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NAF’s bombing of Niger Delta ‘oil thieves’



NAF's bombing of Niger Delta 'oil thieves'
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The involvement of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) in combat operations has steadily shifted to the home front just as the Army is now embroiled in wars of attrition on various fronts in Nigeria. It is an unusual phenomenon where fighter jets embark on regular bombing raids on targets on the local scene. Except in Hollywood moves, what we know of the Air Force elsewhere is the deployment of fighter jets for external special operations except in the rare cases of shooting war between countries.

First, it was in the fight against Islamic terrorism in the North East where Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and other offshoots of the terror groups held sway and unleashed a reign of killings, rape and destruction on the territories they hold.

The deployment of NAF fighter jets made a lot of sense. It was a battle against terror in its vilest form. The groups held territories, attacked the army, took mass hostages and imposed tax on the inhabitants of the territories they held.

But how does the use of fighter jets fit into the renewed campaign against operators of illegal refineries in the Niger Delta? Every now and then, the NAF regales the nation with tales of having destroyed illegal refineries.

On July 22, 2023, NAF tweeted of having carried air strikes on an illegal oil refining site situated at Dariama Village in Rivers State “against crude oil thieves and their illegal refineries”. The airstrike, they claimed, was intelligence-driven. In effect, they have precise information on the extent of operations going on at the Dariama village site. Similar strikes were also carried out on August 29 last year to destroy three illegal refining sites and local boats used in the transportation of the stolen products by oil thieves in two different local government areas of Rivers State. But there were reports of collateral damage. A resident of Akuku-Toru LGA was reported to have feared that some persons must have lost their lives in the operation.

Oil bunkering, a euphemism for crude oil theft, has become a booming industry that has become a major threat to the national economy. According to statements credited to, Mr. Mele Kyari in September 2022, the Group Managing Director of NNPCL, expressed concern about the menace of oil theft undermining Nigeria’s production and consequently fiscal capacity. He said Nigeria looses an average of 437,000 barrels of oil a day to criminal entities and individuals who illicitly tap pipelines onshore and offshore in the Niger Delta region.

At current prices, the stolen oil is worth more than $10 billion. This financial loss is more than 50 per cent of Nigeria’s external reserves. It is also more than double Nigeria’s total revenue between January and April 2022, a period when Nigeria’s total revenue was unable to service its debt and the country had to borrow for everything else including payment of workers.

From Kyari’s analysis, “various sections of the Nigerian society are complicit in the theft of millions of barrels of crude oil, through make-shift pipelines”. Most of the stolen crude is done through illegal pipelines and shipped out of the country.

It calls to question the imperative and effectiveness of the air strikes by the NAF on the illegal oil refining platforms. Each report from the strikes comes with fanfare conveying the impression that the fight against oil thieves is finally being won.

In truth, nothing has changed. The fraction of the theft perpetrated by operators of the platforms cannot have the level of impact acknowledged by Kyari. The theft comes from numerous illegal pipelines operated by the high and mighty openly for wholesale stealing and export. Kyari knows it and has said so.
Receiving a delegation from Operation Delta Safe, the joint task force (JTF) in the Niger Delta, that visited him at Government House in Port Harcourt, on May 19, 2019, Nyesom Wike as governor of Rivers State lamented the brazen manner the top military brass has built cartels for stealing crude oil. He pointedly accused the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Army in the area of having “his own team now doing oil bunkering for him because he wants to be chief of army staff.” Warning about the dire consequences for the economy, Wike was unequivocal, saying that “if you give that kind of person chief of army staff, what kind of security would we have in this country? He cannot be removed here because they know the role he is playing for them: sabotaging our security architecture.”

On the human side, there has been no report from NAF of the study of the aftermath of the air strikes. Do the young men who operate the refining platforms deserve to be killed unilaterally with the doubtful success of the strikes in curbing oil theft?


As an acting President when his principal, President Muhammadu Buhari went on medical tourism abroad, Yemi Osinbajo had visited the Niger Delta and proposed the implementation of what he saw as a policy that will effectively check the lure of the youth getting involved in illegal oil refining. Osinbajo said the federal government was examining the prospects of establishing modular refineries to engage youths involved in illegal oil refining in the Niger Delta. At a stakeholders meeting in February 2017, the then Acting President said adopting such an initiative will complement the Amnesty Programme and create a sustainable path to denying oil thieves the conveyor belt of young men used as pawns in the illicit business.

Although stakeholders eagerly bought into the proposal, nothing was heard of it again as soon as Buhari returned and Osinbajo reverted to his statutory position as vice president.

The hype on the strikes on oil refining platforms by NAF is a make believe tale that the battle against crude oil is going well. Far from it. The makeshift platforms were never the main challenge in oil theft. Osinbajo’s proposal had the potential of improving the availability of refined products, creating jobs and taking the boys off the creeks while the real fight against oil thieves is focused on. It is time to revisit the Osinbajo recipe.

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