Bunkering: Stealing And Smuggling Oil In Nigeria

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Pablo Edronkin

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Imagine yourself getting close to a pipeline in the middle of the wilderness, tapping it, soldering your own valve, opening it and sapping barrel after barrel of oil, then refining it in your own, clandestine refinery and selling it to whomever may buy your products; that's bunkering, and it happens in Nigeria.

I remember seeing my first images of a military coup d'etat in Nigeria many years ago: While some soldiers had discoloured uniforms, they all seemed to be equipped in a standard way and had somewhat modern - albeit basic - weaponry. They certainly looked a little bit more disciplined than other African armies. At the same time I got acquainted with the sea trials of a ship named "Aradu", a Nigerian frigate built by the German shipyard Blohm & Voss that at the same time was building and also licensing the construction of a large number of similar ships to Argentina. These were the MEKO series of destroyers, frigates and corvettes, pretty nifty warships with a practical modular design, and the Nigerians seemed able to tap into such venues, both technologically and financially.

However, despite the apparent prosperity provided by oil revenues things were different in the African nation. Some friends of mine who were in the Swiss diplomatic service, stationed in Buenos Aires, had to move to Nigeria for a couple of years. Soon enough they were missing the South American city and almost any city anywhere else. They were horrified by the corruption and poverty, and worried about fuel smuggling, something that they described in detail but seemed very strange to me all those years ago. Then, year after year more news about the practice began emerging, as serious accidents involving the deaths of lots of people appeared in the news. The African country has some serious divisions among Christians and Muslims, different tribes and political factions. There are government officials and guerrilla fighters that want to grasp power, and for that they all need money.

Since Nigeria produces fair amounts of oil, all sorts of people attempt to get into that business. The activities of multinational companies are being questioned by several sides while all sorts of pirates and people that simply look for a way out of poverty literally tap into the pipelines to steal. Their methods and tools are very crude and involve drilling holes and soldering their own valves and tubes. Whenever you hear in the new that a number of people have died in a fire near or around a pipeline, rest assured that they were either fuel smugglers or unfortunate Nigerians that were too close to some of those entrepreneurs. In many cases it is not even possible to identify the victims; authorities take note of the disaster and establish approximate numbers regarding losses and casualties based on what is superficially and evidently available. Few people are keen on investigating, anyway.

The magnitude of fuel that has been sucked out of legal pipelines is very significant and it has provided good funding and financing for those involved that found a way to survive. Particularly in the south of the country, all sorts of military units, guerrillas, mobs and common people go around in good cars and live nicely while around them abject poverty thrives. Even government officials are at it because extracting the oil, refining it in clandestine installations - there are hundreds of illegal jungle refineries out there - and selling more cheaply than the legal combustibles always finds customers. This is know as Bunkering, and while it promises heaven on earth to those brave or silly enough to try it, it has done nothing good for Nigeria, so far: the country is still underdeveloped and thousands of innocents have died intoxicated or burned thanks to these clandestine operations.

Legally extracting fuel from an airplane to clean the tank and fuel lines; doing the same illegally is not more difficult, and that is what happens in Nigeria.
Legally extracting fuel from an airplane to clean the tank and fuel lines; doing the same illegally is not more difficult, and that is what happens in Nigeria.

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