The burning by Nigeria’s military authorities of a crude oil-laden marine vessel arrested by Federal Government-hired Tantita Security Services Limited and handed over for due process of investigation and prosecution is an unilateral act; and to that extent illegal. By civilised standard of procedure, it is indefensible and intolerable.
Although Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Lucky Irabor defended the act as in accord with the rules of engagement, he did not point to the specific legal instrument that grants that ‘rule of engagement.’ But he should if his stance on this matter is to stand. On the other hand, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) who, among others, sternly condemned both the destruction of the vessel without due process and the CDS’s comment, has also copiously cited parts of the law that renders the act illegal and denies the CDS position.
According to the lawyer and civil rights activist, ‘Section 111 of the Armed Forces Act provides as follows: “A person subject to service law under this Act who willfully or maliciously sets fire – (a) to a public building, dwelling house, an office or any structure whatsoever, movable or immovable, whether completed or not, occupied or not; “Or (b) to any vessel, ship, aircraft, railway track or wagon, or vehicle or thing; or (c) to a mine or working, fitting or an appliance of a mine, is guilty of arson and liable, on conviction by a court-martial, to imprisonment for life.” On whose order and by what legal authority then did the ‘vessel burners’ carry out their act? This is one reason that those involved must be brought in for questioning.
Another reason that this unilateral act must be investigated and all facts brought to light is to clear the reputation of Nigeria’s military establishment of lingering suspicion of collusion in the suspected theft of oil contained in the now-destroyed vessel. Indeed, on the strength of the CDS’s quick response in the matter, Falana has raised this suspicion by expressing first, ‘a deliberate attempt to cover up the involvement of military personnel in the serious crime of oil theft’ and second, ‘the gravity of the offence that is being covered up by the military oligarchy.’
Furthermore, by this act of, in the words of Mr. Falana, ‘arson and allied offences,’ ‘the military “has chosen to destroy the evidence of the alleged crime,” said Centre for Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Crusade, a civil society organisation, in a statement issued by its chairman, Board of Trustees, Alaowei Cleric. He asked, rightly, ‘‘How can the security agents effectively carry out their investigation on the vessel to prosecute those found wanting when the very sensitive and overwhelming evidence has been destroyed?’’
If indeed the crew members of the suspected vessel are in detention, hopefully to have their day in court, it is difficult to see how a strong case can be made against them without the evidence of their alleged crime. Besides that this is trite in law, it is common sense. Lawyer and civil rights activist Eze Onyekpere reportedly said that the burning of the ship would make any investigation more difficult because ‘‘When you apprehend an offender, you’ll need evidence to be able to prove before a court of law that such a person committed the offense in question. The vessel on which the crude oil is being carried is one of those pieces of evidence that you’ll need to bring before a court of law.’’
The questions arise first, what purpose can the commonsense-defying act to set ablaze an oil-laden vessel serve except to further worsen the pollution of environment. Second, will such rash and ill-considered approach discourage the well organised theft of Nigerian oil by the well-connected perpetrators? That is most unlikely. It appears the burners have merely adopted an anarchic method (and for motives that are suspect) to address a huge and serious national problem.
The theft of Nigeria’s oil has gone on for a long time. Researchers Onuoha Freedom, Chukwudi, Ezirim Gerald Ekene and Enyiazu, Chukwuemeka of the Department of Political Science, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in a 2017 joint paper titled ‘‘Unbridled Pillage: The Political Economy of Oil Theft in Nigeria’’ quoted former President Goodluck Jonathan to lament, as reported in 2012 publication that ‘ The stealing of crude appears to be a Nigerian phenomenon. It is not happening elsewhere. This issue of crude oil stealing started gradually and people played with it. Now it is a serious cancer… We must stop it because there is no country where they are stealing crude oil the way they are stealing Nigerian crude.’ The academics further wrote that both the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) and Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), had cause in July 2013, to issue a 60-day ultimatum to the Federal Government to secure oil producing facilities and act decisively against oil theft. Indeed, many prominent people, including the then Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiohmole, and Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike, have at various times decried the unbridled theft of Nigeria’s oil.
Because of the strangely lackadaisical attitude of the Federal Government (that, according to the extant highly contested Constitution owns Nigeria’s oil, among other minerals) to the thriving theft of Nigeria’s oil, the criminality has, caused the country the loss of unquantifiable earnings. Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva is reported to say that this criminal act has reduced Nigeria’s output by 400,000 barrels a day; the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC) is reported to say that Nigeria lost more than 115,000 barrels per day (bpd) or 7.6 per cent of production to oil theft and vandalism between January 2021 and February 2022. This is calculated to be worth $3.27 billion.
Sylva was in Imo State, in his words, ‘‘engage the state government to get your buy-in and support’ to curb oil theft that he said had assumed the level of a national emergency. The host communities in the oil producing areas are also to be part of the effort. The point must be made that the President, as chief executive of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and commander-in-chief of its armed forces is also the minister of Petroleum Resources. This is to say that Mr. Muhammadu Buhari is the final authority on matters of securing and managing Nigeria’s oil resources to the maximum benefits of the people of Nigeria for Section 16 (1)(a) enjoins the State (which Buhari heads) to harness the resources of the nation and promote national prosperity…’’.
Buhari is also is the final authority ‘to determine the operational use of the armed forces of the federation’ according to Section 218 of the Constitution. How and why the president can be comfortable that under his watch, this heinous crime goes on is left for him to answer.
It is inconceivable that any ship would come into Nigeria’s territorial waters for whatever purpose, without the knowledge of the Nigerian government its security apparatus. If that is possible, then that government has lost its reason to be so called. But Nigeria has become the butt of jokes in the community of nations; a country where tankers can sail in and, as put in common parlance, ‘load, and load, and load’ oil and sail away.
The visit to Imo and other relevant states by the junior minister is not at all an impressive strategy particularly where there does not seem to be a decisive will at the highest level of government to tackle this clear and urgent national threat. But this problem and such residual issues as the intolerably illegal destruction of seized vessels by military fiat are only manifestations of the unjust and nigh-irredeemably flawed ‘federalism’ that is practised here. Pray, in a genuine and functional federation, will oil producing states and the host communities allow such massive theft of their resources? The only answer to this and most of the problems that afflict Nigeria is to restructure into a truly federal system as defined, known and practised in civilised climes.