. While some scholars see youth militancy as an expression of grievances, others see it simply as the manipulation of existing grievances by self-seeking and criminal elements for economic gains. Collier argues that youth militancy in the region is a disguise for a vast criminal syndicate operating across the Niger Delta, pretending to offer social justice whereas agitation is used as a strategy of self-enrichment.6Collier, Paul (2007). The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, Oxford: Oxford University Press. There is also the counter-argument that illegal oil businesses have brought relative stability to the restive Niger Delta region since the Presidential Amnesty Programme as it has provided an alternative source of livelihoods in the form of direct and indirect jobs for the teeming youths and former militants.7Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (2022). Conflict Briefing May 2022: Illegal Artisanal Oil Refining in the Niger Delta – Responding to Environmental Crime and Insecurity. PIND Foundation, Abuja.
Artisanal refineries feed their refined products into the supply chain of the informal economy of the region. Oil bunkering and artisanal illegal refining have also been linked to the financing of militancy, criminality, and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the region.8Asuni, Judith Burdin (2009). Blood Oil in the Niger Delta: Special Report 229. United States Institute of Peace. Washington, DC. Both have also been implicated in the conflict dynamics of the oil region. Joab-Peterside notes that the fight over the control of bunkering sites and refining camps by different groups often feed into intra- and inter-communal conflicts resulting in the high level of violence in the region.9Joab-Peterside, Sofiri (2014). Oil theft and artisanal refining in the Niger Delta: Dynamics and socio-economic implications. Port Harcourt Journal of Social Sciences, 5(1&2), 247–260. Some studies indicate that oil bunkering and illegal artisanal refining-related violence caused over 500 deaths in the region between January 2014 and April 2022.10Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (2022). Conflict Briefing, May 2022: Illegal Artisanal Oil Refining in the Niger Delta – Responding to Environmental Crime and Insecurity. PIND Foundation, Abuja.
It is no longer news that the environment of the Niger Delta region has been negatively impacted by the oil production activities of multinational oil companies (MOCs). What is debatable is the extent to which oil theft and artisanal refining are contributing to the negative impact. Environmental pollution in the form of oil spillage is now conveniently blamed on artisanal refineries and oil bunkering by the government and MOCs. While their impact is difficult to quantify separately from that of the MOCs, physical observation in the course of this study suggests that the cumulative impacts of oil bunkering and artisanal refineries are huge. Besides the charred sites and air pollution, including soot, caused by illegal refining of crude oil, traces of oil seen on footpaths, trackways, storage sites or depots, and water bodies are telltales of how widespread oil pollution is in the region. Responding to questions about the impact of their activities and their concerns about it, one artisanal refiner said: The environment has already been degraded for decades by the federal government and oil companies. What we have contributed is very negligible. There is nothing anybody can do about it now. It is up to the government to clean up the environment (Artisanal Refiner, Burutu). Another refiner downplayed the impact of artisanal refineries on the environment by saying: It will not make any difference whether we refine crude oil or not (Artisanal Refiner, Patani). These sentiments are widely shared by those involved in the illegal oil business. Their views suggest that the environment had already been degraded by the activities of the MOCs before the advent of illegal artisanal oil refining.
The operators involved in the illegal trade have their internal mechanisms for conflict resolution which account for the peace and harmony among the various groups in the business and with the communities in which they operate. Both the artisanal refiners and marketers of the refined products are organized into various cooperatives. The cooperatives set rules of engagement to adjudicate disputes between members and punish offenders. The government should also work toward meeting the three demands of the people in the Niger Delta region by offering concessions that can mitigate the harmful economic, environmental, and security impacts of artisanal oil refining. First, the government must grant licenses to Niger Delta indigenes to own and operate private modular refineries. Secondly, the government must harness the local ingenuity of artisanal refineries by granting licenses to refining cooperatives for them to buy crude from the government to refine for profit. Third, the government must set up modular refineries in which those with requisite skills can be recruited and gainfully employed. Until the government engages the demands emanating from the people of the oil-producing Niger Delta region, particularly those relating to equity, inclusiveness, and sustainable livelihoods, the operations of artisanal oil refineries will remain a feature of petro-insurgency in the Niger Delta Region.
- 1ThisDay (2022). Editorial: Menace of Soot in Rivers. ThisDay Newspaper, 24th January, 2022; Naku, Dennis (2022). Illegal refining: Port Harcourt residents choked, remain in endless battle with soot. Punch Newspaper, 26th March 2022.
- 2Boris, H. O. (2015). The Upsurge of Oil Theft and Illegal Bunkering in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6(3), 235–245.
- 3Omorogbe, Paul (2022). Nigeria lost $2bn to oil theft between January and August this year. Nigerian Tribune, 22 November, 2022.
- 4Aduloju, Bunmi (2022). Nigeria may lose $23 bn to oil theft in 2023. The Cable, 6th December, 2022.
- 5Zibima, Tubodenyefa (2014). Structure and agency: Understanding the social dynamics of the proliferation of artisanal/illegal refineries in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Port Harcourt Journal of Social Sciences, 5(1&2), 147–159.
- 6Collier, Paul (2007). The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- 7Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (2022). Conflict Briefing May 2022: Illegal Artisanal Oil Refining in the Niger Delta – Responding to Environmental Crime and Insecurity. PIND Foundation, Abuja.
- 8Asuni, Judith Burdin (2009). Blood Oil in the Niger Delta: Special Report 229. United States Institute of Peace. Washington, DC.
- 9Joab-Peterside, Sofiri (2014). Oil theft and artisanal refining in the Niger Delta: Dynamics and socio-economic implications. Port Harcourt Journal of Social Sciences, 5(1&2), 247–260.
- 10Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (2022). Conflict Briefing, May 2022: Illegal Artisanal Oil Refining in the Niger Delta – Responding to Environmental Crime and Insecurity. PIND Foundation, Abuja.