Militant groups are fighting for a greater share of the Niger Delta’s vast oil wealth
The sand is still hot under our feet. The oil thieves must have run the illegal oil refinery, which is hidden from the sea by thickets of mangrove, until just a short while ago.
“Destroy everything, boys,” the commander of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps unit, Helen Amakiri, orders.
The job of the stocky, crew-cut woman is to combat oil theft, estimated to cost Nigeria a tenth of its annual oil production. It’s a rate of loss that has dethroned Nigeria as Africa’s largest oil producer.
A paramilitary NSCDC trooper, wearing a balaclava and flip-flops, obeys Amakiri by firing his automatic weapon into the rusty oil containers at close range, setting them on fire.
The flames stink sweetly of diesel. It’s pouring with rain as we surge away in speedboats, the rising column of black smoke smudging the sky.
“My strategy is pretty simple,” the commander shouts above the din of the boat’s roaring engine. “It is to set fire to stolen oil.”
Half of her men are wearing life jackets, the other half bulletproof vests. She says proudly they have destroyed more than 1,800 illegal bush refineries in the almost two years she has been operating in the creeks, the narrow waterways criss-crossing the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta region.
An investment plan
Nigeria’s oil minister announced a $10 billion investment plan last month for the delta, “to ensure zero militancy”. It offers a mix of social programmes, infrastructure investments, and security spending, but no one is certain that it will work.
For a start, oil theft is a long-standing and lucrative business. The environmental consequences are clearly visible in the delta.
For an hour we shoot through the creeks at high speed without seeing one mangrove shrub that hasn’t had its roots coloured black by oil pollution up to the level of high tide.