28 Jun Hunter dives into the criminal underworld of the oil industry after election of President Yar’ Adua
There was a lull in the crisis when a new president was elected in Nigeria, providing Hunter the opportunity to continue his investigation in Lagos and the Niger Delta. Boyd had raised many fundamental issues worth investigating.
There were allegations of massive corruption and abuse of the system against some oil companies. Although his sources in the industry included executives and top labor unions in the industry, he still needed to confirm the stories from other sources.
On the suspicion that discontent among Nigerian workers in the oil and gas industry was one of the issues fuelling the crisis, he decided to investigate it first. He had been told that in spite of the policies of the oil companies to elevate Nigerians to top management positions, the expatriates were favoured. Worse, many Nigerian workers were engaged as contract workers to cut down on salary and pension bills.
Many of the decision-makers in the Nigerian oil industry were foreigners who viewed the Niger Delta more as a playing field than as a collection of villages populated by families. These people breezed through for a glimpse of the layout, but they never stayed. In fact, the oil companies’ strategists were smart enough to move their people around the world on a frequent basis, never allowing them to feel too much at home in one particular place.
Most Nigerians usually hit the advancement ceiling at middle management. Only a select few made it higher. Those fortunate few were either exceedingly loyal to their white superiors or had proven themselves so hard-working and productive that the companies could not deny their value. The latter concept frustrated Hunter , as he knew that there were many hard-working Nigerians who were willing to put in long hours and prove themselves valuable assets to their employers if they were only given the proper training and the opportunity to show off their skills. Many Nigerians in the Diaspora had shown that ability.
The lack of opportunities and low headroom for Nigerians had led to local workers practically cannibalising one another. The Nigerians were well-aware the international powers-that-be would only reserve a limited number of salaried positions for locals – and they only did that to create the illusion of diversity.
As such, Nigerians in middle-level positions, who had supervisory responsibilities over their lower-level countrymen, often did their best to suppress their subordinates’ efforts to get ahead. Every Nigerian was seen as a potential threat to their livelihood, more so than any expatriate employee.
In many cases where Nigerians were promoted to senior management positions, they were assigned non-Nigerian deputies and assistants who were white. Hunter assumed that the Nigerians were intelligent enough to recognise that the executives at their companies’ headquarters only communicated with the deputies and rarely engaged the senior managers in discussions regarding their companies’ future plans.
He wondered if these managers were consciously accepting positions as figure-heads. It was certainly possible. The salaries and perks they received could easily be enough to placate some people and discourage them from demanding their rightful places in the decision-making process. Hunter’s greater concern had to do with the quality or the extent of the information from headquarters that actually made it to the Nigerian senior managers’ desk. It was all filtered through the deputies and assistants, and it was impossible to guarantee that it was inclusive, or for that matter, even close to being accurate. Moreover, Hunter wondered how much information sent directly to the deputies even reached the senior managers’ desk at all.
The other factor hindering Nigerian employment was the presence and power of the old boy networks in the oil companies. High-powered executives usually recruited their own staff, which often included their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews; their friends’ and co-workers’ relatives; and recommended university students from their own alma maters. This made it quite difficult for anyone, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, to break into the power structure of the industry. Hunter wondered if such business politics could ever be effectively penetrated to create a level playing field for all qualified employees. He had met many intelligent and highly educated Nigerians who pounded the streets daily for jobs.
Hunter found out that expatriates working for the major oil companies earn thrice the salaries of their Nigerian colleagues, and always return to their countries of origin with significantly more wealth than they had when they first arrived. They occasionally returned to the country to enjoy even bigger perks such as large corner offices, extravagant homes, and fancy chauffeur-driven cars most of them could not afford to own in their home countries.
Hunter’s intense research eventually led him to the Nigerian Immigration Service. He knew certain countries – including the ones in which the home offices of the major oil companies were based – were regulated with expatriate quotas. Tourists and humanitarian workers often had their travels delayed due to visa problems, yet it never seemed to inhibit the comings and goings of international oil company employees. Hunter decided to get in touch with Lucas, one of his long-time connections at the Immigration office.
“C’mon, John,” Lucas said with a nervous laugh. “You can’t be serious. This situation can’t possibly be a mystery to anyone.”
Hunter cradled the telephone receiver on his shoulder. “Is someone selling expatriate quota or visas to the oil companies?” he asked point blank.
“Selling?” Lucas said. “Nobody calls it that. Let’s just say that under certain circumstances, instant visas are issued so that pertinent personnel can enter the country to resolve urgent situations.”
“Such as spending some of their down time in the mansions they have here because they can’t afford them in the West?”
“The term urgency is open to interpretation,” Lucas said.
“No money changes hands?” Hunter said.
Lucas laughed. “What do you think?”
“I think it does.”
Lucas grunted. “I think that some charitable donations have been made as gestures of appreciation when visa issuance is expedited.”
“Perhaps. Just saying…”
“Great,” Hunter said. “Not only are some Immigration officials taking bribes, but the oil companies are facilitating it.”
“Isn’t this a wonderful world, John?”
* * * * *
Hunter was also in Warri to investigate another kind of crime.In a large office in the guest house of Choice Oil, his eyes darted from one wall to the next, taking in the ornate architecture, the meticulously crafted contemporary American furniture, and the priceless artwork.
Apparently, there’s some good jack to be made in the oil security racket, Hunter thought. This, after all, was merely the guest house.
His journey to Warri had passed off without incident—at least up to that point. During the short air journey, he had remembered the story he read about the city the night before: Warri, a major oil city known nationwide for its unique “Pidgin English”, once served as the base for Portuguese and Dutch slave traders. Oil had fuelled the city’s growth and had given it more than a fair share of the Niger Delta crisis, including a fierce inter-ethnic crisis at the end of the 1990s.
So some months back, when Warri was a hot flashpoint of inter-ethnic wars, he would perhaps have asked for the company of security men, but the oil town had embraced peace. While its villages and creeks burned with militant activities, Warri was a safe haven.
In the large bungalow of the residential quarters of senior staff members of Choice Oil, security was more than adequately present. As Hunter’s eyes surveyed the elaborate décor, they landed on the faces of several well-armed private patrol officers planted in various strategic locations. Their eyes were intense, carefully moving back and forth with alert precision.
Hunter was beginning to feel uncomfortable sitting in the presence of so many human statues, none of whom were interested in acknowledging him. He had nodded a greeting to one guard when he entered, but the man did not respond. Hunter recognized the irony that he was perfectly at ease travelling through volatile locations with explosions and gunfire crackling through the air, yet he still couldn’t feel settled in places where people stood absolutely still and silent. He laughed aloud at himself, breaking the pungent quiet, but none of the guards seemed to show they heard him.
Soon, he was startled out of his own thoughts.
“Good morning, Mr Hunter.”
Hunter instantly jumped out of the leather chair.
The finely dressed gentleman in a black suit grinned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you, sir. Tom says you insist on catching thieves with bare hands tonight.”
Hunter let out an embarrassed laugh. “It’s fine. I was lost in my thoughts about thief hunting,” he said.
The man extended his hand. “I am Keem Sokku,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Hunter shook his hand. “It’s my pleasure as well,” he said. “Sokku gas?” he teased.
“No, I don’t work in that gas plant, and I am even not from Rivers State. My name is spelled with a double K.”
“Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me,” Hunter said. “I recognise that you will be limited in your remarks for security purposes, but I hope you will be able to shed some light on a few dark areas.”
“We’ll soon find out,” Sokku responded. “Please be seated.”
Hunter returned to the comfortable leather chair while Sokku sat down in a similar one across from him and crossed his long legs.
Hunter pulled his digital recorder out of his pocket and turned it on. “How long have you offered your services as a security consultant to oil companies?” he said.
“Let’s see,” Sokku said, thinking back. “It’s been nearly eleven years now. Wow! Time flies.”
Hunter laughed. “It does. Have you always worked in security?”
“In one form or another,” Sokku answered. “When I finished school, I thought I was destined to become a police officer, a detective actually. I went through the academy and the training, but I wasn’t a very patient young man. I wanted to use my education in criminology to work on complex situations, but as you know, the young patrolmen are forced to earn their stripes. They get sent out into the street, where most of their day consists of checking traffic and looking out for petty criminals. Once in a while, something happens that requires more creative abilities, but in truth, you don’t want those things to happen every day. Besides, I was more interested in preventing crime than in pursuing criminals after the fact.”
“That desire, I assume, led you to pursue a career in security,” Hunter said.
“Yes,” Sokku confirmed, “although I must say that those two years I worked as a young policeman proved invaluable for that purpose. If you want to prevent crime, you must understand how criminals think. Several of the veteran officers were very good teachers in that regard. They were generous when it came to sharing many things that one can only learn from experience.”
“Weren’t you interested in staying on long enough to develop some experience of your own?” Hunter asked.
“As I said, I was not a patient young man,” Sokku conceded. “I’m sure I could’ve learned a great deal more about the criminal mind had I remained on the police force a bit longer, but I was too frustrated. The police gather a great deal of information regarding criminal cases, but their work is stifled by red tape, which is usually connected to opportunistic lawyers and judges. I wanted to be able to gather evidence without restriction.”
“How does one do that?” Hunter asked.
“I apprenticed with a private foreign investigator who worked in this industry,” Sokku said. “The man in his 60s was so fragile that his intellect and his steely qualities were usually underestimated until he struck. He could read the human mind and body language like he was reading his palm. The work proved very enlightening. Once I felt I had a firm grasp on how the criminal mind works, and more importantly, how to intercept criminal activity before damage, injuries, or losses occur, I started my own security consulting business.”
“Where is your former boss?”
“He works deep undercover as a consultant to some West African countries.”
Hunter was impressed by the man’s ambition, as well as his confident tone. “How did you come to specialising in oil company security?”
“In my boss’s footsteps,” Sokku said. “I doubt there will ever be a time when oil companies will not need greater security than most industries – at least until the world finally realises that the sun provides better energy at less cost in both a monetary and environmental sense.”
Hunter didn’t see the potential for the human race to reach that conclusion during his lifetime.
“I want to talk to you about one of your biggest concerns as a security consultant,” he said. “That, I presume, is crude oil theft.”
“Yeah, It is a naughty problem,” Sokku said.
“Let’s get down to the hard numbers,” he said. “How many identified incidents of oil theft occurred at Choice last year and how many barrels were lost due to those incidents?”
“According to surveillance reports, a total of one hundred and sixty-eight barges were sighted,” Sokku said. “We believe that a considerable number of these barges were involved in the siphoning of crude oil from Choice facilities. So far, security agents have seized twenty-six tankers connected to road incidents. Four ships have also been appropriated.”
Hunter l assumed that Sokku had either reviewed the numbers prior to this interview or he had a photographic memory because he managed to recall the statistics with no hesitation. “You obviously keep very close track of things,” he said.
“That’s one of the things that I am paid to do,” Sokku said. “And as you can see, such oversight is imperative. These figures reflect the magnitude of the bunkering problem. The complete picture of illegal activities of crude oil theft, however, extends well beyond these mere numbers.”
Out of habit, Hunter glanced down at his recorder to ensure that it was still capturing every word. The recording light remained on. “How does this compare to previous years?” he asked.
Sokku thought for a moment, albeit a very short one. “Looking at the trend, there has been a progression from less than thirty thousand barrels per day in 2001.”
“So, we’re looking at a very significant loss,” Hunter pressed onward.
“Yes,” Sokku said. “This peaked across the industry in 2003. That prompted the Nigerian Navy to intervene.”
“How many barrels has Choice lost so far this year?”
“Based on the recent profile, we can say that we have lost volumes estimated at millions of barrels of crude oil.”
Hunter consulted his notes. “A senior Choice executive has been quoted as saying that the company is losing 15 per cent of production,” he said. “Would you say this figure is correct?”
Again, Sokku appeared to think for a moment. “I would call that an overestimate, one that might have been more accurate before the Nigerian Navy intervened in May 2003. The current figure is approximately five per cent.”
“So, the Navy is doing well?”
“They’re doing all right, but they could do better if the barons would leave them alone.”
Hunter was intrigued. “Why is the business thriving?”
The expression on Sokku’s face looked like a combination of a smile and a wince. “The criminal elements involved in crude oil theft find it to be a lucrative pursuit,” he said. “They are also aided by the readily available market outlets.”
“How do you detect the theft?”
Sokku drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “The company has a monitoring system.”
“The Export Terminal?” Hunter asked.
“Yes,” Sokku replied. “From the readings, there is an irreconcilable difference between that which is produced and that which is received at the terminal. These discrepancies are most noticeable in the night readings. In addition, helicopter pilots who fly over the Niger Delta on a daily basis have spotted barges with hoses connected to manifolds. These are obviously waiting to be used for the evacuation of stolen crude. We saw some earlier today. I’m sure you will see at least one yourself when you go out tonight. Tom Canaday says you insist on doing that.”
Hunter nodded. “I look forward to the trip,” he said. “The question remains: Who is carrying out these thefts?”
Sokku shrugged. “The perpetrators tend to vary,” he said. “Whoever has the equipment and the access at any given moment may be tempted to grab a share. The several arrests made so far have included some Nigerians working in collusion with foreign nationals.”
“How likely is it that an organised cartel may be involved?”
“That is difficult to assess,” Sokku conceded. “Those people are so good at covering their tracks. They also tend to use their low-level grunts to do their dirty work, and then they disavow any association with the poor sots if they get captured or killed. It is important, however, to note that the high level of bunkering operations we have uncovered require significant access to physical resources. They also entail a considerable amount of technological expertise.”
Hunter found that interesting. It was clear these crimes were not committed by simple-minded hooligans who knew where to hook up their hoses. A substantial degree of criminal ingenuity went into the planning and execution of each mission. “How is the theft perpetrated?” he asked.
Sokku leaned forward in his chair. “The criminals tend to attack company facilities such as manifolds and risers set up in remote locations by hottapping self-fabricated spools to which long hoses are attached,” he said. “They connect these hoses to a waiting barge. In some cases, the hoses are connected directly to sea-going tankers.”
“Does theft ever occur on land?” Hunter asked.
“We discovered one land-theft operation in which the criminals connected their own buried flow line to the Choice company pipeline,” Sokku disclosed. “The illegal flow line ran to a fenced-off compound that had been converted into an illicit crude terminal for the receipt of stolen crude. From there, the oil was pumped into tankers and then evacuated from the area on roadways.”
“Evacuated to where?”
“That’s the riddle of the Sphunx,” Sokku said. “We have yet to identify the exact market. We have received some reports telling us that most crude oil is loaded into barges, transferred to medium-sized ships, and later moved onto larger ships that wait offshore.”
Hunter sat back, checked his recorder, and tried to take in all the information. “Given the scale of these criminal operations,” he said, “the criminals must have protection from powerful people, maybe even government officials. Do you believe this is the case?”
Sokku held out his hands. “We are not in a position to confirm or deny this,” he said. “You can’t make allegations without concrete proof. Still, we think the matter should be properly investigated.”
“What would Choice like to see the authorities do to stop this theft?”
A stern expression took over Sokku’s face. “We would like to see the Nigerian authorities increase and enhance security patrols of the waterways in general, and people who have been arrested should be tried for criminality.”
“Do you think they are being delayed or hidden until the cases can be quietly dismissed?” Hunter asked.
“Do you mean until the bag man arrives?”
Hunter shrugged. “If that applies….”
“Again, there is no proof of such legal manipulation,” Sokku said.
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening,” Hunter said.
It was now Sokku’s turn to shrug.
After a moment of dead air between them, Hunter forged ahead. “Do you believe the army should intervene to stop this theft?”
“What we really need is adequate security for life, property, and key national assets,” Sokku said. “It is the government’s responsibility to decide the kind of equipment and the proper personnel that must be deployed to provide that level of security and to prevent crude theft.”
Hunter tried to read Sokku’s tone. He wasn’t sure if Sokku viewed the government as an ally or as an enemy. It was a complex dilemma. There were some honest people within the government who really wanted to do the right thing, but there are also way too many corrupt people on the take. It was difficult to identify who was who.
“The STF intervened in 2006 with gunboats,” Hunter said. “The result of the action was very high casualties.”
“Balancing continues to be a problem,” Sokku said.
“Tell me this, sir,” Hunter said. “Is theft affecting your personal investment decisions in certain areas?”
Sokku laughed. “All investors make their financial decisions based on the information to which they are privy,” he said. “There is an additional cost implication for the business, stemming from intensive surveillance of flowlines, pipelines, and facilities. It must also be noted that surveillance by land vehicles, patrol boats, and helicopters tends to be particularly expensive—and it is only as reliable as the people operating and reporting from those vessels.”
Hunter saw the point. The military could send out patrols, but if the patrolmen were threatened or bribed by the thieves, their work would turn out to be worse than useless. “The level of paranoia in this situation is off the chart,” he said.
“Absolutely,” Sokku said. “Anyone can double-cross you at any time for any reason.”
“There is an argument based on the idea that the people are not really stealing, but that they are merely taking the oil that belongs to them because successive governments have continually ignored them,” Hunter said.
Sokku rolled his eyes.
“It may sound funny,” Hunter said, “but on some level, it is true.”
Sokku shook his head in disgust. “Perhaps it is a funny truth. Mr Hunter , the government is directly responsible for many of the problems in the area. More than ninety per cent of the revenue from every barrel of oil goes to the federal government. Why can’t they in all fairness use a considerable portion of this money to develop the area? Things are changing. They now have the thirteen per cent derivation fund, but even at that level, some of the governors in the region have been shamelessly irresponsible when handling the money.”
“I have no doubt that is true,” Hunter said.
“These are the same leaders who preach resource control, a concept onto which the youths have now latched. But I must say that one of the major beneficiaries of the crisis are crude oil thieves ,” Sokku said. “The issue is getting complicated, but with political will, the government should be able to plough through. There are three major factors at the root of the instability in the Niger Delta: unfulfilled aspirations for political recognition and influence, poverty and historical neglect, and criminality. The situation must be addressed through dialogue, increased revenue to the region, immediate infrastructure development, and provision of employment.”
“This all sounds so simple,” Hunter said. “Why isn’t it happening?”
“You are the journalist,” Sokku said. “So you say you want to have a taste of stolen oil? Tough guy.”
Hunter’s face lit up in a high voltage smile. “Yeah, I will see a barge in action. And possibly some of the local refineries,” he said and stood up to stretch.
“No wonder Blake likes you so much,” Sokku said and pulled Hunter by the arm. “Sit down and let me tell you about the large barge we have for you. It is arriving on the site tonight.”
“So why can’t the oil companies arrest the thieves?”
“We report to the authorities,” Sokku cut in. “Those guys are heavily armed.”
“The oil companies must be scared of them.”
“Don’t let me scare you, Rambo,” Sokku advised. “I will call for tea now while I brief you about the barge and Boma, the guy who will take you to the refineries.”
“Sure,” Hunter said excitedly and turned off his recorder.
“ And you are not going to use that recorder on the barge, are you?”
“Certainly not,” Hunter said and paused to think about how he was going to access the barge. “Yea, Sokku. I think I have to give it some more thought.”
“Thought as much”, Sokku said. “I discussed that with Blake and he suggested I give you a scout-bot.”
Hunter shut his eyes to think. “I have no idea what that is,” he said.
Sokku laughed. “You are not going to climb the hull of the barge, are you?” he asked. “Or you want to invade it the Rambo style? I don’t think journalists have the license to kill yet.”
“So let’s see how the scout-bot works.”
“Sure,” Sokku said and led the way into an adjoining room.
( ( ( ( (
At approximately seven o’clock that evening, Hunter was once again cruising through the creeks. With Sokku’s support, he got a highly equipped speedboat for the nocturnal visit to the underworld.
“How do you do? I’m Hunter ,” he said as he approached the man maintaining the boat.
“Yes, I know,” the man responded flatly.
“What’s your name?
Hunter realised that he couldn’t argue with such a straightforward statement, so he tried to engage the man in a different manner.
“What may I call you?”
“Why do you need to call me anything?”
“It simply makes communication a little less confusing.”
“So…what may I call you?”
“Captain,” he said.
Hunter nodded and boarded the vessel. “Very well…Captain.” He forced his voice into a friendly tone despite his annoyance at the man’s attitude. “I appreciate your help.”
The Captain bit his lip. “You are paying me, right?” he questioned.
“Yes, of course.” Hunter reached into his wallet and pulled out a sealed envelope in which he had kept some money for the boat. “Here’s half of the agreed-upon fee. Count it because I get clumsy counting money. You get the balance when we reach the designated location.” The Captain snatched the envelope out of Hunter’s hand, tore it open, counted the cash, and then stuffed them into his trouser pocket.
“When I get paid,” he said, “I am hired, not helping.”
Hunter nodded again. Hunter was hardly interested in scouring his mind in search of proper words at that moment, so he decided from that point on, he would keep his interactions with the Captain to a minimum.
The Captain revved the boat’s engine, and Hunter could feel its power even before it launched. A moment later, the Captain flipped a switch. The engines continued to burn, but their noise was completely muffled.
“Is your vessel set up with a silencer?”Hunter asked.
“She sure is,” the Captain said. “It makes her so quiet we can sneak up on a sleeping lion.”
The boat manoeuvered through the creeks in the evening air. Hunter found it to be a very pleasant ride. The boat’s steady, smooth movement, combined with the sight of the sun setting over the forest, created a very peaceful and serene sensation. That in itself was ironic considering the fact they were sailing toward an oil-bunkering location.
Nearly an hour had passed when the Captain slowed down the boat. “We are close to the spot,” he said. “Over there is the oil facility.”
Hunter looked in the direction the Captain was pointing. He could make out a structure and the outline of a barge, but he couldn’t decipher too many details in the dark.
“The thieves are sometimes careless about security, but they are heavily armed,” the Captain said. “I need to go back.”
“That’s all right,” Hunter said. “I’ll swim over from here.” He retrieved his money clip and pulled off a few more bills. “This should put us straight.”
The Captain happily accepted the cash, but due to his jittery desire to get Hunter into the water so he could turn his boat around, he opted not to count it.
Hunter was somewhat amused by the Captain’s sudden discomfort. The man who had tried to present himself as tough, cool and blasé appeared to be breaking into a nervous sweat. A mischievous voice in Hunter’s head suggested he should hang around and chit-chat with the Captain for a while longer, but he decided to save them both the agony. He gently lowered himself into the water, submerging his body without the slightest hint of a splash.