In this interview, an environmentalist, Morris Alagoa speaks on the kpofire business in Rivers and Bayelsa states and warns that the federal government must find ways of engaging the Niger Delta youths to prevent them from continuous engagement in the kpofire business.
He also speaks on the role played by a former governorship aspirant in Bayelsa state, David Lyon, in checking the excesses of the operators. The interview was processed by EDITH CHUKU.
What do you make of the kpofire refinery business phenomenon in the Niger Delta. How did we get to this point?
First of all, in attempt to answer your question, let me say, necessity they say is the mother of invention. You recall that we have been experiencing perennial scarcity in petroleum products for several years now and we are talking about fuel subsidy removal and all of that. The price of fuel has also been going up and so, through experiment, some of our people, the youths and some unemployed persons discovered this refining method, just like the distilling of local gin from palm wine and it became so wide spread in the Niger Delta.
People are looking for jobs on how to make ends meet. That is how it came about and it has spread from Ondo State, maybe to Akwa Ibom. But we know that it is very, very much in our environment. At a certain time we never knew it would even cease in parts of Bayelsa State, especially in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area where some fingers point to a particular community where they see as the origin of this experiment that has become a reality and everybody is doing it now.
I say everybody because of the wide spread, it’s not as if every citizen is involved and to some extent, it has bridged the supply gap, made the product cheaper despite the environmental challenges associated thereto.
How can Bayelsa government fight and win the war against kpofire?
This is not supposed to be a Bayelsa Government issue, it is supposed to be a federal government issue. The federal government has arrogated to itself everything oil and gas and that’s why it’s in the exclusive list; that is why it has militarized the Niger Delta, that is why it has created the civil defence. And so, it is a federal government matter. Let the federal government think through how to deal with this issue in collaboration with the state government. If the state government is coming in, it’s to provide logistics in terms of information and things like that but the federal government should spend money, time and other resources in terms of security to deal with this issue of “Kpofire”, especially as it relates to the health issues connecting to the soot. Besides, they should think of how to create jobs for our people, it’s not only law and order that should be the issue; we should also have issues relating to equal rights and justice, our people need job, our people need to be part and parcel of this oil business, and so, our people should be encouraged in a formal, legal and standard way of dealing with this issue.
What specific effects have you experienced in our environment?
Well, in terms of specific effects, like I mentioned, there are certain positive aspects of it, not only negative, even though they are stealing the product. Yes, I said stealing the product because even if it is found within our soil, our environment, I still say we are stealing it because it is unlike the gold miners in northern Nigeria where they go on their own with maybe just shovel, very simple tools of their trade to go and start digging and then getting the gold out of the ground. Here, some persons, corporate bodies have spent money to explore for crude oil and they discovered and also drilled, exploit, they spend money to do this. Then our people will go and then tap from these same people. That is where I said it is stealing. But if it were to be things like borehole where we drill our own individual boreholes, we have the wherewithal, the resources to dig our own boreholes or people like digging wells in most communities where we do not have pipe-borne water, especially in the coast line, the salt water areas of Brass Local Government and parts of Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, people have to depend on wells, if you go to Koluoma community, you go to Sangana, you go to Brass, most of those places, even Ezetu, Engeni, they depend on well for their water needs. So, if it were things like that, we dig and then we get to the petroleum, the crude oil, and we are using it to do what we are doing, I would say yes, it is ours and we are taking it, and we are not stealing it, we do not trespass to any person’s property. So, in that aspect I say we are stealing it, but however, it also help in creating employment, removing a lot of people from the unemployment market and reducing crime.
Reducing crime in the sense that when this was very rampant in the creeks of Southern Ijaw and other parts of Bayelsa State, we never experienced sea piracy and kidnapping the way it is this days, and in fact, before the clamp down, some of them, some of the camps, the refining camps that we visited, some of the boys told us, like they had premonition, that the government was to come after them, and they made bold to say if they are stopped they will attack the pipes, the oil facilities, incidentally it appears they were not able to carry out that threat but some of them have gone into sea piracy and kidnapping.
I remember few days ago, watching a video clip where the oil and gas task force in Southern Ijaw attacked a camp in Azuzuma environment, and I heard some boys, some of the victims complaining bitterly how hundreds of drums of diesel, their efforts have been wasted. They’ve bust all the drums, destroyed them and littered the crude oil and diesel that have been refined and all of that. They were very bitter and one of them in particular made a statement that ‘you see, when people are trying to stay away from crimes like sea piracy and trying to help themselves in Kpofire, you see how they are coming to destroy our equipment and what we have suffered to refine.’ This statement, I didn’t take it lightly, because he relates it to sea piracy, that, he has shown that instead of sea piracy this is better, and so, there is a relationship between getting these boys engaged and then not engaging them at all.
Now, for this thing they are doing, we expect that the federal government that has placed anything about crude oil and gas in the exclusive list, we expect that by now they should have sat down and thought out holistically how to engage our youths in modular refinery or cellular refinery as the case may be, because when the vice president toured the Niger Delta in 2017, precisely between January and the end of February, he did make statements and I still have the video clips and I have his speech of which on paragraph 12 and 13 of his speech when he visited Bayelsa State, he made it categorically clear that the federal government was going to ensure that illegal refinery operators, which is Kpofire, would be incorporated in a scheme that will be floated, that is talking about modular refineries, that these oil producing communities would be hubs, hubs of refining product. He made that very eloquently clear for his audience at a town hall meeting here in the Government House banquett hall, and not only here, he also made that statement in places like Abia State, Delta, Rivers State, other places that he visited, I still have the video. And so, it’s unfortunate that both the Niger Delta governors failed to follow up to ensure that in practical terms, the federal government work the talk, and sadly the federal government also has not done anything in that regard. We are not talking about the type of modular refinery Azikel is doing, or the type of refinery they say Dangote is embarking upon. We are talking about engaging these operators of the illegal refineries or Kpofire in the creeks, wherever, after proper feasibility studies or environmental impact assessment.
We believe that before such will come on stream, there would be standards, policies guiding them, guiding the operations and that the crude oil will then be bought and not be stolen, and it will be sold to them at local price and not OPEC recommended international prices.
It is from there that they will make their gain, instead of stealing as it is currently on and then the environment would have been safer, there would have been less crime, there would have been more people taken away from the unemployment market, the multiplier effect also includes the fact that the product will be made available to all nooks and crannies of our environment, the state and it will reduce crime, it will bring about relative peace in our environment and people will sleep with both eyes closed. These are some of the reasons why some of us, both as organization and as individuals, have been supporting or advocating for the licensing of kpofire or local refineries before we scale up to modular refinery advocacy and so that is how it is.
Some of the negative effects are that due to this kpofire, some crops, local crops like a special cocoyam called mama coco disappeared from our environment, a very nice, easy to cook, easy to prepare cocoyam during the height of the kpofire, it disappeared and when it stops somehow in Bayelsa State, it was about coming back but right now, because it is starting again, it is disappearing, it is disappearing again, so these are some of the negative impact and the environment is more polluted in addition to the gas flay that we have been advocating against for years.
In Bayelsa State, some people have argued that there is no kpofire business. How true?
Yes, there was a time between maybe 2013 and 2016, or there about, the kpofire activities in Bayelsa State were brought to almost zero. I say almost zero because I don’t know if one or two were still operating, how? We saw columns of thick smoke raising everywhere in the creeks, when it was in its peak, and this was very visible to visitors during the visit to Koluoama and environment during the 2012, January 16, Chevron gas explosion incident which attracted journalists and other stakeholders, NGOs to Koluoama; Koluoama 1, Koluoama 2, Fish Town and other communities along the Atlantic coast.
Now, between Yenagoa and these communities around the fringes of the Atlantic Ocean as you sail, you will be seeing columns of thick smoke going up, indicating local refinery sites, especially in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, but soon after that period, the government through security agencies and a contractual agreement between the oil and gas task force and Nigeria Agip Oil Company. When you talk about oil and gas task force, I think David Lyon is deeply involved in that organization, it’s like his own company that had that contractual obligation with Agip. They swung into action and brought down almost all local refinery sites in Bayelsa State and in doing that, they also act somehow responsibly, not only to stop the kpofire, but they engaged quite a lot of community people.
Some communities they have about over 70 persons that they were paying every month for not doing the Kpofire. In some other communities, lesser numbers, and maybe in some communities even more. Every month, they pay them certain amount to dissuade them from going to get involved in these activities and also to help monitor the environment and report back to the oil and gas task force to ensure prompt stoppage of any person or group that via into the kpofire business again and so there was some kind of respite and in 2017 when the vice president visited and made this laudable pronouncement of ensuring that oil producing communities become hubs of production of refined products and things like that, it raised the hope of a lot of people and people were beginning to think of how they would form groups, they were even gathering names, in fact some people were even calling me as if I was also involved in gathering these names or coming up with lists.
But I disassociated myself with it because I’m not a businessman, I only direct them to some persons I knew who were involved in gathering the names and so, that hope eventually was dashed.
It was dashed, and it’s so unfortunate that the federal government didn’t carry out or didn’t match words with actions as promised by the Vice President. In fact, he made that promise when he was the acting president, not even as a vice president. It’s so unfortunate that it happened, that it didn’t get fulfilled.
However, as we speak, it is being reported that Kpofire is coming up in some communities again in the Creeks, in some local government areas, especially Southern Ijaw and Brass Local Government areas, that some persons have gone back to it. And this, you may not blame them entirely, you blame the politicians because in places like America, when a president is campaigning, he talks about job chances, job creation, and when they get into power, within months or a year, you will hear them coming up with statistics of jobs that have been created.
But here, instead of creating jobs or creating the enabling environment for small businesses to thrive, you will see in the name of internally generated revenue, they harass people who open up small businesses even by the roadside, so called task forces, disturbing people in the state capital here and there, discouraging people from businesses instead of to encourage people to go into business. And so, job creation is an issue of which government both at the state and federal level has culpability, they are culpable despite the fact that we have to condemn the negative environmental practices, the negative impact that comes from Kpofire.
Yes, there is a place, they call Okaki and a neighbouring community. Okaki is in Rivers State and a neighbouring community in Bayelsa State, where these activities have been going on and it is reported that its not only our people doing it, we have security agencies doing some of these things with them. Unfortunately, we have spoken both on radio and in published reports, where the Kolo creek have continued to be polluted from the activities of these Kpofire operators around that Okaki, Elebele area and this is happening upland, not even in the creeks, it’s happening upland where we have the police headquarters in Bayelsa State here in Yenagoa. We have the DSS headquarters here in Yenagoa, we have the civil defence headquarters here in Yenagoa; we have the JTF, all of them, security people here, upland, and these very sites were thriving. Once in a while, we hear how the military will storm the area and burn down some of the camps, but it will continue soon after that. You see, so, the culpability should be extended to the security agencies, if it was not happening in the creeks, how come it was happening upland here in this Rivers-Bayelsa boundary area which was upland and could be easily accessed.
I have on my own been interviewed several times on this issue, the environmental rights action has also written reports on these issues, especially in the polluting aspect of the Kolo creek.
The Kolo creek is totally condemned sometimes because of the activities of these Kpofire operators in that environment. So, the security agencies are culpable, not only the people operating those camps. Also, there have been deaths, deaths have been recorded, 2016/2017 or thereabout, where over 20 persons lost their lives in one of those camps, in one of those incidence, fire incidence. So it’s also a dangerous heavy risk business yet because of money, people are engaged in it and not only there, we have also had situations whereby some of our people from Bayelsa here go to Rivers State, from Rivers communities to engage in the activities with other people, and we hear some of them die, even unknown persons that have died, that have lost their lives doing kpofire business. So it is not a simple job, the environment in which they operate is also very harsh and then the air they breathe in is also not healthy. Yet, they do it because of money.