What Nigerians call bunkering and oil executives call rustling has hit the big time: criminal gangs are siphoning so much crude oil from pipelines in the Niger delta that they have started using tankers to spirit it away.
A Russian-registered tanker laden with 11,300 tonnes of allegedly stolen crude has become the latest vessel intercepted by the Nigerian navy in the gulf of Guinea.
The vessel, African Pride, is believed to be part of a fleet which aids the theft of an estimated 200,000 barrels a day from the delta's swamps.
The tanker had the biggest consignment of all the 15 vessels seized since January, said Antonio Ibinabo Bob-Manuel, a Nigerian rear admiral. Its crew of 18 Russians, two Romanians and two Georgians are in jail awaiting a court hearing.
The African Pride was intercepted on Oct. 8, but an announcement was made only this week. Speaking at a press conference in a Lagos dockyard, Admiral Bob-Manuel said the thieves were scaling up from barges to tankers, with each cargo of stolen oil worth at least US$10 million.
The ships were said to have been intercepted in areas around Nigeria.
The Niger delta -- a cauldron of ethnic, political and communal tension which regularly bubbles into protest and violence, leaving hundreds dead -- has seen "rampant killing" this month, according to a military official quoted by the Reuters news agency.
Strikes, hostage-taking and demonstrations have long plagued the oil company ChevronTexaco and other corporations that operate offshore rigs and overland pipelines. "Bunkering" only adds to their problems.
What started off with a few amateurs wrenching open a pipeline to extract oil to sell on the local market has in recent years grown into a vast criminal enterprise which swallows 10 percent to 15 percent of Nigeria's daily output of 2.2 million barrels, according to officials.
Siphoning off such quantities amid a landscape of jungle and marsh, with thousands of creeks, requires sophisticated equipment and organization. The thieves have proved that they have this in abundance.
The government has accused rival and well-armed ethnic-based militias, especially Ijaw youth groups, of running the operations.
But Rowland Ekperi, the president of the Ijaw people's association in the UK, said yesterday that senior political and military figures from Nigeria's former ruling elites were the culprits.
"They are trying to blame the local people, but they [the locals] don't have the heavy trucks and ships for this sort of thing. It's members of the elite who are no longer in power: The only way they can get money is by bunkering."
The oil was rumored to end up in nearby states such as Ivory Coast, Benin and Gabon, as well as Germany, he added.
Cracking down on the smugglers has proved difficult, since many people accuse the government of pocketing much of the oil wealth.
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