For four straight days, beginning from 22 November 2021, Port Harcourt recorded four incidents of fire disaster. A fifth was recorded a day after the earlier four incidents. Two other fire outbreaks followed, making it seven in nine days! One wonders if Port Harcourt, rated the most polluted city in the world, ahead of Beijing and Delhi, is jostling to lead in the Guinness World Records in terms of fire outbreaks. Left in its trail is the destruction of valuable properties and four lives sent to their early graves. A worse fate, in terms of number of lives that would be lost and the environment, awaits the residents of Rivers State, and indeed the Niger Delta region, when the full weight of kpofire, a local lingo for adulterated products of illegal artisanal oil refineries unmistakably hits home. If the scientific findings are a guide, what lies ahead, in all likelihood, would be a disaster of monumental proportion.
Its name, kpofire, originated from the explosive sound that follows whenever adulterated petroleum products are in flames. In the heyday of militancy, kpofire production and illegal oil bunkering as well as hostage taking of oil workers for ransom were the constitutive elements of the economy of resistance. The crude oil that forms the raw material is stolen from the oil pipelines that crisscross the Niger Delta. At current estimate by the Minister of Environment, Nigeria loses 400,000 barrels of oil daily to oil theft and spends N60 billion on the maintenance of pipelines.
For Port Harcourt residents, the effects of artisanal oil refining remained a distant reality until 2016 when the black soot resulting from incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons hit home. Concerned residents of Port Harcourt, galvanized popular non-violent protests against the life-threatening pollution that has since become their lived experience.
In response, the Rivers State Governor, Ezenwo Wike, set up a task force to resolve the menace of black soot. The task force shut down three companies for air pollution associated with their activities. It also confiscated condemned motor vehicle tyres so that these would not be burnt into the air.
In hindsight, it would appear, these prescriptions were borne out of flawed diagnoses; for while the activities of these companies may have contributed to environmental pollution, everyone in Port Harcourt knew at the time that the black soot sprang from the reckless activities of illegal artisanal oil refineries, located, at that time, in far-flung creeks of the Delta.
All that have since changed. Emboldened by the manifest lack of political will on the part of the government at all levels to tackle the menace, artisanal petroleum refineries are now located in the immediate outskirts of Port Harcourt. Production is done, day and night and the huge smoke released into the air in the production process is visible even for the blind to see. The haulage and sale of the products are done in broad day light and in locations quite close to Government House or military and Police formations. A few examples among a multitude will help make the point. Niger Street, in Old Port Harcourt Township where tanker trucks line up to lift kpofire products, is two minutes’ drive from the headquarters of the Rivers State Police Command and four minutes’ drive from Government House. Until the recent directive by the State Governor, which came on the heels of public outcry over concerns raised by Port Harcourt residents, at any given point, not less than fifteen tanker trucks lined up to lift petroleum products at Rumuekini and Choba communities on the East/West Road. Needless to add, these communities are not too far from military and Police formations in the state and not more than 25 minutes’ drive from the seat of state power.
Not surprisingly, even a casual observer would notice the easily identifiable footprints of the widespread activities of artisanal refineries. For starters, the black soot in Rivers State is not just something in the air that stains surfaces but drops in physical particles. White clothes cannot be spread in the open air as they are sure to turn black. Rain water is black. Well painted buildings have lost their shine. Above all, the skyline in Rivers State is no longer blue; it is dark grey. Visibility is poor and throughout the month of November, up to the early days of December, the state experienced` daily torrential rains with storms, thunder and lighting, quite an anomaly at a time of the year we grew up to know as dry season. The air in some parts of the state is choking, as a result of the widespread smell of petroleum products, making it impossible for people to breathe. To drive home my point, a personal experience may be helpful. I live in the staff quarters of my university, an otherwise serene environment, full of trees and well maintained gardens. The University is not by any stretch of the imagination, close to the dysfunctional Port Harcourt Refinery located at Eleme. Yet the choking smell of adulterated diesel made it impossible for me to breathe in the night of November 19th2021, two days to the onset of serial fires. I woke up to the smell of diesel so real and suffocating that I was tempted to think someone poured diesel into my bedroom. What followed was bouts of sneezing and peppery feeling in my nostrils. My wife and I had to vacate the room in the middle of the night.
Beyond casual observation, the scientific findings on the consequences of artisanal oil refining on human health and the environment call for grave concern. The air quality in Port Harcourt has been highly compromised due largely to the environmentally harmful activities of artisanal oil refineries and is categorized as ‘unhealthy’ by the US Air Quality Index. As of 2 December 2021, the PM2.5 concentration in Port Harcourt air was 16.9 times above the World Health Organization’s guidelines. The black soot, which has since become an aspect of the lived experience of Rivers people is highly carcinogenic, meaning that it is capable of causing cancers. That apart, continuous exposure to the heavily polluted air does grave harm to the respiratory system. Expectedly, the report of the technical committee, made up of experts from multi-disciplinary backgrounds that was set up by Governor Wike to look into the problem of black soot in Rivers State revealed that 22,077 persons suffered from respiratory and skin-related diseases over a period of five years. It is interesting to note that the findings of this study were not made public but leaked out anyway. An independent investigation by Eugene Abels who mobilised popular protests against air pollution in Rivers State suggests that the black soot contains carcinogenic substances capable of causing cancers, respiratory diseases as well as infertility after inhalation.
From the foregoing, several questions, critical to my analysis, suggest themselves. Why has this manifestly criminal act, bordering on economic sabotage been tolerated by the Nigerian State? Given the short and long term consequences of artisanal oil refining on the environment and health of the Niger Delta people, why have the state governors, become so weak in tackling a problem that spells collective doom for the people whose lives they have a sacred duty to protect? Why have those involved in artisanal oil refining become so brazen in their illicit trade?
The answers may lie in what Claude Ake describes as the privatization of the state on the one hand, and on the other, what I would, for lack of a better expression, describe as political expediency. The logic of privatization of the state dictates that power holders appropriate the institution of State, otherwise a public force, to the pursuit of private and special interests. As it relates to illegal oil refining in the Niger Delta, there is the view, fast gaining the status of conventional wisdom, that the involvement of ex-militants in illegal artisanal oil refining insures peace for the oil transnationals to operate as they no longer raise broader issues of environmental degradation and resource rights deprivation that actuated insurgency in the Niger Delta. Thus the Nigerian State could not be bothered even if the entire Niger Delta region is poisoned by the activities of artisanal oil business so long as this guarantees the ceaseless flow of badly needed petro-dollars into the federal exchequer.
This explains why, in spite of losses it suffers in excess of N4.2 trillion annually in oil theft and maintenance of vandalized pipelines, the Federal Government that proved capable of arresting Nnamdi Kanu in faraway Kenya has been unable to arrest and prosecute even one oil thief in the Niger Delta. It also explains why in spite of openly accusing the military for aiding and abetting illegal oil refining by the Rivers State Governor, the government at the centre does nothing about it. In another sense, illegal oil refineries fill the supply gaps created by a total shut-down, since 2019, of the state-owned oil refineries. In this regard, the government at the centre is shielded from a deeper crisis of legitimacy that shortages in the supply of petroleum products may create.
But the above explanation tells only half the story. An equally important factor that sustains artisanal oil refineries in the Niger Delta is political expediency. Since the beginning of Nigeria’s current experiment with democracy, anyone familiar with electoral processes in the Niger Delta region and in particular, Rivers State knows that electoral outcomes are determined, not so much by a candidate’s popularity as by his capacity to procure the services of merchants of violence. Initially in this fold were hired assassins, area boys, gang and cult leaders who were coopted into the campaign strategy. What emerged was an unwritten pact, as it were, between the merchants of violence and politicians: we put you in power but you look away while we have our way with crime and criminality. Their immediate focus after delivering on their ‘mandate’ was illegal oil bunkering.
They became stupendously rich and gained more control of the army of the unemployed and unemployable in Rivers State as elsewhere in the Niger Delta. They later became militants; and now ex-militants. These men, or those who broke away from them, are the owners of artisanal refineries. Their salience in the political process remains strong as they are seen as electoral assets who must be pampered because sooner or later, their services would be needed to win elections. It is this expediency factor that explains better, the failure of State Governors in the Niger Delta region to catalyze substantial and meaningful action to frontally tackle operators of artisanal oil refineries.
It is bad enough that poverty has made Nigeria its global headquarters in spite of vast natural resource endowments due to governance failure. The least anyone who holds public office in trust should do is to ensure that the air, so liberally given by nature because of its significance, is not turned into poison for whatever political or economic interests.
Kiikpoye K. Aaron, a Professor of Political Economy and Development Studies is on the faculty of the University of Port Harcourt.