Sharma sentenced in Nigeria
Sharma sentenced in Nigeria
Sharma sentenced in Nigeria for oil theft
Sharma sentenced in Nigeria for oil theft

Investigative reporter, Emmanuel Maya, discovers how crude stolen from terminals and pipelines in Nigeria finds its way to the triangle. The trade is brazen. The loot is huge. There is even a secondary market of Togolese hotels that benefit from the influx of foreigners who disguise as tourists to take a slice from the Nigerian cake, a freebie through corruption.

Togo, a tiny West African country, does not produce oil. It has no oil deposit under land or water. Togo, however, is fast making itself the new Kuwait of Africa. This it has done by building a man-made oil city, an offshore floating market on the sea called the Togo Triangle.

Rogue ships and rogue international businessmen travel thousands of nautical miles to Togo to buy crude oil stolen from Nigeria. The volume of trade in the triangle makes Togo the largest black market for crude oil, attracting buyers from as far as Australia, Hong Kong, Russia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, China, Ukraine and Thailand.

A report by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) cites China, North Korea, Israel and South Africa as frequently mentioned destination countries and recipients of stolen crude from Nigeria.

The tell-tale signs of a burgeoning economy in Togo were all too visible as this reporter made the rounds of hotels beginning from the capital, Lome. From Avenida Hotel to Ibis Lome Centre, Hotel Sancta Maria to Residence Hoteliere Oceane and from Hotel Napoleon Lagune to Hotel Cote Sud, Togo is bursting at the seams with foreigners, mostly Europeans, Chinese, Lebanese, Russians and Indians.

Not all of them are tourists and not all have come to buy cash crops or handicrafts, the country’s two key foreign exchange earners. Indeed, the influx of white and Asian visitors and the growing number of hotels speak volume of an economy that has ingeniously attached its umbilical cord to the vast oil wealth of nearby Nigeria.

Crude oil theft in Nigeria is one of the most notorious transnational crimes in the world today. The Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force led by Nuhu Ribadu found hydrocarbon theft as being a major and chronic source of revenue loss to Nigeria.

It warned that theft of crude oil and refined petroleum products may be reaching emergency levels in the country.

The task force noted that oil theft could be as high as 250,000 barrels per day, close to 10 per cent of daily production and amounting to as high as N1 trillion annually.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) reports that about 40 per cent of products channelled through pipelines are lost to theft and sabotage. The Petroleum Products Marketing Company (PPMC) recorded 4,468 product pipeline breaks in 2011 alone, and values the product stolen from its pipeline network between 2001 and 2010 at N178 billion.

Mind-boggling as they may sound to poor Nigerians, deprived from birth of every benefit of oil wealth, industry watchers insist the official figures are grossly understated.

The volume of oil theft is so huge it is bigger than the legitimate oil industry of some African countries. It attracts “vultures” from Nigeria’s military and corrupt political elite to residual rag-tag militias in the Niger Delta to Chinese and Russian Mafias.

Court convictions, dismissal of naval officers
A total 13 Russians were arrested in Nigeria over oil theft as far back as 2003. Two Rear Admirals in the Nigerian Navy, Francis Agbiti and Samuel Kolawole, were court martialled and dismissed for complicity in allowing an arrested tanker African Pride to escape from custody.

The tanker had been intercepted near Shell’s oil export terminal in Forcados and was found to have taken on board 11,000 tonnes of crude oil without authorisation.

The court martial provided official confirmation of long-held suspicion that top military officers are deeply involved in oil theft.

Military prosecutors said Agbiti had attempted to release the African Pride on the very day it was seized. Her cargo of crude oil was illegally transferred to another ship three weeks later while the vessel was in navy custody.

Court papers showed that Kolawole allowed Russian officials to visit the ship without authorisation and later ensured there was no guard on board the ship when it disappeared around August 10, 2004.

Prosecutors disclosed that Agbiti and Kolawole were responsible for the “simultaneous alteration, destruction and removal of documents” following the ship’s disappearance.

Two junior naval officers, Jonathan Ihejiawu and Suleiman Atan, told the court-martial they were paid N250,000 each by one Lt. Commander Mohammed Abubakar on October 31, 2003 to escort African Pride from Lagos harbour to the high seas where its cargo was transferred to a waiting ship and replaced with sea water.

The two junior officers said Abubakar told them the payment was from the “big boys” in the navy.

Ever since the court martial, more Russians have been arrested in Nigeria with stolen crude. Other nationals, including Britons and Chinese, have equally been arrested.

Earlier this month, a Nigerian court sentenced three Indians, Sailesh Kumar Singh, (captain of a vessel, MT Akshay), Chadrashekar Sharma and Ajay Bhatiya (vessel owner), to 15 years imprisonment for offences bordering on oil theft.

The Indians were among 12 suspected oil thieves, including eight other Indians, one Ghanaian and a Nigerian arrested aboard Akshay by the Joint Task Force, Central Naval Command, Bayelsa, in November 2012.

One court paper read: “Sailesh Kumar Singh, Chadrashekar Sharma, Dharmaraj Kumar, Ajay Kumar, Nimesh Kodi Parambil, Ashraf Ali, Sanjeev Kumar, Sarbjot Singh, Arvind Kumar Bhaedwaj, Gagan Kumar, Dele Johnson Olayemi and Benneth Egbegi, being crew members on MT Akshay with Ajay Bhatiya (now at large) on or at about November 25, 2012 in Brass, Bayelsa State, within the jurisdiction of this court did without authority deal in 157,822 litres of crude oil bunkered from Auntie the Matriach Julie Rig of Conoil Nigeria into MT Akshay and thereby committed an offence contrary to Section 1(17)(a) of the Miscellaneous Offences Act CAP M17 of the revised edition (laws of the federation of Nigeria) 2007 and punishment under Section 1(17) of the same Act.”

In the conviction, however, the court was silent on the ship and her content.

The international dimension of the menace of oil theft is such that President Goodluck Jonathan recently urged the United Kingdom and other Western governments to help Nigeria curtail crude oil theft by rejecting stolen Nigerian crude taken to their refineries.

The whimpers from Jonathan have done nothing to stave off foreign syndicates and fat cat Nigerian collaborators who, with the tacit support of the Togolese authorities, have built for themselves a criminal empire which estimated fortunes is bigger than the combined gross domestic products (GDPs) of Togo, Benin Republic, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic.

Journey to Togo Triangle
Almost on a weekly basis, a mixed tribe of fortune hunters arrive Togo and are chauffeured to luxury hotels. A few, for strategic reasons, prefer to tuck away in neighbouring Ghana and Benin from where they track their illicit cargoes.

Though this reporter had arrived Lome by road, the taxi driver was still quick to ask if he was from Nigeria. Without waiting for a confirmation of his hunch, he wanted to know if the visitor had any crude cargo to sell.

The driver added that he had a brother who could help out with bank transactions. He had another brother who could help arrange boat charter to the Togo Triangle. Charter fee was $3,000. The solicitation did not end with the taxi man. One of the hotel porters and a barman offered to provide contacts in the oil business.

Dozens of small service companies have sprung up in Lome, all providing sundry necessities to foreigners doing illegal trade in the Togo Triangle. The sheer number of boat charter services transporting oil traders to the triangle gives a good first impression of an illicit international market that may have become the pride of a tiny country whose best known export yet is footballer Emmanuel Adebayoor.

For $200, this reporter got a seat in a supply boat carrying provisions and local tradesmen going to the Togo Triangle. The triangle attracts sundry suppliers of goods, including food, alcohol, cigarettes, textiles and DVDs. Pimps and prostitutes are not left out.

Tradesmen shuttle among vessels just as other kinds of businessmen barter their wares for cheap fuel supplied by crews. Ships use diesel to run their engines and power generators on board. Crew members, running low on cash, barter diesel for critical provisions.

Aside white foreigners, West African nationals of Ghana, Benin, Liberia and Nigeria mill around. Naval gunboats occasionally plough the waters, providing a semblance of security in an obviously lawless territory.

Posing as a middleman from Nigeria scouting for buyers, this reporter met a Togolese by the name Narcisse Novinyo who said he was a trade facilitator. A retired produce inspector, he knew almost everything about Nigeria, its people and its president, even though he had never been to the country.

What has changed his life for good was not his paltry pension, rather the Nigerian crude sold in Togo. Novinyo was careful never to use the words ‘stolen crude’ as he narrated his experience working with Nigerians.

For the next three days he stuck to this reporter like an infectious disease. He produced documents as proofs of previous transactions he had facilitated. Stolen as the crude oil may be, transactions are surprisingly covered by carefully-worded documents.

When contacted, NNPC General Manager (Public Affairs), Ohi Alegbe, pleaded with TheNiche to give him time to find out the true situation.

A few minutes later, another employee of the corporation, who identified himself simply as Frank, said: “We are not aware that such an illegal place exists.”

He also asked for time to get back to TheNiche but failed to do so at press time.

• This investigation was made possible with a grant from Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Reporting.

Read the original article on TheNiche