28 The bush refineries of the Niger Delta

This piece was first published in March 2011 in 234NEXT[1]

The recent public presentation of the book, ‘The Ogbunigwe Fame’ by Felix Oragwu[2] brought up memories of the technological innovations that kept the Biafran dream alive from 1967 to 1970.

During the vicious civil war, Biafra was blockaded and starved of access to resources ranging from domestic goods to industrial products. Necessity thrust upon Biafra the need to innovate and to create. It was in this mode that the nascent nation built and ran crude oil refineries and also produced missiles or bombs, then known as ‘ogbunigwe’ or ‘Ojukwu buckets’. These efforts were driven by the inescapable urge for survival.

In the past few years, there has been an emergence of what many term ‘bush refineries’ in the oil fields of the Niger Delta. These are spots in the swamps and creeks where local people, mostly youth, produce petroleum products using crude oil obtained from either already leaking pipelines or from spots broken into by crude oil thieves.

These refineries pose serious health hazards to their operators as they have no clue about the toxic nature of the products and do not have any sort of protective clothes, boots, or gloves. These young folks bear the extreme heat from the flames of the belching dragons in order to produce litres of semi-refined products that pose additional threats to the end users.

Many deaths related to kerosene explosions have been recorded and these may have resulted from the use of the uncontrolled products from these contraptions. The dire poverty in the oil region is often cited as justification for the existence of these bush refineries.

Regrettably, the response from the government, as well as from the political parties seeking control of the federal government after next month’s elections, is nothing beyond the provision of physical infrastructures in the region. While these are essential, the most urgent need of the region, and indeed the entire nation, is the detoxification of our environment.

As we have often argued, the average Nigerian will take care of her basic needs if the physical environment supports her livelihood-generation efforts. This means that the urgent first step is an audit of the environmental situation of the region, as could possibly be exemplified by the current study of Ogoni by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

A factor that could be perpetuating the bush refineries is the dislocation of the social infrastructure of the region. This includes the loss of communality, the rise of individualism, and the deep corruption that has been entrenched by key players in the oil industry sector. These systemic ruptures must be structurally addressed.

We cannot ignore the efforts of security agencies in combating the menace of the illegal refineries. But merely combat posturing only gives the trigger-happy security men cover for extortion and further human rights abuses of an already traumatised people.

However, it must be acknowledged that the continued operation of these bush refineries is a disservice to the local people and a huge shame to the government.

‘Ghost’ bush refineries

Going by figures from the Joint Military Taskforce operating in the Niger Delta, hundreds of these bush refineries have been destroyed. By mid-December 2009, the JTF reported that there were over 1,000 ‘illegal refineries’ in the Niger Delta and that within two months to that time they had destroyed 600 of the refineries in different parts of the region.

Sarkin Bello, the General who commanded the JTF at that time, made an important point that just as other ills had started in one part of the nation and spread to other parts, there was a chance that such refineries may pop up in other areas of the country— especially those through which oil pipelines passed.

Months later, Mr. Bello bemoaned the resurgence of the bush refineries, as was widely reported in the mass media. It was not exactly surprising when a fortnight ago, the JTF announced that they had detected 500 bush refineries in the Mbiama area on the border between Rivers and Bayelsa States.

It was not surprising because the refineries have been operating more or less brazenly, with law enforcement agents sometimes accused of exacting tolls or illegal taxes from the operators. So they probably destroyed 600 in 2009[3] and the ghosts of the levelled plants resurrected soon as the security agents left the scene. These bush refineries are huge tourist attractions for foreign journalists and you do not need a space rocket to gain access to their locations.

We have heard some politicians claim that the bush refineries cannot be eliminated because the youth cannot find alternative avenues of employment. Quite specious, that form of reasoning. It is illustrative of the ineptitude of persons in power who ought to provide employment and keep people away from practices that are harmful to them, the environment, and the economy.

There are untold dangers related to operating these bush refineries. The poor youth who work these refineries, covered in crude, standing in the searing heat and continually inhaling toxic elements can hardly be in a position to enjoy the fruits of their labour. These refineries may put some kobo in their pockets, but they are essentially condemned to poor health and truncated lives.

It is a shame that a government that trumpets amnesty for people who took up arms against state structures would not consider extending the same largesse to these poor lads who are killing themselves. Could they not benefit from some technical education and other benefits extended to the militants?

A point that we must underscore is the fact that despite the large number of these bush refineries and the fact that they refine products that are illegally obtained, their operations do not lead to a reduction of the crude oil output of Nigeria. Why is this? It is simple to see.

Large-scale illegal bunkering with international dimensions has gone on unchecked for decades and many top guns obviously benefit from it. The large-scale crude oil theft in Nigeria has gone on alongside the continual meeting of the production quota of the nation.

The bush refiners may have been inspired by the fact that between the oil wells and the export terminals is a bottomless pit in which thievery is highly rewarded. Efforts at halting the petty stealing for bush refining will not be successful if the cancer of mass oil theft by the high and mighty is not tackled.

  1. It can be accessed at http://nigeriang.com/money/oil-politics-the-bush-refineries-of-the-niger-delta/8332/ (accessed 31 May 2016)
  2. Scientific and Technological Innovations in Biafra: The Ogbunigwe' Fame 1967-1970. Fourth Dimension Publishers, Nigeria, 2010
  3. Nigeria military destroys 600 illegal oil refineries. http://www.panapress.com/Nigerian-military-destroys-600-illegal-oil-refineries--12-531101-30-lang1-index.html (accessed 31 May 2016)


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