05 Jul In A Daring Move, Hunter Infiltrates Crude Oil Thieves
The water was warm, not cold enough to cause Hunter’s muscles to tighten and cramp. Guided by the moonlight, he used smooth arm strokes to swim toward the barge, being careful not to create visible splashes or suspicious waves.
The darkness hindered his calculations. The barge turned out to be further than he anticipated. Fortunately, he was in good shape, and his adrenaline helped him swim faster than he would have done during a casual day at the pool. On some level, Hunter found he actually enjoyed the workout. It brought his body back to life. He had spent incessant weeks sitting around staring at computer screens, talking on telephones, conducting interviews, and organising the data he had gathered.
These few minutes swimming through the cool water revived his spirit as well as his body, giving him a new sense of determination. When he finally reached the barge, Hunter found himself feeling oddly disoriented. The moon did not provide him adequate light from his particular angle, so he had difficulty knowing the front of the barge from the back. He swam away from the vessel to take in its bigger picture.
He was concerned about circling the barge from too far out for fear it would make him more visible to the bunkering crew standing guard above, but he had no choice but to take that chance. The humming of the barge drowned the sounds he made manoeuvering in the water. He also hoped the crew would have trouble shooting accurately in the dark. The only way they could pursue him was to jump into the water—boots and all—and swim after him, and Hunter was confident that he could elude them under such circumstances.
As Hunter was treading water, he spotted the silhouette of a single man pacing awkwardly back and forth across the barge’s rear deck. His posture and gait were so clumsy and unstable that Hunter concluded he must have been drunk, seasick, or injured. The actual cause of his unsteadiness was irrelevant. Whichever it was, it made him a vulnerable target.
Hunter bobbed in the water and scrutinised the man’s condition as he lumbered about the deck. He appeared to be carrying a rifle, but in his present state, it was unlikely that he would be especially adept at using it. The man appeared to be of average height and weight, and he had a frame similar to Hunter’s but it was doubtful he possessed strength that Hunter couldn’t overcome.
Hunter was more concerned about the possible presence of other guards, especially those who might be in better fighting condition than their incapacitated comrade.
Hunter spent a few more minutes monitoring the rear deck of the barge from his spot in the water. He felt as if he had been in the water for hours. The skin on his fingers was wrinkling, and a chill was begging to spread down his entire body.
But his assignment on the barge was not done yet. Although he had seen the excitement of the heavily armed men on the barge, who chatted away loudly, he needed far more from them before the barge arrived the next village where one of Sokku’s informants would be waiting for him.
He swam gingerly back to the barge. After some careful fumbling in the dark, he managed to find a point that provided a grip to help him pull himself out of water. He quietly untied the waterproof bag and leaning on the barge, he removed the already programmed miniature magnetic scout-bot affixed with a spy camera stick. He watched it glide steadily up the hull and pressed the remote control in his hand as the head of the device shot above the deck.
“Yei!” A shout rang from the barge, as Hunter stopped the device. He shook his head and took a deep breath to steady his nerves, but just then he heard a roar of laughter. He quickly checked the record light on the gadget. It was on. He sighed his relief and resigned himself to a long wait for the scout-bot
As Musa Duke had always said, he needed modern gadgets to ease his work as a modern investigative reporter, but Hunter usually declined to be a “James Bond journalist.”
The direction of the barge posed no problem. He was sure the bunkerers were headed south to discharge their loot into an oil vessel.
Hunter had learned that the bunkering process started with crew building a temporary enclosure around a small section of underwater pipe. They pumped the water out and drilled a hole into the oil pipeline. The hole was fitted with a short pipe and valve that allowed the creek water to flow back in, keeping the apparatus underwater and hiding it from oil company inspectors.
Crude moved through the pipeline under a pressure of six hundred pounds per square inch. Under such pressure, it only took a few hours to fill a one-thousand-metric-ton barge. Once a barge was full, it was moved offshore to meet up with a transport ship, an operation made simple because the vessels could be “rented” from the Nigerian military – for a price.
Someone in Warri had told Hunter l: “Many of the soldiers earned low salaries that made some vulnerable to tempting inducements from oil barons.”
“True?” Hunter had asked.
“You can check.”
“I suspect that would make these men easy to influence,” Hunter had said.
“Exactly,” the bunkerer said. He had spoken with Hunter after having just worked all night transporting illegally bunkered oil. “We tell the military men who support us that the pipe will bring them more money every night they are willing to work and keep their mouths shut. We give them six months’ salary in a single night, and they guard us.”
“That sounds like quality protection,” Hunter said.
After thirty minutes of staying stuck on the side of the barge, Hunter felt very cold in his chest region in spite of the padded waterproof shirt he wore beneath his brown khaki shirt. He took quick deep breaths to warm up. He counted himself lucky that the waterway was not as polluted with oil as he had feared he would eventually come out of the water dripping with oil. The thought of an inflammable John Hunter had made him laugh.
After an hour of waiting on the humming barge that felt like eternity, Hunter pressed the activation button and watched with pleasure as the scout-bot came down slowly.
Moments later, the sight of several tongues of fire lit the night sky in the distance. Convinced that the flames were too many to be gas flare points, he knew it was time to depart the barge, with whatever information he had recorded. But he was rather thrilled by the magnitude of the risk of spying on deadly oil thieves. The assignment was to become more risky with another round of swimming to an unknown jetty to meet his contact.
As the barges sailed pass the jetty, he peered into night for a cigarette light. There was none. The jetty was deserted. With his options down to just one, he removed his hand from the barge and dived deep into the water, paddling his feet very fast to get as far away as possible. He surfaced several metres way and swam on towards the quiet shore. He was about ten metres from it when he saw a shape on his far right in the moonlight. He panicked!
If it is a croc I’m dead, he thought. Crocodiles are silent as they move in water and they prefer to sneak up on their prey. The croc was some 30 metres away but there was no way he could out-swim the reptile. Left without an option, he swam as fast and as quietly as he could.
When he felt a tug at the trousers, he knew that was it. He shouted and pulled away hard. Then he heard a gunshot ring. He ignored the gun shot and continued to the shore. As he got there a man at the sandy shore lit a cigarette. Hunter sighed and looked back.
“Fast!” the man shouted. He rushed to Hunter and pulled him out of the water onto the shore.
“Why are you just lighting your cigarette?” Hunter asked breathlessly.
“Let’s get out of here fast,” the man said. “The blood could attract more crocs.”
Hunter limped along behind him. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Where is your gun? And why did you light the cigarette late?”
“I’m Boma, it is a long story,” he said without looking back. “Let’s get out of here first.”
Heavily built and about 6 feet tall, Boma’s physical presence alone provided reassuring security. His strides were confidently steady.
“What’s the time?” Hunter asked.
“It’s almost four a.m.”
( ( ( ( (
Hunter was bent on listening to the recording on the barge. He fought back sleep in the steel shelter which was his home for the night and put on the tape.
It showed armed men in uniform moving about the deck in a surveillance exercise. Moments later, they gathered to chat away the night.
“Is it just me or did this job take longer than usual?” one man said to no one in particular.
“It’s these damn quiet nights,” a second man said. “I hate them. Everything always takes twice as long with everyone tip-toeing around. We need some good wind and a few nice waves to break the silence so we can get the job done without acting like we’re trapped in a library.”
“Or a morgue,” a third man said.
“You can make all the noise you want in a morgue,” the first man asked. “You won’t wake anybody up.”
The men laughed.
“Remember that wicked thunderstorm last month?” a fourth man said. “That was great. Sure, we all got soaked, but no one was about to come out and play the law man in that kind of weather. That was probably the fastest we ever finished one of these outings.”
The men nodded at the memory.
“Business is rough these days, my friends,” the first man said. “I think those damn oil executives are putting the heat on the government. ‘Please help us! We’re so victimised! We’re losing money every day!’”
“Yeah, right,” the second man said. “They are suffering so badly. They might actually have to sell some of their mansions and private jets.”
The third man shook his head in disgust. “It’s all a game to them,” he said. “They don’t care about us. They don’t even care about the oil we’re taking. They just have a bad case of wounded pride. They see themselves as these super-smart wheeler-dealers, and then they see us as a bunch of dumb banshees pilfering their wares. It’s all about the ego, I’m telling you. They hate the fact that we have the potential to make them look stupid. They are more likely to kill us for that than to kill us for reclaiming our oil.”
The men all nodded in agreement.
“Commodore Tinkan got us all these guns and uniforms,” the first man said. “But if you ask me, he ought to increase our pay as well. Things are getting pretty crazy out in the creeks these days. I don’t recall this business ever being so damn dangerous. You all remember the 12 foreigners who were arrested and taken to Abuja. Some of the locals among them died in the creeks. Expended.”
The information caught Hunter by surprise. He paused the tape to think about it and played on.
The first man, incidentally the shortest of them all, pulled a bottle of Schnapps out of his hip pocket and took a long, hard swig. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up,” he said. “It’s getting too crazy for me.”
He passed the bottle to the second man, who helped himself to an unhealthy mouthful of liquor. “Oh yeah, like there are thousands of upscale employment opportunities out on the horizon for guys like us,” he said with sarcasm.
The third man snatched the bottle and tossed back a shot. “I personally have had so many great job offers that I’ve lost count of them all,” he said. “I could’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, maybe even one of those corporate CEO types.”
The other men laughed again.
“No kidding?” the first man said, playing along. “You gave all that up for this?”
The laughter grew louder.
“Who could resist this?” the third man said. “Seasickness, flying bullets, an occasional explosion…my goodness, it’s like a goddamned paradise!”
The roar of laughter echoed out over the night air.
The fourth man claimed possession of the Schnapps bottle. “The way I see it,” he said after taking a drink and slopping some liquor on his uniform, “we are all destined to die of something. I can leave here and starve to death, or I can hang around and get riddled with bullets. I think going down by bullets would be faster and less painful.”
“And you get to wear these stylish clothes,” the second man said.
“Don’t hate on the clothes,” the third man said. “There are hipsters in London, Paris, and New York who are paying top dollar to put together this fabulous look.”
Hunter smiled. He had travelled to these cities on many occasions – and he recognised that the man’s statement was pathetically truthful.
The fourth man held out the bottle of Schnapps to a colleague.
“Ah…no thanks, man,” the colleague said.
“Why the hell not?” the first man scowled. “You smell like you’ve already put away enough liquor to float this barge.”
A new voice rang through the air and a tall man with an unkempt beard stomp across the deck. His businesslike demeanour and tone made it clear that he was in charge.
The men snapped to attention. The first man quickly repossessed the Schnapps bottle and stuffed it back into his hip pocket to hide it. Hunter caught sight of the boss’ exasperated expression that said that he was perfectly aware of the liquor bottle and he didn’t care in the least.
“Take your positions,” the boss said to the man with the bottle. “Whoa!” the boss roared with a laugh. “What’s up with you tonight, Jack? Are you actually sober for once? Nah, that can’t be it. You smell like moonshine still, just like always. Maybe it’s the Schnapps.”
The boss glanced over at the first man with a wry grin. The man’s eyes darted away in embarrassment.
“It’s something like that, Chief…”
That was the end of the tape.
The mention of Tinkan surprised Hunter. He recognised the name Commodore Tinkan. Now retired, Tinkan had recorded a distinguished career with the Nigerian Navy. He was the recipient of many military honours and the Nigerian Merit Award for his service to his country and was viewed by many as a national hero. His shipping line, Nkan, was one of the largest in Africa. Hunter knew he was one of the wealthy retired military men who were planning to stand for elections into the Senate.
It broke Hunter’s heart to learn that this man, perceived by so many to be noble and honest, was using his knowledge and experience to run an operation that specialised in crude oil theft. Hunter was convinced he had some more work to do, and at risk was his life.
( ( ( ( (
The sound of rain on the steel roof had a soothing effect on Hunter’s nerves. On a small mat at one end of a small hut where he spent the night, he longed for a few more hours of sleep.
“Hunter , it is 6 a.m.” Boma tapped him for his attention and said, “If you don’t have to raise unnecessary speculation, you have to go and have your bath on the concrete slab behind the hut.”
“In the rain?”
“That would mean more water for you,” Boma said and smiled. “You have to go now.”
Hunter looked up wearily and nodded. Boma had been nice to him. On their arrival at the hut, he had handed Hunter a bag with toiletries and warm clothes and had provided him with hot tea.
Boma must have brought in all the supplies because, but for the two mats, the room was bare. No curtains, no furniture!
“But you haven’t told me the shore story,” Hunter said. “The cigarette and the gun I didn’t find on you.”
Boma flashed a smile. “I lost my lighter,” he said. “The guy who brought me one shot the croc.”
“And what happened to him?” Hunter said as he rose up.
“You don’t have to know about everybody to be a good journalist. Here, they don’t ask questions, otherwise you give yourself out as an intruder.” Boma, said. “And you would be debriefed immediately.”
“What does that mean?”
“Yea, Sokku said as much but not in that threatening tone.”
“Sorry, Hunter but we need to be on our way to the refineries as soon as the rain stops.”
The rain had stopped to allow the sun some visibility at about 7.30 a.m. They walked in-between thatched huts and onto a path out of the village. Some thirty minutes later, they stopped at a hut to see a tall, lanky man with creepy looks. He was busy counting tens of jerry cans beside his hut.
“They delivered these cans last night,” the man said after Hunter was introduced to him as a businessman.
“I hope I can get many cans to buy when we strike a deal?” Hunter said.
“Boma, you haven’t told him that he has to get his own production boys here to get that quantity? What I sell are cans I get on the side.”
“I have told him, and he is prepared to get his own people down here later.”
“Good, I hope you also told him I will co-ordinate production for him.”
“You are the camp boss, sir.” Boma said, trying hard not to mention their host’s name. “For now he wants to have a look around.”
“Okay,” the man agreed.
Boma led the way along a narrow sand-filled path through acres of barren land, filled with waste from the illegal refineries.
“To your right is the creek in which you met your croc friend,” Boma teased. “If you get closer you would see hundreds of jerry cans used to transport the refined products.”
“Yes, makes sense.” Hunter said.
In the air highly polluted by plumes of smoke from the refineries ahead of them, breathing became laborious for Hunter. They walked silently to a cleared stretch of land hidden in the mangrove forest.
Hunter counted three boilers about twenty metres from each other. Each was manned by two scruffy-looking men. He had read ahead of the trip that the crudely fabricated heating drums are used to heat up crude oil to near cracking level to get fairly refined Automotive Gas Oil (AGO) otherwise called diesel, and a poor form of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) or fuel.
They went to the boiler on the far right. The heat of the fire was intense, making Hunter feel uncomfortable. He felt his face burning. The two men looked up at Hunter and took their eyes away. They looked like identical twins – short, lean with sunken eyes and shaven heads. They wore similar clothes of brown T-shirts over jeans, with old Wellington boots.
“My friend wants to understand how this works.” Boma said. “We have spoken with the Boss.”
Hunter nodded in agreement.
The twins looked at Hunter again.
One of them spoke: “As you can see, the steel drum has three steel pipes welded-in at strategic angles for easy evacuation of the refined product. One of the pipes acts as a returning pipe in the process. Potash (potassium chloride or sulphate) and Omo detergent are used as catalysts to obtain the desired product.” He smiled. “It’s that simple.”
Hunter did not think so. “You were so fast I didn’t get you,” he said.
“Okay,” the other man took over, “at a go, we boil two barrels of oil to evaporate the fuel. It passes down the out-going pipe, cooled by water, and drips slowly out into the collecting container at the other end. The petrol comes out first, then kerosene, and finally diesel.”
“Simple!” his colleague said again.
“And where do you throw the residue?” Hunter asked.
“Into the stream over there,” he said, pointing behind him. “It flows to the creeks and into the ocean.”
Hunter looked away to hide his eyes but his sight fell on the surrounding trees and earth blackened from the flames and explosions.
“Yes, it is that simple,” Boma interrupted their conversation to cover-up Hunter’s shock. “The products are pumped into jerry cans and taken to the shore, but you will buy from the Boss as agreed.”
Again, Hunter nodded.
To save his lungs from the polluted air, Hunter discouraged any discussion that could prolong their stay on the refinery site. He pitied the twins for their exposure to so much danger.
As they returned to the Boss, Boma reminded Hunter that the Captain who took him to the barge would be waiting for him.
“But I have to get my stuff from the hut first,” Hunter protested.
At the Boss’s hut Hunter noticed that the mood of Creepy Face had changed. He eyes were scowling in anger.
“Your boys must have angered you, Boss?” Boma asked.
The boss didn’t answer. He shot Hunter a scorching look and signalled Boma to join him behind the hut. Hunter’s attempt to eavesdrop was futile because they spoke in whispers. Only once did he hear Boma raise his voice to say, “No!”
Boa’s face was not creepy as he hurried to re-join Hunter, but he looked unhappy. “We must get out of here,” he whispered to Hunter, and pulled him along.
“What is the matter?” Hunter l asked.
“We have to get on the Captain’s boat fast.” Boma said. “The Boss’ boss has called to warn him of infiltrators. Soon, the place will be swarming with their security men eager to delete spies.
“You must be one of the security men!”
“No questions. Just get out of here.” Boma said. “Soon, people will be here from the city, and someone may know your face.”
“Okay, Boma,” Hunter agreed. “But I have to get my stuff from the hut.”
“You don’t need that junk, Hunter.”
“I need my scout-bot.”
“We don’t have that much time. Sokku will get your stuff,” Boma said and veered to the left of the path they had come.
They walked briskly towards the shore, but the silence was shattered with what appeared to be the sound of a helicopter.
“Shh!” Boma signalled to Hunter and drew him under a shady tree.
“So who could they be?” Hunter asked.
“Two possibilities,” Boma said. “Government people coming for the usual show, or oil companies doing an over-fly tell them tales about crude oil theft and refining.”
Hunter noted that Boma was increasingly sounding like one of those in the illegal business, but he kept that in his left palm. “Oh, perhaps I should have come on one of such trips.”
“And you would have had all that personal experience?”
“A good point, but why are we hiding?”
Boma ignored that as the helicopter came circling above the refineries. “They can’t come down,” he said. “Sometimes we scare them with anti-aircraft guns. And they scamper away.”
“I see.” Hunter said. “I could have fetched my stuff from the hut.”
Again, Boma ignored him. He fetched a cell phone from his pocket and dialled a number. They spoke briefly, and Boma turned to him. “The search has started in the village some two kilometres behind us. We can go now.”
“The chopper ?” Hunter asked.
“Gone, I guess.” Boma said. “They come looking all the time, but who knows if some of them are not involved?”
Hunter added that to the information in his left hand.
Jerry cans littered both sides of the path to the shore, and as they got close, the area was cluster of drums, surface tanks, hoses, pumping machines, generating sets and locally made boats.
Boma saw the Captain standing in his boat far to their left. He wore a red face cap and he was smoking profusely. Smoking must be their signature sign, Hunter thought and walked away from Boma, meandering through the drums to the boat.
Some 50 metres to the shore, two mean-looking men, dressed in army fatigues blocked his path. They wielded AK 47s.
“Excuse me,” Hunter said politely as he wondered about their mission.
“You are a journalist?” the shorter of the two massively built men asked.
“Nope!” Hunter said casually.
“You are John Hunter !” The other man said empathically.
“I’m Kenneth Obuh, and I am a businessman.” Hunter said and moved on as if the two didn’t matter, but he was convinced the encounter could signal danger.