Nigeria’s illegal oil refineries keep killing people

A dangerous, fatal process
A dangerous, fatal process
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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At least 100 people died after an explosion on Apr. 24 at an illegal oil refinery in Nigeria. The site of the blast was the Abaezi forest in a border community between Imo and Rivers, two states in the country’s southeastern region.

It is the second fatal illegal refinery explosion in Nigeria in six months. Last October, 25 people died at a different site in Rivers state.

Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari called Sunday’s event a “catastrophe and national disaster,” directing his security agencies to “intensify the clampdown” on the illegal operations, according to a statement by his official spokesperson.

The worry for Nigeria is that the oil-producing Niger Delta region that bolsters the country’s $400 billion economy is dotted with illegal sites similar to the ones that have caused recent explosions.

How illegal oil refining works in Nigeria

Regular oil refineries, like the $19 billion project being built by Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote, have a sophisticated network of pipes and tanks within a carefully designed plant. But illegal refining happens in bushes or forests transformed into dystopian-looking wastelands.

At its core, the process involves stealing crude oil from pipelines belonging to international oil companies like Shell, and channeling the product into tanks where it is boiled at high temperatures. The theft is often called oil bunkering in Nigeria. More often than not, it pays out for the refiners who steal about 200,000 barrels of the 1.5 million barrels of crude oil Nigeria produces per day, according to an estimate last year by the state oil company.

But oil refining is a highly dangerous process because the extracts are highly flammable. Within minutes of a trigger, the fire can leave a jarringly large number of charred bodies, burnt vehicles and abandoned personal effects, as was the case in Abaezi according to Reuters.

What is Nigeria doing to stop illegal refining?

Unemployment and poverty are two reasons why oil theft and illegal refining persist in Nigeria’s Niger Delta today. But the practice is also connected to long-standing dissatisfaction by locals of international oil companies extracting natural resources for wealth without investing in communities, while causing devastating pollution.

That said, the operations cost Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil exporter, in lives and revenue. In 2019, a government agency’s audit showed the country lost more than 40 million barrels valued at $2.77 billion. Chatham House, the UK think tank, once described oil theft in Nigeria as “a species of organized crime” operating at industrial scale.

Some effort has gone into fighting the menace. A crackdown supposedly started in January this year, leading to the destruction of 128 out of 142 illegal refining sites in Rivers state. But the increase in fatalities this week suggests authorities need to act with greater urgency to address the immediate and historic reasons for the existence of the refineries.