The people of Ogu-Bolo, a coastal, sleepy and rustic community in Rivers State are not happy with men and officers of the Nigerian Navy (NN). Their sadness is borne out of the resolve of the navy to stop all illegal activities of oil bunkering and illegal refineries in the area.
Ogu-Bolo is a local government area with its headquarters in Ogu. The 2006 census puts the population of the community at 74,683. Ogu is the largest town among the Wakrike Be Se communities of Rivers State, with a respectable chieftaincy institution that binds the community together.
Ogu is one of the 24 designated urban areas carved out in 1987 by the Rivers State Government. It is surrounded by Eleme Local Government Area to the West, Tai Local Government Area to the North, Bonny Local Government Area to the South and Okrika Local Government Area to the South West. The community can be reached by sea and land, hence the reason why illegal bunkering thrives.
Ogu has over 50 satellite villages and fishing settlements. Some of the villages and settlements are Tende-Ama, Tamuno-Ama, Yude-Ama, Kporo, Chuku-Ama, Nemieboka-Ama, Iga Fe Ama, Tende Fe-Ama, Olobulo-Ama and Brown Ama.
Ogu is economically viable with fishing and peasant farming as the main economic activities of the people. However, despite the community’s fishing expeditions and its attendant economic viability, the people find succour in illegal bunkering and illegal refining activities. The coastal nature of the area, coupled with its landmass, as well as its proximity to other coastal communities such as Bonny, have given those involved in the criminal venture added advantage. Many illegal refinery dump sites set up in various creeks that dot the community have contributed to the pollution of the community’s source of drinking water, as well as soot, a major environmental hazard bedevilling some cities and communities in the state.
“Kpo fire”, a phrase used to describe illegal bunkering in the Niger Delta, had been the major source of economic survival of the youths of the area until the recent invasion of the communities by men of the Nigerian Navy. Kpo fire was coined from the explosive sound produced when crude oil is poured on fire in the process of distillation. The unprofessional process in refining crude oil is said to be the major cause of soot. The youths involved in the illegal activities are said to have prominent Nigerians in the oil and governmental sectors as their sponsors. These sponsors, known in the local parlance as “barons”, bought the equipment used in the illegal criminal activities.
A resident of the area who was involved in the Kpo fire business said those involved in the business brought heavy duty welding machines to the creeks, which he said were used to construct tanks and pans used to store both crude and refined oil.
He said, “Kpo fire is a very serious business that is operated in the form of a cartel. There are big sponsors who provide all the resources needed for the business. There are two categories of peopleinvolved in the business: those that provide money for the construction of tanks and pans and the boys that are involved in the refining of the crude.
“It is a very tedious and risky business, but there is money in it. In those old good days, I used to make as much as N500,000 in a month,” he said.
Asked how they were able to beat security agencies to carry out the illegal business, he said, “We were having a running battle with security agencies, especially the Nigerian Navy, who are not giving us any breathing space. The navy is very merciless and uncompromising when you are caught. Any time they invade our dumps, it is always a colossal damage because they will destroy everything. They come with swamp buggy which they use to crush the tanks, pans, pipes, rods and other accessories used in carrying out our business.
“However, the difficult terrain of the creeks is what puts us in a better advantage because the moment they destroy one dump, we move out to set up another dump in another location that will take them time to locate. We also carry out our activities in the midnight. There is no way they can be everywhere; they are not spirits.”
He said the Kpo fire business was becoming more difficult because of the navy and other security agencies who he said were all out to crush their business.
Kpo fire is indeed becoming a difficult venture in Ogu-bolo. The illegal refinery business which was in the past the major source of income for some residents of the community is no longer yielding the much expected dividend.
Another resident of the area, Prince Tonye Agbolo, who described himself as a crown prince, said illegal bunkering and refining were no longer fruitful in the area because the navy had destroyed what he described as their major source of income and economic survival.
Price Agbolo said, “Actually, illegal bunkering or Kpo fire is not a good business because it is illegal and is also economic sabotage. Apart from that, the illegal activities have destroyed our aquatic life. Fish farming is our major business. It was the business our forefathers. But Kpo fire has destroyed our flora and fauna and the aquatic life. It is very difficult to catch fish in our waters now because our rivers are polluted with oil from the various dump sites.
“Kpo fire is also the major source of soot which has posed a very serious health hazard to the entire Rivers State. Kpo fire is not good, but we are doing it to survive. We are doing it because we don’t have any other thing doing. We are out of job now because the navy has destroyed all our dumps and sites. It is no longer business as usual as the navy is really dealing with us. If you look around you will find out that all our boats are packed in one place; an indication that we are out of business. They came with swamp buggy and destroyed our dumps.”
However, he commended the navy for using swamp buggy to destroy illegal refinery dump sites, saying the use of swamp buggy had gone a long way to in reducing the impact of soot in the area.
He, therefore, called on the Federal Government to build industries in the area where the youths should be gainfully employed.
The onslaught launched by the navy on illegal bunkering and refinery is having economic effect on the residents as they continue to lament the devastating impact on their life.
Tamuno Okwein Godwin, another resident of the area, said they were finding it difficult to cope with the present difficult economic reality.
“Government should create jobs for us as we don’t have another source of living. Kpo fire is no longer feasible. Since the navy started using swamp buggy to destroy illegal refineries, we have been out of job. For a very long time, the navy has been on our neck,” he said.
The destruction of illegal refineries by the navy seems to be a blessing in disguise for the residents of Ogo-bolo as they appear to be regaining their lost environment. Agbede Oloye and Tubonemi Ngengibi, both residents of the area, testify to this.
According to Oloye, “We are free of environmental hazards because of the tactical ways deployed by the navy in destroying the illegal refineries. Bunkering is the major cause of soot and it is affecting us badly because we live in the same environment where these activities are being carried out.
“The navy has done two things: they have stopped the youths from destroying our environment and contributing to the menace of soot. Two, the use of swamp buggy in destroying the dump sites is the best option they have adopted because it does not generate any smoke.
“Now that majority of the youths of this community who were involved in Kpo fire are out of job and have no meaningful source of income, the implication is that most of them may be tempted to get themselves involved in criminal activities such as sea piracy. The best thing government should do is to engage them in other meaningful economic ventures that will keep body and soul busy.”
Tubonemi Ngengibi, a graduate of Health Science, said the soot they inhaled on a daily basis, which was the major cause of all manners of respiratory illness and other illnesses, was gradually disappearing.
Ngengibi said, “Since we stopped illegal bunkering, our health status has improved greatly. Soot is an offshoot of illegal bunkering and the pollution had impacted negatively on our health. Since the navy launched the onslaught on illegal refineries, our youths are no longer doing Kpo fire. Although this has affected their finances as they are not doing any job at present, but the clean environment we are enjoying now is quite appreciated. Unlike before when we spent a lot of money on drugs, today we spend less on drugs.”
He, therefore, called on the Federal Government to create jobs for the youths so as to engage them in viable economic ventures.
Our reporter learnt that Kpo fire business created a value chain in the area that both men and women were involved in the selling of Kpo fire fuel. While the youths were involved in refining the products, men and women were involved in selling the end products.
A mother of three, Gloria Mina Tende, said she sold Kpo fire fuel as a source of living. She said, “Kpo fire is what sustains me and my family. When these boys evacuate the products from the creeks, we buy and resell them. But with the destruction of the sites, we are out of business and I am finding it difficult to feed my family. My children will soon be out of school because I cannot continue to pay their fees.”
The Governor of Rivers State blamed the life-threatening menace on the activities of security agencies which he accused of setting ablaze illegal refineries and stolen oil without precautionary measures. He said he had formally approached the Federal Government to help resolve the challenge, but that the Fedral Government had not acted yet.
Worried by the governor’s accusation, the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ekwe Ibas, directed his men in Port Harcourt to do everything within their power to reduce the impact of the menace.
Vice Admiral Ibas was quoted as saying that he did not want to see smoke in Port Harcourt and its environs. The Nigerian Navy’s NNS Pathfinder recently introduced the swamp buggy, a motor vehicle used to traverse buggy swamp terrains to assist them to crush pans and tanks used for illegal bunkering. It was observed that the use of the swamp buggy and the onslaught launched by the command has stopped smoke billows just as the dark shadows are giving way and the sky is becoming clearer.
The Commander of NNS Pathfinder, Commodore SJ Bura, said the navy was committed to maintaining a clean and friendly environment and that the need to eliminate soot in Rivers State was what informed the navy to use the swamp buggy to destroy illegal refineries.
Commodorev Bura said the command had set up what he called soot hunters that looked out for those that were involved in emitting the smoke.
He warned the youths involved in illegal oil refining to exploit the value chain created in other legal and valuable economic ventures, saying the navy would not relent in its drive to stop all kinds of criminal activities in the waterways.
He further said, “There are people out there doing legitimate activities. Those that are involved in criminal activities are doing so because they have chosen to do so. There are value chain activities that the youths can be meaningfully engage in. The construction of an illegal refinery requires lots of skill. Those involved in these activities can also exploit such skills in doing legitimate businesses.