I belebiri has all the trappings of an Ijaw community. Tucked away into Kolo creek axis of Ogbia Local Government Area, Bayelsa State, it is rich in oil resources and hosts a chain of oil pipelines belonging to the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC).
The main occupations of the people, like in other typical Ijaw communities, are farming and fishing. But these means of livelihood appear to have been relegated to the background following a new booming business of illegal refineries.
Camps of illegal refineries, known in Ijaw parlance as Kpo Fire, operated in secrecy in connivance with some leaders in the community and authorities in high places, are scattered in the area.
Health and environmental hazards of crude cooking of crude oil stare visitors in the face. Oil slicks washed ashore, polluted creeks and mangled vegetation are some signs that illegal oil business thrives in the community.
But there is something strange about Ibelebiri. Many of the people have lost their lives in explosions that occurred in the illegal refinery camps, but the business still goes on as if nothing has happened. Recently, over 25 persons perished following an explosion in one of the camps. But the dealers have learnt nothing from the experience.
A recent field study conducted by the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth (ERA/FoEN) showed that despite the tragic event, the illegal business still thrives. An eyewitness, Obonin Austin, who survived the recent explosion by a whisker, said there was no end in sight to the business.
Austin, who hails from neighbouring Imiringi community, relived the sad event of December 8, 2017, describing it as bloody. He said it was by divine intervention that he survived the inferno, adding that his friend could not make it. He said about three of them that made it out of the camp were treated in different hospitals. But he lamented that one of them, his bosom friend, later died in the hospital. Narrating how the incident occurred and how he escaped from the scene, he said: “It was because of the bunkering fire incident that happened on the 8th of December, 2017 that you are seeing part of my body like this. That night, we went there around 7 pm. It happened when one lady struck a match to light a stove and prepare some noodles.
“She used to be one of the women in the camps selling food to customers. That actually caused the fire because the bush was already saturated with enough gas evaporating from refined products and refining operations were still ongoing. So, the flame from the match attracted gas from the refining oven.
“There was an immediate explosion. Workers who were working at the upper side started rushing down like rain. When I looked up, I saw a huge fire, so I started running away from the area. As I was running, some of the refined products splashed on my hand and my hand caught fire too.
“As I was running, I noticed that my shoes were on fire too. So, when I ran a certain distance, I stopped and removed the shoes from my legs so as to avoid them burning to melting point. I was later taken to Christ the King Hospital.
“But we were three who went together that evening. One was rushed to another medical facility where he later died. The third one was admitted at the Cottage hospital at Otuasega community. That is what I know about the incident.
“But, according to people who went there the next day, they saw a lot of dead bodies; some burnt beyond recognition and so only their bones were left and they gathered the bones for burial.
“It was a mass burial. Some dead bodies started floating on the Creek after about two days, because that night, even the water in the creek was on fire. Some of us were able to swim across to the other side.”
Although he could not say the exact number of the casualties, Austin said more than 20 people breathed their last on the night of the incident. “It is difficult to say the total, because some also died in the hospital. All I know is that those who died were more than 20.
“More than 100 people were there before the incident. But in the morning, you would observe that the number of people there was more than a community. The fire incident occurred at about 3 am that night.
“Not only the workers were there; some were there as customers to buy and arrange for finished products to be transferred to various destinations in the morning. The environment is a hustling place,” he said.
Austin said it would be difficult to stop people from engaging in illegal refining of crude oil.
He gave his reasons: “I cannot tell people to stop going there because, we take that place as a ground where we go to hustle instead of going to steal.
“I will advise people not to go in the night, but in the morning when all the ovens would have been put off. The ovens are normally put off around 5 am. They should avoid anything like naked flame, matches, lighter or anything that can cause fire outbreak.
“Government should formalise this business, because without this, crime rate would be too much. This has presented an avenue for people to get busy and assist themselves. It has reduced the rate of crime.
“So, government should, please allow them to do it. The death rate is the only big issue in the operations. For me, they should look for a safer, modernised way so that it will not cause these types of death again. That is my own advice.”
He regretted that his friend, who he identified as Trust, who had gone to the site to make a living, could not survive the injuries he sustained from the incident.
“Yes, we were three who went together, and one of the other two was my best friend. Unfortunately, he died at the hospital. That guy, I know him as Trust, but I don’t know his surname. His father is from Kolo community but the mother is from Onuebum community, both in Ogbia Local Government Area.
“So, three of us went there. But, to God be the glory, two of us are still alive. I don’t know why. I pray that God should see him through because our going to the site of the unfortunate incident was not for any trouble. It was for us to struggle to survive.
“My friend was burnt from head to toe. Parts of his burnt body were falling off. He died at the hospital around 8 pm three days after the fire incident. He was about 20 years old when he died. Before he fell off the hospital bed and died, he was calling the names of different people and screaming.”
Also a community chief, who spoke in confidence because of the sensitive nature of the issues, said Ibelebiri is host to many illegal refinery camps.
He said: “The fire incident which happened in our community environment is common knowledge. It was a most unfortunate incident, even though no one from this community died as a result of the fire. But over 16 souls perished in the inferno and none of them was a member of this community. A lot of strangers are involved. I reliably gathered that the refining camp where the fire incident happened was owned by an Ijaw guy, not from Ogbia Local Government.
“It is being rumoured that the guy also owns a refining camp in Rivers State and a similar thing occurred there too at his camp. Some people are suspecting it to be related to rituals. So, when the owner of the burnt camp came with a brand new jeep, he was booed by the people. “There are several camps in the environment; about 30 of such camps. Security agencies are aware. If not for the involvement of security agents, what else would explain why the business still thrives here?
“After the fire incident, the security agencies just came around and did some kind of controlled burning of what could be termed condemned oil and part of the already burnt environment and left. Operators and some security agencies who ought to ensure the business is completely stopped here settled in the end.”
The allegations that security agencies are in connivance with the owners of the camps are strong in the state and the community. Some residents believe that without such conspiracy, the business would have ended a long time ago.
Following the explosion that killed many people in one of the camps, a reliable source from the police said the incident was avoidable if the Joint Task Force (JTF), Operation Delta (ODS) and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) saddled with the responsibility of clamping down on illegal refineries had acted on a letter written to them by the Commissioner of Police, Mr. Asuquo Amba.
He said the commissioner on September 21 dispatched a letter to responsible security commanders, appealing to them to treat the matter with urgency.
He quoted some parts of the letter as saying: “Information gathered revealed the presence of ongoing illegal refining of petroleum products like kerosene, diesel at Ebelebiri and Otuogwe, two communities in Ogbia Local Government Area Bayelsa State under the Kolo jurisdiction.
“The activities of these criminals constitute economic sabotage to the nation as well as endangering lives and properties, as explosion on this pipeline may lead to disaster.”
The source said it was disheartening to hear that despite the warning, the explosion still occurred and claimed lives.
A community leader, who spoke to ERA on condition of anonymity, confirmed that some community leaders and security personnel were involved in the deal. He said there was a time officials of a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) working on environmental issues were attacked for taking photographs of the crude oil polluted creek by some youths.
“Besides the involvement of community members, security personnel are alleged to be part of the deal. The syndicated nature of the operation has given confidence to the main operators to continue, especially the camp owners,” he said.
One Emmanuel Eze, a commercial driver said: “This operation seems to be controlled by a syndicate. I say so because there was a day I drove through Ibelebiri community in the night, at about 11 pm, and I was surprised to see many persons on the road as I got to the community.
“They blocked the road and I was even scared for my life. They demanded that I carry them or I would not pass. They wanted me to drop them at the next community, Okaki. Before I knew it, some of them rushed into my car. Some even occupied the boot. Up till now, I cannot tell how many of them I carried in the car that night.
“Between where I picked them and where they dropped, a team of policemen stopped me. The passengers promptly identified the policemen and said, ‘Officers, nothing today. We didn’t work because there was low pressure.’
“It means they didn’t transport crude oil in the pipelines today so there is no raw material to work. And the policemen understood and allowed us to proceed without demanding anything.”
Emmanuel added: “There is a retired security agent. He is now deeply involved in the business of dealing on local refinery products. He has two cars and he uses one in the local refinery business.”
Following their visit to the Ibelebiri community on January 8, 2018, officials of ERA, Mr. Alagoa Morris and Akpotu Ziworitin, in their report gave vivid descriptions of their discoveries.
The report said: “When ERA visited Ibelebiri community again on 8th January, 2018, the transfer/loading of refined products into cars and tricycles was ongoing. For strangers passing through the community environment, it would be difficult to have any idea as to such things happening there.
“This is so because there is no rising column of dark smoke for anyone to observe during the day, the crude oil polluted Kolo Creek is not visible from the road and the refined products are not transferred in conventional containers associated with liquid substances.
“Refined products are put in special bags and loaded into cars or tricycles. Trucks also have points where loading takes place at night only. Some who also confirmed how the fire incident happened informed ERA that the lady who struck the match and other customers who were within the camp to buy products died in the inferno, including a lady whom they said usually buys large quantities. “One of the main tell tales of any environment where refining of crude oil was ongoing in the past was the thick column of smoke rising and spreading above the particular area. The other two signs include the large presence of strangers in the locality and crude oil freely spreading on the creeks within the environment.
“However, since security agencies and contractors like the Oil and Gas Task Force took the fight to operators of local refineries and did colossal destruction of such sites and equipment, most sites have since closed down in Bayelsa State, especially in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, which used to be like the headquarters of the business, and the few that are still in operation have taken to operating mostly at night.
“ERA had earlier been informed that some security operatives had suggested and supported the night operations since the accompanying thick columns of smoke cannot report the incident to the public at night.
“Be that as it may, the pollution of creeks in areas of operation has continued to tell the story. Unfortunately, because folks from communities along the polluted Kolo Creek are involved, such environmentally inimical hydrocarbon in the water has not elicited the sort of outcry expected from the communities.”
The report also observed that the route where refined products left the camp was highly policed by security agencies, especially the police and NSCDC. It indicted the security agents at the various checkpoints for providing cover for the transporters instead of curtailing the act.
Lamenting that such cover had emboldened operators of illegal refineries, the report further said some petrol stations in Yenagoa were dispensing products from such sources to unsuspecting members of the public.
The report said: “The activities of local refinery operators are remotely encouraged by greed, unemployment, unavailability of refined products, cheap price of the locally refined products, high demand for the products, inadequate monitoring/inspection of petrol stations to ascertain source of products by the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), etc.
“No matter how unhappy and uncomfortable some fellow community leaders/folks may be about the local refinery related hazards in their community environment, unless the government and security agencies do the needful, the lives of those who oppose the operation could be on the line.
“The culpability of the military, police and Civil Defence cannot be ruled out, especially as the environment of interest is just few kilometres from the headquarters of these relevant security agencies in the state capital. And yet the business still thrives.”
ERA, among other things, asked the federal and state governments to encourage youths by providing willing ones with scholarship for training in the area of renewable energy as the world is gradually moving away from fossil fuel.
The report said: “The Federal Government should build more refineries in the country and ensure that the existing four are functional and producing in full capacity.
“This will make refined petroleum products available and at cheaper prices to the Nigerian public. The export of crude oil and importation of refined products is not only a bad business principle; it makes Nigeria a laughing stock in the comity of nations.
“As promised by the Federal Government, Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] should be visible and ongoing in the creeks, as a confidence building action preceding approval for the location of modular refineries promised by the Federal Government during the tour of the Niger Delta state by the then Acting President. This is critical and would go a long way to minimise risks associated with lives and environment in general.
“The Bayelsa State Government and Security agencies should inform the public whether the refining operation ongoing within Ibelebiri environment is approved by them and, if so, why other sites in the creeks have been destroyed?
“Communities along the Kolo Creek should take measures necessary for the protection of their natural fresh water. They should join in condemning the crude oil pollution of the Kolo Creek by operators of local refineries. Keeping silent on such self-inflicted injuries weakens any argument against oil industry related environmental degradation.”