The commander of the Niger Delta Joint Military Task Force, code-named ‘Operation Pulo Shield,’ Major General Johnson Ochoga, in a chat with Osa Okhomina, reviews the campaign against crude oil theft, and the complicity of some foreigners and host communities in the illegal business along the creeks of the region.

Since the codename changed from ‘Operation Restore Hope’ to ‘Operation Pulo Shield,’ what has been the achievement of the force in the Niger Delta?
You will recall that the Joint Task Force, formerly known as ‘Operation Restore Hope’ transmuted to ‘Operation Pulo Shield’ on January 9, 2012, with a mandate to curb oil bunkering, crude oil theft, pipeline vandalisation and other acts of criminality that debilitate socio-economic life in the Niger Delta area. The transmutation occasioned the expansion of the area of responsibility to cover the nine oil producing states as well as the inclusion of other paramilitary security and civil agencies.

The outfit was also reconfigured to encompass the fifth sector. The transmutation and re-conceptualisation was informed by the realization of the multi-disciplinary and multi-faceted nature of the campaign against oil bunkering and the need for synergy of efforts among stakeholders at all levels. Despite few drawbacks, this has so far been reasonably achieved as we now carry out our operations jointly with these agencies.

We noticed that the JTF recently registered vessels and boats plying the waterways and creeks of the region; how far did it go and what were the successes recorded?
As part of effort to actualise our mandate, we carefully studied the situation in the Niger Delta and found that one of the critical challenges that undermined efforts at eradicating oil theft in the region is the use of unregistered vessels, barges and power boats to perpetrate oil bunkering. This is because it undermined diligent prosecution of those behind the illicit business by concealing their identities.

Towards addressing this challenge, and as part of the overall efforts of the government to tackle oil theft and other acts of economic sabotage, the JTF carried out security documentation and registration of vessels, barges and motorized boats operation in the Niger Delta area on June 26. A total of 85 vessels, 64 barges and 217 power boats were duly registered. This has largely facilitated our operation and ability to track down the oil thieves by tracing arrested vessels to their owners.

Aside from this, what has the transmutation brought?
Twelve months into the transmutation, the task force has recorded impressive achievements in the area of securing land environment and waterways, eradicating oil bunkering, protecting oil and gas facilities as well as lives and property of the populace in the region. Some of the major activities carried out include protection of oil and gas infrastructure, anti-oil bunkering patrols, destruction of militants’ camps, as well as the recovery of arms and ammunition in the wrong hands.

How far has the security operation against oil bunkering gone in the last one year?
The sundry crimes in the oil industry often times take the form of crude oil theft, theft of refined petroleum products through vandalized pipelines and well heads, as well as a illegal distillation of crude oil to produce adulterated Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) and the Automated Gas Oil (AGO), to which the JTF has responded with zero tolerance. Our robust patrol have resulted in the arrest of several suspects, the impoundment of barges, vessels, trucks and other tools used to perpetrate the crime as well as outright destruction of illegal refineries. In the last 12 months,7,585 anti- bunkering patrols have been conducted.

A total of 1,945 suspects were arrested while 4,349 illegal refineries were destroyed. Also destroyed are 133 barges, 1,215 Cotonou boats,187 tanker trucks,178 illegal fuel dumps as well as 5,574 surface tanks. In addition,36,504 drums of illegally refined products,638 pumping machines and 326 outboard engines were seized and destroyed.

But the impounded vessels, what are their identities?
Yes, an outstanding success of the task force is the seizure and destruction of 18 vessels. They are: MT Ane, MT Oxo, MT Tamuno-Ibi, MT Vanessa and MT Princess Nnenna, MV Premier, MV Somtrans, MT Mintra as well as MT Alexander. Also arrested were MT Presco Peter, MV Liberty, MT Sophia, MT Situra, MT Eve and MT Lester. In a frantic move to secure the release of MV Premier and MV Somtrans, the owner, Joshua Orukpere, offered the Chief of Staff Headquarters of the JTF the sum of N10million as bribe. He was arrested when he brought the sum of $30,300 as upfront payment.

These arrests reflect the unrelenting efforts of the JTF to eradicate oil bunkering while making the business increasingly unrewarding and frustrating for the perpetrators. A very recent arrest with undergoing preliminary investigation is that of the MT Ashkay with 10 Indians and four Nigerians on board.

It is necessary, however, to point out that though the number of illegal refineries destroyed within the period under review may seem alarming, the fact remains that crudeness, simplicity of design and cheapness of construction apparatus of these illegal refineries account for their proliferation.

But with the deployment of your men to creeks and oil installations, why are there still cases of pipeline vandalism and oil theft rising?
In order to carry out effective protection of oil and gas facilities, we conducted reconnaissance of SPDC and NNPC pipeline networks. Subsequently, air and ground patrols are regularly carried out to deter vandals from sabotaging the pipelines. This facilitated the regular pumping of products by the NNPC from Port Harcourt to Aba depot. Also we have deployed troops on a 24-hour daily patrol on the most critical oil platforms to enhance their protection.

Realizing the importance of information sharing and synergy of efforts, we have partnered with stakeholders in the oil and gas industry to check oil related crimes. Though this effort is yielding result, it is equally important that oil firms are encouraged to adopt international best practices by installing ICT-based sensors within their pipelines to provide early warning of acts of sabotage.

Recently, the JTF indicted oil communities and foreigners over their supportive roles in cases of oil theft?
In the course of our efforts to eradicate oil theft in the region, it was discovered that several individuals in the communities were either actively involved in the illegal business or are collaborators with oil thieves. This discovery prompted the outfit to organize advocacy programme including sensitization visits to several communities.

The arrest of 21 Ghanaians and their five Nigerian collaborators as well as the destruction of two vessels containing 1300 tonnes of crude as earlier mentioned are indicators in this direction. Another instance is the recent arrest of 10 suspects of Indian nationality and four Nigerians on board MT Ashkay.

This has brought to the fore the need to monitor foreigners more closely in the region, which is a preliminary responsibility of the Nigerian Immigration Service and further underscores the importance of the multi-agency nature of the JTF.

But the oil companies have foreign and local experts or ex-militant leaders as contractors engaged to police the pipelines. With the presence of your men and these contractors along the creeks, why is vandalism unabated?
Most of the oil companies have surveillance contractors responsible for monitoring their network of pipelines in the Niger Delta. It is therefore of a major concern that oil bunkering has continued despite the deployment of these surveillance contractors. One of the reasons for their apparent ineptitude is the manner of employment by the oil companies who sub-let the employment of surveillance teams to contractors. Some contractors are not dedicated.

Recently, some surveillance contractors were arrested trying to vandalise a pipeline at Kporgho in Gokana Local Government Council. It is therefore necessary for oil companies to overhaul the employment pattern of their surveillance contractors and their manner of deployment.

Can you give us a figure of how many oil thieves have been jailed?
This is one of the factors militating against the complete stamping out of the menace of oil theft. By law, the JTF has no legal power to prosecute suspects. Therefore, all suspects were handed over to the Nigerian Police and the NSCDC. These cases, when carried to the court, follow the normal court bureaucracy of granting bails and several adjournments.

This seriously delays the quick dispensation of justice. To overcome this challenge, it has been suggested over and over again by the JTF that a special court for the prosecution of oil thieves be set up. However, that is yet to see the light of the day.

What are the hazards faced by the men of the JTF during the last one year of security action against oil thieves in the region and what are the prospects for 2013?
The modest achievements of the JTF are not without challenges. Regularly, the force is confronted by daring oil bunkerers, pirates and sea robbers, who most times engage our troops in armed combat. These encounters, in some instances have resulted inw the loss of lives of some of our personnel. On March 1, 2012, five personnel of the JTF were killed along the waterways of Brass by these vandals and sea robbers.

On May 14, a soldier was shot dead when armed bandits opened fire at our operatives on patrol in Choba area of Rivers State. Three others were killed and three more wounded on May 30 while escorting an oil service company vessel along the Santa Barbara River in Bayelsa State. We have not allowed these unfortunate incidents to dampen our morale and resolve to pursue our mandate to a logical conclusion.

In 2013, the prospect of the JTF is the actualization of its mandate of ridding the region of oil theft in spite of its enormous state. We will strive to continually improve on the security status of the region. Besides, the obvious increase to the production and export of crude oil, prospects of tourism, power generation, petrochemical and agro-allied industries abound. This will attract huge capital to the country and help government to develop the country at a much faster rate.