WARRI, Nigeria--Here's an irony: Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer, yet pirates operating in the country in West Africa are hijacking petroleum tankers from other nations to sell the cargoes at half of market rates.
The activities of pirates from Nigeria are increasingly becoming a focus of international attention, much as in recent years when pirates operating off Somalia, on the other side of the continent, were interrupting commercial shipping.
The stolen "black gold" is transferred to smaller vessels and transported inland by water to refineries. The business seems to have the blessings of local authorities. That goes a long way to explaining the presence of pirate associates blatantly armed to the teeth with automatic weapons.
Warri, a major oil city in Delta State, lies dozens of kilometers inland from the Gulf of Guinea and is mostly ringed by jungle. In a nearby village, youngsters could be seen having fun rolling a barrel. Children playing in the dirt road suggested a peaceful rural community.
An illegal refinery that produces light oil is situated close by.
Because the site has close ties with not only pirates, but armed organizations that are known to kidnap foreigners, the driver of my vehicle stopped any attempt to photograph the scene.
The driver said members of the armed groups tend to shoot foreigners.
The village is but one of a large number that host illegal refineries, many of which have been established over the past five years in the Niger Delta region, which spreads out some 400 kilometers wide in southern Nigeria.
Creeks form along the various tributaries of the mighty Niger River and, because roads along the riverbanks crisscross the region, boats are often a more convenient form of transportation.
Locals refer to illegal refining of petroleum as "cooking." The area is known for its palm oil production, and that technology has simply been converted to make petroleum.
According to local residents, the light oil refined from hijacked tanker cargoes is sold for less than half of the market price. On the black market, 200 liters of light oil can be bought for 9,000 naira (about 5,600 yen, or $56).
After pirates board a tanker, the crude oil is transferred to other smaller ships, which traverse the tributaries of the Niger River to the illegal refineries.
It is believed that little separates the pirates and the illegal refineries. The creeks where the refineries are located are off-limits to outsiders.
The pirates are armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers.
Pirates operating off Somalia normally seek a ransom for their efforts, but their Nigerian cousins are far more aggressive. They are known to have murdered ships' crews to get their prize.
A number of crude oil-producing nations are situated along the Gulf of Guinea.
In 2012, there were at least 58 acts of piracy in those waters, with 27, or close to half, occurring off the coast of Nigeria.
That was a threefold increase over the previous year.
In addition to piracy, other criminal elements have taken to destroying pipelines, which has resulted in the loss of as much as 150,000 barrels of petroleum per day.
Over the course of a year, the Nigerian government loses about $6.1 billion in oil revenues due to theft and other criminal activity.
The government would seem to have taken a harsh stand against the pirates, even resorting to aerial bombardments of illegal sites on occasion. Still, many people question whether the authorities are really serious about cracking down.
One example of the lax enforcement was evident about a kilometer from the illegal refinery first visited. At a police checkpoint, one armed officer jokingly asked if any oil was packed in the vehicle, and then said that any gasoline purchased should, by rights, be used in the police vehicles. According to a local reporter, it is common knowledge that police officers take bribes, or "toll fees," from vehicles that are transporting oil.
A local employee of a major petroleum company said there was no way of knowing how closely the pirates were tied to law enforcement officials. Although company officials were told by the government that pirates had been detained, ships that were believed to have been filled with petroleum never turned up at the company ports.
Local leaders believe that foreign petroleum companies are exploiting local communities, and say this makes the criminal activity acceptable.
The business card for Youkore Mamamu, 74, a leader of the Ijaw people that make up a significant part of the population around Warri, lists as his position "president of oil producing communities."
He said the illegal refineries should be referred to by their proper name: local refineries. While Mamamu has no direct rights to the petroleum, he believes the natural resources belong to the local residents. He said he was not involved in the refining business.
Mamamu said greedy Western companies stole the natural resources of the local communities and polluted the air, land and rivers. While some corrupt government officials may have benefited, he insisted that those individuals mistakenly used the resources provided by God. He also insisted that local residents who could no longer farm or fish because of pollution turned to operating the local refineries.
Mamamu is not alone in harboring strong feelings against major Western companies that run the petroleum industry and the government that supports them.
Armed conflict intensified from around January 2006 due largely to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Although the organization reached a settlement with the Nigerian government, other armed groups continue to fight.
A 34-year-old man who once was a MEND member fought the government with a different group until late last year.
Generations of his ancestors were fishermen, but river pollution has made fish scarce. Western companies provided no jobs or other benefits for local residents, according to the man, so he said he fought for justice.
The man said he was not involved with the pirates or illegal refineries. However, with pipelines running outside of the village and tankers taking natural resources from the land to foreign nations, he said it was only natural for locals to want to take back what they feel belongs to them.
Ekpobize, a 45-year-old junior high school teacher, said that while air and water pollution were serious problems due to petroleum development, the illegal refineries were worse offenders in destroying the environment.
An official with the Shell Petroleum Development Co. of Nigeria said that old pipelines only accounted for a very small percentage of the oil that leaked into the environment. The official said that 95 percent of the leaked oil was due to illegal activities and that environmental pollution due to theft of petroleum was enormous.
The confrontation in Nigeria is particularly serious because it is the largest petroleum-producing nation in Africa.
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