Lives will continue to be lost without a comprehensive government plan on oil theft and artisanal oil refining – SDN Statement on Rivers refinery explosion

This weekend saw the latest tragic incident involving an artisanal oil refinery, with over 100 people reportedly killed in an explosion on the border of Imo and Rivers States. The Niger Delta continues to bear a huge human and environmental cost from both the legal and illicit oil and gas industry. Incidents like this have sadly become a regular occurence. 

The government’s primary response to the artisanal oil industry has been operations by its security agencies to shut down and destroy illegal refineries – with some more recent efforts to establish modular refineries to provide employment and greater local supply of fuels.

However, the work of SDN and others has repeatedly highlighted the weakness of this approach (for example, see our More Money, More Problems report): security responses do nothing to tackle severe unemployment and fuel shortages or to address concerns in communities who feel they have seen little benefit from oil and gas extraction; security officials are often accused of being complicit in the industry; and the destruction of artisanal refineries often causes even further environmental damage. Modular refineries by themselves are also problematic. They are unlikely to employ large numbers, or to make a significant impact on fuel supply in remote areas of the Niger Delta, and deflect attention away from  prioritising clean energy solutions in the Niger Delta. 

The latest incident is a sad demonstration of how the current approach is failing: security responses in Rivers state have simply pushed the illicit industry to other locations, with large increases in artisanal oil industry activity in Imo, Bayelsa and Abia States. 

SDN – and many others – have been calling for years for a more serious, comprehensive response to the underlying causes of the growth of this dangerous industry. While organised criminality does need to be tackled, what is needed is a comprehensive government plan, which also views the problem as a development issue, working in partnership with communities, civil society and the private sector. This plan would make serious investment in promoting economic diversification, creating livelihoods and expanding energy access in riverine and wider locations in the Niger Delta, and in ensuring the clean-up of historic oil spill pollution and the responsible dismantling of artisanal refineries. 

There are many ways in which Federal and State Governments can work together to do this, and many places where resources could be found. For example, billions of dollars have been lost to corruption, incomplete and inappropriate projects via the Niger Delta Development Commission, and the Presidential Amnesty Programme continues to provide only a palliative to the long-term causes of insecurity in the region. These resources could instead be put to use to support a long-term, sustainable plan for economic growth and renewable energy access. Government can also work with oil companies to ensure they do a better job at protecting their infrastructure and improving relations with communities.

There is reason for hope. SDN’s work in communities where the artisanal oil industry has been prevalent in the past has shown that young people are crying out for better employment opportunities, and are willing to abandon the industry when given viable alternative options (see, for example, here). Will Federal and State Governments – and for that matter, political parties across the political spectrum – finally use this weekend’s incident to decide that now is the time to work together and to take serious action, for the sake of Nigeria’s citizens and environment? It is our sincerest hope that they will, and SDN is ready to play our part in supporting this. Without a new approach, lives will continue to be lost. 

Published 25.04.22

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