Since crude oil was discovered in Oloibiri, in present-day Bayelsa, in 1956, there has been an existential and monumental challenge Nigeria has been unable to surmount.

That challenge is the lack of transparency in the operations of its extractive resources, particularly in its oil and gas sector.

Of particular concern is the issue of oil theft, which has led to a significant loss of revenue and the inability of the country to meet its crude oil production quota.

Administration upon administration – military or civilian – the ghost of oil theft has refused to be banished from the Nigerian system, leading many experts to believe that its beneficiaries are within the system.

The extent to which oil theft had eaten deep into the system and its structure was recently exposed when, in October, a network of illegal oil pipelines was discovered in Delta State.

Even the uninitiated would be astonished to hear that oil thieves built 4km pipeline connections through which crude oil from the Trans Escravos Pipeline was tapped and taken away.

The existence of oil theft has always been undeniable, but to have first-hand knowledge that barges and vessels load stolen oil from a 24-foot rig on a daily basis beat even the most pessimistic.

There are many layers to oil theft, including marine evacuations via vessels, load-outs from illegal operations’ platforms, activities of thousands of artisanal refineries and losses at terminals.

Perhaps, the discovery in Delta opened the eyes of the present administration to the significant revenue loss, inability to meet quota, and the national security threat posed by the continued activities of oil thieves.

Worried by the scale and complexity of the menace, the National Security Adviser, (retired) Maj.-Gen Babagana Monguno, on Dec. 6, inaugurated an 11-man Special Investigative Panel on Oil Theft/Losses in Nigeria.

Monguno said at the event that Nigeria was facing “monumental” loss of revenue, and that the recent escalation of illegal activities in the oil and gas sector had led to a significant decline in production.

He also decried the fact that Nigeria has been unable to meet its daily production quota, as provided by OPEC.

Nigeria’s current oil production quota is around 2 million barrels per day, but the country’s maximum production capacity hovers at around 1 million barrels per day.

Sadly, no one knows exactly how much Nigeria loses to oil theft, both in the quantity of the commodity and resources that would have accrued.

Some sources put the figure of daily crude oil loss at eight hundred thousand (800,000) barrels per day, which translates to a loss of income of about $64million.

Consequently, it is projected that, if this trend continues unchecked, it would result in a revenue shortfall of approximately $23billion in 2023; meaning a loss of about N10trillion at $445 exchange rate.

Monguno acknowledged that, as a result of the unacceptable activities of oil thieves, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari had to “revert to less popular monetary and fiscal policies” to replenish foreign reserves.

The 11-man panel, drawn from industry, security and forensic experts with vast experience, is expected to investigate oil theft/losses in all its ramifications and propose wide-ranging array of implementable recommendations.

“The menace of oil theft/losses is completely unacceptable, considering its attendant impact on the economy, national development and security.

“It is an affront to government and its institutions, which must be tackled without further delay,” the NSA said, charging members to work tirelessly to justify their appointments.

The panel is expected to commence its assignment with immediate effect and to conclude as well as submit its report on or before Feb. 21, 2023.

Chaired by the Interim Administrator, Presidential Amnesty Programme, retired Maj.-Gen. Barry Ndiomu, the panel has 11 terms of reference.

They include to: Ascertain the circumstances surrounding the illegal insertion into the Trans-Escravos Pipeline (TEP) around Yokri area in Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State;

Establish the ramifications of crude oil theft/losses in Nigeria; Ascertain the causative factors immediate and remote, of crude oil/theft/losses in the country; Ascertain the extent of crude oil theft/losses in the country;

With the widest possible amplitude, identify persons/entities whether public, private or foreign, involved in the criminal enterprise and; Establish the level of culpability of identified persons/entities in the enterprise.

Others are to: Examine the specific roles of Regulatory Agencies; Security Agencies, Tiers/Arms of Government and International Oil Companies (IOCs) in aiding and abetting the criminal enterprise;

Assess the efficacy of security architecture/arrangement in tackling crude oil theft/losses and associated petroleum products; Recommend appropriate commensurate and sufficiently, deterrent sanctions on all those culpable;

Recommend steps/procedures/processes to be taken by Government to eliminate the enterprise in the industry to prevent future occurrence and; Make any other recommendations on any other issue incidental to the Terms of Reference.

Maj.-Gen. Ndiomu, who acknowledged that the period given for the task was short, appealed to members of the panel to get prepared to work towards meeting the deadline.

“We are determined to work towards uncovering the clandestine activities of individuals, groups or agencies, as the case may be, as they relate to oil theft/losses,” he said.

At a time when other OPEC members are reaping huge gains from the soaring energy costs due to the war in Ukraine, experts say it is unfortunate for Nigeria to be wallowing in deficits and huge debts.

In August, Nigeria’s crude oil production fell below 1 million barrels per day majorly as a result of oil theft.

For perspective, Saudi Arabia announced that same August that its oil revenues soared to a staggering $66.8 billion surplus for the first half of 2022.

Data released by the Kingdom’s Ministry of Finance showed that oil revenue increased by 75 per cent year-on-year, and 89 per cent in Q2.

It is, therefore, obvious that Nigeria is being ripped of significant resources by individuals and groups who will stop at nothing to resist the commendable effort by the government to investigate and bring them to book.

No doubt, the investigative panel is venturing on a very dangerous voyage by going after deep-rooted, systemic and well-structured enemies of the state. Its task will not be easy.

After all, the Group Managing Director (GMD) of the Nigeria National Petroleum Company (NNPC Ltd), Mr Mele Kyari, said recently that he was receiving death threats as a result of the ongoing reformation in the NNPC.

However, we should commend the NSA for the courage to take on oil thieves head-on, even if belatedly. Nigerians should also commend and support the panel for bravely accepting the herculean task.

The NSA: “Those people serving or retired, who the government has actually reposed confidence in to protect our national assets, who have this perception that being ensconced in the bowel of the state by virtue of their emplacement, can escape the long arm of the law, we must fish them out.”

Therefore, as stakeholders in the Project Nigeria, government and citizens alike should be interested in the outcome of the panel’s investigation come Feb. 21, 2023, as well as what happens afterwards. (NANFeatures)

A news analysis by Kayode Adebiyi, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)