The recent fire explosion at an illegal oil refinery in Abaezi forest of Imo State has further exposed the inherent dangers associated with illegal refineries in the country. Not less than 150 persons were confirmed dead by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in the incident that razed an illegal refining site at Abaezi forest in Abacheke community, Ohaji-Egbema local government area of Imo State, some weeks ago.

According to reports, about 200 people sustained serious injuries in the incident as several vehicles were razed. Following the instruction of the Imo State government, victims of the incident were given mass burial, which was supervised by the officials of the local government, NEMA and security agents.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who described the incident as a national disaster, also pledged to crack down on operators of illegal refineries.

On its part, the Imo State government has promised to arrest and prosecute those involved in the economic sabotage. Moreover, the state commissioner of petroleum resources, Goodluck Opia, disclosed that the government has activated a mechanism to end illegal refining sites in oil-bearing communities in the state, as well as oil theft.

The Abaezi incident was the second deadly illegal refining explosion in the past six months in the country. In October last year, about 25 persons were confirmed dead in another illegal refining site in Rivers State.
There are many of such illicit crude oil refineries in all oil-bearing communities, especially in the Niger Delta region.

Apart from tacitly encouraging oil theft, the Abaezi incident has further highlighted the dangers posed by illegal refineries to humans and the environment. For decades, illegal oil refineries have led to the pollution of farmlands and waters thereby affecting fish farming and other means of livelihood of the inhabitants. A recent government statistics estimated that Nigeria lost $3.2billion of crude oil due to theft between January 2021 and February 2022. 

Data from the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) revealed that Nigeria lost 272 million of crude oil from 2016 to 2020. According to oil and gas operators, crude oil theft is killing businesses in the oil industry. Oil theft has adversely affected funding of other critical sectors such as education, healthcare, housing and road infrastructure.

The Abaezi incident should serve as a wake-up call on the federal government to address the issues responsible for oil theft. There are estimated 150 illegal oil refining sites in Ohaji/Egbema and Oguta local government areas of Imo state. The number is likely to be much higher in Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta states. Without doubt, oil bunkering is a lucrative business which involves some highly placed individuals.

Those in the business can readily testify to this fact. This is the time the government should clamp down on all illegal oil refineries dotted across the country and bring their operators to book. Failure to do this will lead to more explosions in those refining sites. We acknowledge the fact that unemployment and poverty are two major factors that contribute to the recurring oil theft and illegal refining. The nation’s youth unemployment is put at 35% and there is little hope that the situation will improve soon.

The utter neglect of oil-bearing communities by oil companies has led to proliferation of illegal refineries by unscrupulous Nigerians. If oil companies invest so much in their host communities as obtainable in Britain and the United States (US), it will largely curb the penchant to establish illegal refineries. The inability of security agents to constantly check oil thieves might be responsible for the Abaezi fire disaster.
Henceforth, the government should be more proactive in checking oil thieves. Securing the oil pipelines should be done with the cooperation of members of the oil-bearing communities. Any policing of the pipelines without their input or buy-in cannot be effective.

We believe that a coordinated policing of the oil pipelines will greatly curb the incidents of oil theft and fires arising from illegal refineries. Perhaps the need for the establishment of modular refineries has become more urgent now than ever before. However, the government should address insecurity, unemployment, poverty and the nation’s worsening misery index. These may have escalated oil theft in the country in recent times. We enjoin those involved in oil bunkering to desist from it forthwith.

The Sun

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