As night falls on a recent evening in the mazelike creeks of the Niger Delta, several oil thieves plunge into the dense, green mangroves along the Nun River.
Above the forest, black coils of smoke rise to the sky. The river hums with outboard motors as skiffs carry residents to communities in the web of Nun offshoots. The boats halt at military checkpoints, barges manned by idle soldiers. Silhouetted passengers raise their hands to show they are unarmed and not transporting stolen oil.
Daniel Sekibo leads the way. We are making our way to a camp near a Nigerian Agip Oil pipeline where he and his team, young men in their teens through thirties, refine stolen oil. The camp is a 15-minute walk from their village center, which is little more than a bar on a wooden deck a few feet above mud and water polluted with oil and trash.
It is dark as we walk, and quiet. The only sounds come from shoes pressing on the hard sand and conversation within the group. Sekibo, 31, points to some bushes where, he says, Nigerian Agip Oil has spilled crude, poisoning the vegetation. His younger brother and cousin, who work for him, joke with each other and ask Sekibo about the breaking of his engagement. “I have so many girls, I don’t need to get married,” he boasts. The three laugh nervously. Because their village is known as a hub of oil theft, the military has been visiting frequently. During the last raid, days before, soldiers left only after Sekibo and other residents paid them bribes.
We met at the bar before setting out, and Sekibo introduced me to a friend of his, a 34-year-old who asked that his name not be published. (Sekibo’s name has been changed to protect his identity, too.) His friend said he’d been stealing oil for six years. The government, he said, needs to give everyone a basic salary of 70,000 naira a month (about $427); otherwise the theft will not stop. Although oil companies operating in the delta have paid villages reparations after especially bad oil spills, the region remains underdeveloped, with few roads, little electricity or clean water, and impoverished schools. The nearest hospital is two hours away. Several in the bar were wary of a visiting journalist, but Sekibo assured me, “I’ve explained to them why it’s important you watch us work. For people to know how we are suffering here.”
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