Our battles with oil spillage, illegal bunkerers, others -Imo oil producing communities

  • Hoodlums abduct community leader, kill oil workers
  • Residents lament years of neglect by multinational oil companies, govt

Imo State, according to Governor Hope Uzodinma, became the fourth largest oil producing state in the country after 43 oil wells were recovered from Rivers State recently. But many oil producing communities in the state received the news with mixed feelings on account of the ugly experiences of the existing oil bearing communities. Worse still, the relative peace they enjoyed in the past has been eroded by the untoward activities of illegal oil bunkerers which have put their lives in perpetual danger. INNOCENT DURU reports.

ON May 8, 2021, our chairman was kidnapped. He has not been released till date.  Nobody knows if he is still alive. On Monday last week, seven workers of an oil company were ambushed on their way to work and killed by a notorious gang terrorising our communities.”

Those were the words of Mazi, a native of Awara, one of the communities that make up the Egbema/Ohaji oil bearing communities, as he began the tales of the community’s battles with incessant attacks by hoodlums.

Many of the oil bearing communities have not known peace in recent times as illegal oil bunkerers and other criminal elements have made life unbearable for them.  Many of the locals were said to have fled the communities to seek refuge in Owerri and its environs.

Some of the natives would not speak on the subject matter even under anonymity for fear of being attacked by the hoodlums.

Findings revealed that the ugly development in many of the communities was fuelled by years of neglect by multinational oil companies and successive governments in the state.

After the kidnap of the community leader, Mazi said:  “We got in touch with the kidnappers, they said their action was because there is no development in our community.  As you can see, there is no electricity, no good road, no water, no hospital. These were their agitations.

“The hoodlums also went as far as burning the equipment of the oil companies. There is a particular group led by one Emperor, which is unleashing terror on the community.  We have been calling on the state and federal government to come to our aid by making sure that this man and his group are arrested all to no avail.”

He added that Shell was threatening to pull out of the community because of the killing of the oil workers.

He said: “They have shut down but only doing some operations. Pipeline works are not going on again. The seven-kilometre road they wanted to start has not commenced, and they are saying it is because of the killings.

“We came up and asked that the community leaders should write an undertaking, telling Shell that nothing would happen to their staff. The communities have done that.

“The leaders have sat down, wrote a letter to Shell  to come and commence that work, but up until this moment, nothing has happened.”

The story is not so different in Izombe, another oil producing community in the state.

In what appears to have become a norm, illegal oil bunkerers invade the community almost on a daily basis, making away with crude oil without anyone challenging them.

“That is one major problem we are facing now,” said Obi, a native of Umuokwu Village, said.

“In recent times, we have had many incidents of oil bunkering. Some of them are suspected to be security operatives who usually come in the night to steal the crude oil. These bunkerers operate mainly at night.

“Some of the bunkerers keep the product in thick cellophane bags.  When you hear of thick cellophane bags, you may think it is all these ones that are used to tie bread or akara. They are not. These are very thick bags that can contain up to 20 litres of crude oil.

“Oftentimes, you see them driving through the area in tinted vehicles loaded with crude oil. That has been a great cause for worries.”

And: NNPC and burden of ‘subsidy’

Another resident of the area, who identified himself simply as Emma, regretted that many clashes between the oil thieves and security operatives over sharing formula have always been passed off to the public as attacks by members of the proscribed separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).

“A recent statement by the police about attack on a divisional police headquarters in Izombe claimed that it was a problem between IPOB, unknown gunmen and what have you. But for we the locals, it was just a problem between illegal oil bunkerers and policemen who often demand tips from them.

“Many times, they collect big sums and would be running around and making noise.  People who live by the road record this type of incidents every night.”

He noted that some of the oil thieves take their scoops to illegal refineries in Anambra State.

Emma said: “It has been a very big problem for us. I learnt from a worker in one of the oil companies that they are burdened by the activities of illegal oil bunkerers.

“As a native, I want the federal government to find a way of solving the problem because it is putting our community in grave danger.

“We are worried because we don’t want to experience the kind of calamities we have seen in places like Lagos and others. This is why we are calling on all the relevant authorities to find a way of solving this problem.

“We are worried and concerned and are calling on the government to solve the problem so that it does not snowball into a major disaster.”

Joe, a native of one of the oil bearing commu nities, expressed concern about the future of the areas.

“Our future is bleak,” he said, adding: “Many youths are going into illegal oil bunkering. It is like Imo State is now the capital of illegal oil bunkering.

“The illegal oil bunkerers sell their loot even in open places. It is that terrible. The marine and farmlands in the communities are endangered.

“What they do is to burst the pipeline, connect a hose to the tank they would have parked. After that, they will store them in cellophane bags.

“If you go to Oguta River’s bank, you will see how polluted those places are.

“They do this from 9pm till dawn, after which the ones that are going to Bayelsa will go, the ones going to Delta will go, and so on. It is worrisome.”

The state government also appears to be losing sleep over the trend.

Hope Uzodinma and Sylva

The Coordinator, Imo State Oil and Gas Sector, Mr. Goodluck Opiah, said in a recent interview: “Sincerely speaking, we have a major challenge in that regard. Oil facilities are vandalised.

“Crude oil thieves are in the creeks where they set up their illegal refineries. These unpatriotic Nigerians do not mean well for our state and country.

“For us in Imo, it is quite disturbing because it also affects our economy much as our output reduces our contribution to the national production of oil, which is one of the indices used to allocate funds to states, particularly the oil producing states.

“But we are not resting on our oars.

“We have set up anti-illegal oil bunkering committees in Ohaji, Egbema, Oguta and Izombe areas.

“There are two different types of bunkering: bunker products that move from Imo and out and the one that affects us much are the ones that take place in Imo where oil pipelines are broken and crude oil is siphoned illegally and refined at private illegal refineries in remote areas.”

Opiah said the government was very worried and was making efforts to curb it.

He said: “Arrests are being made now and then. The security agencies are also partnering government and oil companies to tackle the menace.

“Many of these illegal refineries are destroyed daily and the more they shift base elsewhere.

“I have talked to our people to watch what our children do. The illegal refineries are a very dangerous venture.

“The refining method is crude, so there is no clear knowledge of the manipulation. Many a times, there are explosions in the bush, leading to loss of the lives of our young boys.

“So, such incidents are major losses to the society, to families, the nation’s economy and Imo State. We as government are concerned and we will do everything to stop them, though they are being run by strong, wealthy cartels who are well equipped and connected, sometimes with sophisticated weapons, using our people to partner with them.”

 

Locals lament years of neglect by multinational oil companies, governments

Unlike oil bearing communities in other climes where locals enjoy full benefits, the inhabitants of oil communities in Imo State live in squalor and deprivation. The communities would pass off as the goose that lays the golden egg but is never catered for.

From road network to education, healthcare and other spheres of life, the communities are neglected while multinational oil companies and state and federal governments smile to the banks daily with funds from resources exploited in the embattled communities.

Mazi, a native of Awara, said: “Shell has been operating here for decades but I have not seen anything tangible they have done.

“We have Community Secondary School, Awara abandoned because of the crisis that rocked the school years back, and government has not deemed it fit to do something about it.”

He added: “We travel from here to Owerri to get medical attention. Driving from here to Owerri takes about two hours because of the condition of the road. The transport fare is about N750.

“Women who are in labour go through a herculean task to get to the hospital from here.  The child may die in the process. Indeed, we have lost many pregnant women to this challenge.

“When hoodlums break oil pipelines, crude oil will spill to our farmland. When this happens, the crops will no longer grow. And going to the farms is always a problem because crude oil floods everywhere.”

Another member of the community, Azubuike, decried the state of Egbema/Ohaji oil producing communities. He said: “I am not less than 50 years old, and since I was born here, there is nothing tangible I can point to that has been done by the oil companies.   “The road to the community is bad. You cannot drive from Owerri to my community.

“There has been no electricity since that place was created. You cannot boast of a good hospital or water.

“The conditions in the community are nothing to write home about.”

Many parts of the communities rely on hand pump water provided by international non- governmental organisations for their daily needs.  Before then, they had relied on stream water. “We use mono pump. You have to use energy to jerk it before water will come out.

“UNICEF provided some for us while DFFRI also provided some.

“About four or five years ago, Imo State Oil Producing Development Commission (ISOPADEC) provided some too,” Azubuike said.

He added: “It is by communal efforts that the children are going to school. Most of the schools here are dilapidated.

“The secondary school is nothing to write home about. We have heard of places where oil companies make available science teachers that  teach  pupils  but our own case is not like that.

“The schools are not good. In a whole primary school, there may be only two teachers teaching 300 to 500 pupils.

“My elder sister is a head teacher in one of the schools.  Sometimes, she, as the headmistress, together with two or three other teachers, will teach a school that has 200 to 300 pupils.

“Academic activities in the secondary school are skeletal. It is a school that can produce great people for the country, but it is in a horrible state.

And: Police arrest 3 alleged pipeline vandals in Imo

“It is just like an extramural centre.”

Azubuike added that many pupils in the community now go as far as Owerri for secondary school education.

He said: “The impact of cultism in neigbouring states like Rivers also affects our community.

“The only place you would find a handful of pupils is the primary school.

“We still have pupils in the primary sections because not everybody can take his child outside the community to school.”

He expressed regrets that an oil bearing community where multinational oil companies like Shell, Watersmith, Seplat and many others operate, cannot boast a standard hospital.

“All we have are clinics owned by some individuals. You can imagine the kind of equipment that would be in such places.

“The health centre, which was built before I was born, is in a sorry state. People travel to Owerri before they can get good medical attention.

“If you are not a well-to-do person, before you arrange for a vehicle and wriggle through the bad road for a pregnant woman to go and deliver in the town, it would be another story entirely.”

For Joe, a native of one of the oil producing communities, the conditions of the oil communities are deplorable.  “What is pissing everybody off is that the communities don’t have power supply. There are installations but power supply is hardly available.

“Insecurity is the order of the day in many of the oil bearing communities. The communities have good land for farming but some of the lands are already polluted.

“The government is not doing enough. If you cannot give somebody basic education, you have failed as a government.

“Let them start by giving them quality education. The people are ready to go to school. It is just that the condition is not conducive.

“If you go to school now and rain beats you, why would you want to go to school again when you know that if you go across the river now and engage in bunkering, you will make money?“

State government decries environmental degradation by oil companies

The state government is displeased with the level of environmental degradation caused by multinational oil companies.

Opiah said in a recent interview: “Oil exploration and exploitation has brought so much hardship to the host communities. The oil companies have not shown any sense of responsiveness by putting back to the communities some of what they get from there.

“Before the advent of oil as the mainstay of Nigerian economy, most people in the oil communities were farmers, fishermen and hunters.

“Those formed their bases of livelihood, and a lot of them were rich from their farm produce.

“But crude oil production has affected all those sources of livelihood in many ways. The soil fertility is completely eroded and can no longer produce the quality and quantity of foodstuffs like yam, cassava, corn, etc.

“Environmental degradation has also affected our rivers, ponds, and other forms for water where fishermen go to fish.

“Today, a lot of species of fish are no longer in our water.

“You would hardly find any fish for our fishermen to harvest, sell and make an income.

“It is very disturbing that in spite of all these challenges, oil companies are not even giving our people employment.

“No reasonable form of empowerment at least to compensate those losses in their environment, coupled with the hazards associates with pollution and health issues.

“We sometimes think that oil has brought more curse to us than blessing, because if you look around in the oil producing communities, you would hardly see any form of development or any reason to be happy that God endowed us with abundant natural resources like oil and minerals.”

Past administrations in the state, according to him, did nothing to engage the oil companies to develop the oil communities.

Our battles with oil spillage

But he said he was happy that “the administration of Senator Hope Uzodimma has started to address the issue.

“He is quite an experienced person in the oil and gas sector, and he has brought his experience to bear in the governance of Imo State and is engaging the oil companies to wake up to their responsibilities.

“There is a particular oil company that operated in Agwa in 2007/2008 without any visible thing to show that the people are hosting an oil company.

“There was no memorandum of understanding (MoU) to guarantee some benefits to the host communities.

“Today, they have been compelled to develop an MoU with their host communities in Agwa.

“There are three major communities: Mgballa, Umukpo and Umuofeke.

“One of the major things we want the oil company to do for the people is to give them electricity.

“It will be on record that under Senator Hope Uzodinma, the jinx is broken; that government compelled the oil company to do what they were not used to doing for the communities.

“So the narratives have begun to change.”

 

Oil companies’ dirty politics worsening our  problems –Ohanaeze

President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo in the state, Mazi Agbelu Azunna, blamed the plight of the people on dirty politics played by multinational oil companies.

“The people are not seeing the impact of the oil companies in their lives.

“When the oil companies come in, they try to get some controversial individuals and use them to create crisis in the community, and while the people are fighting, they will be busy extracting their oil.

“When we talk about awarding scholarship, the people don’t get it.

“The oil companies are doing more harm in the area of environmental degradation. They have taken the people away from their farmlands.

“So many of them are fishermen, but because of oil spillage, they have turned into beggars on the street of Owerri and the state in general.

“If you go to Owerri now and you see two or three elderly beggars, you know they are from the oil producing communities, because of the damage done to their environment.”

He alleged that oil contracts in the state are given to people from the north and “when they run into the cult members who are terrorising the communities, they give them peanuts to keep causing problems. That is the problem we have in this area.

“The people are already becoming impatient with what is happening, but it is people like us who have been telling them to be calm.”

His position was corroborated by Joe, a member of one of the oil producing communities, who said: “The oil companies are the ones causing the problems.

“Most of the time, they sign a memorandum of understanding  but will not meet up.

“Instead of doing the right thing, they set people up against themselves. The oil politics is very bad.

“The oil companies sponsor crisis so that people will leave their communities and go to another. “

On the 3 per cent oil funds for oil producing communities contained in the newly signed PIA, Azunna said: “There should be a law that such money should go to the town unions in the various communities.

“There should be a law that the people should present what they want to use the money for, so that when the money comes, the government can hold them accountable.

“There are some of our people here who are willing to go to school but have nobody to train them. Such money can be used to train them. This would bring about development in the communities.

“The schools in the communities are functioning below the capacity of what schools should be. In other climes, people in oil bearing communities are well taken care of.

“Here the people are not asking for too much.  The government should be able to give them the little they are asking for.”

 

Natives doubt projects promised by government

The Imo State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (ISOPADEC) recently said it had flagged off the construction of 38 projects in Oguta, Ohaji/Egbema and Oru East local government areas in Imo.

The Managing Director of ISOPADEC, Mr. Charles Orie, said that the projects were targeted to quickly end the sufferings of the people living in the oil producing areas, especially the educational and health challenges they are currently facing.

ISOPADEC’s MD said, among other things, that the 38 projects included the “rehabilitation and construction of Oguta General Hospital, 20-bed general hospital respectively. Another 20-bed general hospital in Umuokanne Ohaji-Egbema local government.

“We are building hospitals, maternity, we are doing rehabilitation of some health centres.

“We are also building 24 brand new primary schools. We have road projects, electricity project and so many other projects.

The announcement was not well received by the people as they said they had heard similar promises in the past without anything to show for them.

“Are you listening to the government? Haven’t you heard the government say that security is intact and everybody should go about their normal business before?  Is it holding water?

“Forget about all those ones. It is only when they actually execute the project that you can rejoice, “the Ohanaeze leader said.

The state government had gone to town recently with story of how it recovered 43 oil wells from Rivers State.  Twenty-two oil wells, according to the government, were recovered from Mgbede Field in Egbema, Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area and 21 oil wells from the Akri Field in Oguta Local Government Area in Imo State.

The government, speaking through the Senior Special Adviser on Public Enlightenment, Stamford Nwokedi, described the recovered oils wells as a boost to the revenue generation of the state.

He said with this development, Imo has taken a stronger position in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

“We were before now a fringe member of the Niger Delta Development Commission. Imo State is now an assertive 4th in the rung; an authoritative member of the NDDC, and every other month from now to perpetuity, much more revenue comes into Imo coffers,” he said.

The natives said they are waiting with bated breath to see how the recovered oil well will impact their lives.

Shell, simply acknowledged our emailseeking their reaction to the locals’ allegations. “We acknowledge receipt of your email,” the company replied.

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