Chairman of the Emuoha Local Government Area of Rivers State and former majority leader of the state House of Assembly, Chidi Lloyd, talks to DENNIS NAKU about on the March 3, 2023 explosion in Rumuekpe community which left at least 15 residents killed and several others injured, and efforts by the council and the state government to address pipeline vandalism

How did you receive news of the explosion at the Rumuekpe community on March 3, 2023, and how exactly did it happen?

It was around 5.30am when I got the information from the internal security outfit, EMOVIS, which the local government set up, that there had been a very serious explosion that claimed lives. Around 9am, I arrived at the scene of the explosion and to my chagrin, I noticed that many lives had been lost. About six vehicles were burnt. There were corpses of human beings who had been burnt beyond recognition. So, naturally, as a human being, one will receive that kind of information with a lot of trepidation. So, I felt very sad, especially as we have done everything to dissuade our people from engaging in this type of trade – going to scoop (crude) oil to refine. I have always told them about the danger of illegally refining of crude (oil). They do not have the know-how to do these things. So, that is exactly where we are on that issue.

The police and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps said 12 people lost their lives in that explosion. Is that figure correct?

Yes, around that number (of people died). About three others later died in the hospital. So, that brings the total number of casualties there to 15.

How many people were injured?

For the injured, well, there were scores of others who had burns here and there. I just told you that three people later died in the hospital.

Were all the victims youths, children, or the elderly?

Yes, we heard of children and women. In fact, there was a particular woman, I heard, who was called from home to come and bag (crude oil). People said she was an expert in bagging crude (oil). She was burnt to ashes there. The woman died in that very painful manner. It is so sad.

 similar incident happened on October 22, 2021, when no fewer than 20 persons lost their lives in another community. Why is it a recurring problem?

Yes, you know that when the Rivers State governor gave the order for us to fight this menace of illegal bunkering, Emuoha was one of the local government areas that confronted the cabal headlong and we were able to recover our environment. People were no longer breathing black soot and so on. But these boys (vandals) have become more energised and more invigorated in the act of illegal refining. But as I have said, I have always accused the security agencies, the army, the police, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and the international oil companies of culpability in this unwholesome act because if the boys scoop fuel but don’t transport it, the business will stop. It is because they take it, I am told, as far as Imo State. So, how do they pass? And on the road, you will see the monitoring of this and that. So, how do they (vandals) transport the product with all the security agents on the road?

After the explosion, some villagers protested the lack of jobs and employment in the area. Do you think poverty may have compelled some residents to scoop the product?

No, not at all. We have always told people not to dig a hole to cover another hole. If everybody who does not have a job goes into the business of illegal bunkering, they will not even have space. So, you can’t blame poverty for that kind of criminality. What we have told them, for those who want to have gainful employment, to come and partner with the council. We have a human capacity development unit in the council. Give them your particulars and we will look for how to engage you, not for you to go and break critical infrastructure and say it is poverty. It is because of the money they make. The luck in that business (pipeline vandalism) is the driving force. They make quick money. That is the problem they have.

Oil pipelines are supposed to be protected. Was the pipeline destroyed by suspected vandals in your domain not under any protection? Or do you suspect that those responsible for protecting the pipelines must have colluded with the vandals?

Yes, it was destroyed by vandals and not suspected vandals. It was destroyed by vandals who went there to scoop oil. And the pipeline was not protected. I hear they have given out jobs for the protection of pipelines. Maybe it doesn’t include the Rumuekpe trunk line. I saw a group of boys there with coveralls and I asked them what they were doing there. It was learnt that the boys that come here (to Rumuekpe), came with sophisticated rifles. I recall that when we fought this war here and the Minister (of State) for Petroleum (Resources) came here with the Group Managing Director of the NNPCL and the Chief of Army Staff, no courtesy call was paid to the governor of Rivers State to even give a pat on the back and say, ‘Okay, good. The state has started this’ and so on. Nobody spoke to the state governor. They just came and carried on. Now, when they finished, they all went back to Abuja. You can’t tackle this menace without the involvement of the locals. The locals will be involved. The local government must be involved. And the IOCs I have always asked, ‘When do they (vandals) know when this crude is passing?’ So, it is a cartel.

A time was in this local government when I reported a divisional police officer, who owned an illegal refinery. The state governor had accused the director of surveillance of the NSCDC. So they (security agents) come here and make money, pollute the environment, and go away.

Emuoha has been reported to be one of the hotbeds of illegal oil bunkering in the state and there have been several fire outbreaks. What is your thought on that?

Emuoha bears the geographical weight of the nation. It is because of the concentration of these oil and gas facilities. It is not as if it is any other thing. It is near to raw materials and we have people coming from Bayelsa and Delta states with the expertise to do this. That is why it is only my people that get burnt by fire. Those who enjoy the money from it are in various five-star hotels in Port Harcourt.

Governor Nyesom Wike in January 2022 ordered the 23 local government chairmen to destroy all illegal refineries. How many illegal refineries have you destroyed?

 Yes, the governor gave that order for us to locate and demolish the illegal refineries. I have destroyed severalin Ibaa, Elele-Alimini, Ubimini and Umudioga. Elele-Alimini was a colony. Rumuji, down to Ubimini were all involved. I got a call two days ago (Monday) that after the fire, they (the vandals) had started going back. So, you can see that the government should do more than pay lip service to this menace.

What is the financial value of the illegal refineries destroyed?

It is in the range of several millions of naira, because for you to be able to establish a refinery, you need more than N30m. This is because you have big pipelines and all that. So, it is not for the poor. Some even leave the international oil companies to come and look for where to do illegal oil bunkering.

How many people have so far been arrested?

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 I made several arrests and handed them (suspects) over to the agency (police) because we can’t prosecute. We arrest, we give to the police; the police will go and prosecute. That is where my job ends. But we are not particularly happy with the way the Federal Government treated us. The Federal Government didn’t even acknowledge the efforts of the Rivers State Government. We are doing what we are doing because the environment is ours. There is no environment known as the Federal Government.

In January 2022, the governor declared 19 people wanted for illegal bunkering, including one Azubike Adi, OSPAC Commander, Ogbogoro community, and Chairman of Akpor Central OSPAC; and Mr India of Rumuolumeni community and Chairman of the Oil Bunkering Association in Akpor kingdom. Have they been arrested and charged?

Well, this is the Emuoha Local Government (Area). I may not be able to speak for those areas.

Is it true that some illegal refinery operators in Rivers State are untouchable?

Well, I don’t know who has tried to touch them. It is when you try to touch. Nobody is looking for them. In my local government area, I reported three people, who were arrested. They are all walking the streets now free. They were arrested initially, and the Department of State Services came and did a road show. These are the things that give impetus to crime. When perpetrators of crime are not punished, it encourages others and you endanger the lives of those who report.

You accused security agents of engaging in this illegal business. How is this affecting the efforts of the state government to deal with the problem?

It has greatly affected the fight. When they came here, the Federal Government and its agencies took over the fight. So, we left it. We relaxed. Honestly, it is not the place of the local government to secure oil pipelines. People are paid to do that. We are doing it because of our environment. It became lucrative, people were lobbying to be posted to Rivers State and we said no, we need to take back our state. That is what we did. The Federal Government didn’t assist us in any way.

There are claims that some of the illegal refineries are owned by prominent politicians in the state. Is that true?

No, it is not true. You see, talk is cheap. Name them. Let us name and shame. There are people who have been arrested. Are they politicians? If they are politicians, of what political party? They should name them. The DSS has records. I have flooded the state director of the DSS with the names and phone numbers of the suspects.

How do Illegal refineries affect the state’s efforts to boost its internally generated revenue and provide public infrastructure?

Illegal oil refining is a menace that affects everything. Within that period when the Rivers State governor gave the directive to each of the local government chairmen, we noticed a quantum leap in federal allocations. Of course, when there is a quantum leap in federal allocation, naturally it dovetails. It affects every other thing.

How much does the state lose to illegal refineries?

No, it will be uncharitable to just sit here without statistics. But looking at it from the layman’s angle, we are losing money. Is it not bad enough that we are losing a kobo? It is bad enough that we are losing one kobo of what would have come into the coffers of the government for what would have been used to provide the dividends of good governance to the people. It is bad enough. So it must not be billions of dollars, no. It is bad enough. I told you that when that fight was at its peak, the revenue accrued to the Federal Government because it had to do with oil production. So when they (vandals) steal, it reduces what the Federal Government would have produced through the joint venture partners. So, it will naturally affect every other thing.

Some people argue that the existence of illegal refineries shows that Nigeria can refine its crude oil if the local knowledge can be harnessed and improved on. What is your opinion on that?

My opinion is simple. Technology has moved. Refineries these days are no longer what they used to be, where you have a large place. Technology has reduced it to what is called a modular refinery. Recall that in the early years of this administration, the Federal Government, through the Vice-President, who moved round the Niger Delta states, promised modular refineries. They are about three months to the end of their tenure but nobody is asking about Mr President’s modular refineries. So, that is the issue. You can harness the technology of these illegal oil refiners because they are now the mainstay of the economy. When we started fighting them, nobody was getting diesel. The price of diesel skyrocketed. Little did we know that these boys were the ones who fed the fillings stations.

Emuoha was in the news for violence, including the killing of a pregnant woman and a local vigilante, during the presidential and National Assembly elections. Why are elections violent in the state?

No, that incident wasn’t linked to the election. It was in Ubimini. Let me tell you what happened. It is clear, the Commissioner of Police for the election was there. He went to the scene. It was cult-related and had nothing to do with elections.

But from findings, it occurred near a polling unit. Didn’t it?

No, the proximity of the scene of the crime does not confer legitimacy on it. Two criminals were dragging a rifle and the local vigilante went there to disarm them. In the course of doing that, a stray bullet hit the pregnant woman. When they noticed that the pregnant woman had died, they continued. The thing (rifle) fired, because I am told that it was a pump-action gun with several bullets inside. Because they are not experts in handling weapons, the thing exploded again and killed one of them.

There were also reports of ballot box snatching and pockets of other violence during the election…

 (Cuts in) It was not peculiar to Emuoha. The election of February 25 has been judged the best so far in this local government area. The local government is under lock and key. I am in charge here.

As the one in charge, what measures are you putting in place to forestall violence during the governorship and House of Assembly elections?

They (elections) will be peaceful. Why will there not be peace? The governor discovered a community made up of human beings in Odido, close to my village. They have not come out to see other human beings. They used to tie rappers because they are less civilised there, but the governor brought infrastructure to them. Now, they have a road.