The scorching sun, although blazing, was still a little bit mild as at 11 am when the troops set out from Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) BEECROFT jetty in Apapa, Lagos. Speedboats conveyed the troops, comprising the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Western Naval Command (WNC), Rear Admiral Oladele Daji; the General Officer Commanding (GOC), 81 Division Major General Olu Irefin; and the then Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Logistics Command, Air Vice Marshal (AVM) AbdulGaniyu Olabisi, as well as other senior officers and a sprinkle of journalists drawn from both print and broadcast. On arrival at the jetty on the other side of the island, rugged trucks were assembled to carry the entourage across the hot, white sandy shores of Atlas Cove, albeit the hinterlands. At each spot that the operatives of Operation KURONBE had secured, the entourage stopped for an on-the-spot assessment. Given the terrain, each stop was an arduous walk as the hot sun beat the small contigent mercilessly. Coupled with the depth of the sand, it was really difficult to walk as one’s legs sunk in with each step. The naval men had no such difficulty as they were well kitted. The overall goal was to have a first hand knowledge of the economic sabotage committed by criminals at Atlas Cove and environs, who build shanties on NNPC pipelines in order to illegally siphon petroleum products. But on that day, the community, predominantly fishermen, were no where to be seen. Except for a jewelry seller, some youths and a foreigner who could not explain his reasons for being around the recovered illegal oil wells, there was basically no sign of life. The reason was not far fetched; the operatives of Operation KURONBE had successfully given them chase and put a spanner in the works of their massive pipeline vandalism.
Operation KURONBE, a Yoruba word for ‘Leave There’, an internal security operation covering Lagos and parts of Ogun State to specifically combat scourge of pipeline vandalism and oil theft within these states, was late last year launched as a spin off of Operation AWATSE. On Operation KURONBE, the Flag Officer Commanding, Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Oladele Daji said: “These losses caused by illegally siphoning products run into billions of naira. Hence, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Gabriel Abayomi Olonisakin directed Operation AWATSE (of which Operation KURONBE is a spin off) , an internal security operation covering Lagos and parts of Ogun State to specifically combat scourge of pipeline vandalism and oil theft within these states as well as other criminal activities like kidnapping and cultism.” Thus, the need to curb pipeline vandalism and sustain the efforts on eradicating on all fronts gave birth to Operation KURONBE. In the operation that THISDAY witnessed, manholes filled with vandalism PMS littered the white sands of Atlas Cove, spanning 72 kilometers to Mosimi Depot in Ogun State. The taskforce in one night seized 30,000 jerrycans of 25 litres, which at pump price, was pegged at N 108,750,000 for the entire 3,625 litres. During the operation at Atlas Cove, the taskforce also destroyed 129 illegal structures on the pipeline’s right of way that were constructed by the vandals to enable them easily access the manholes. Although 200 structures were earmarked for destruction at that time, those that have been carried out already during the operation includes 12 structures in Old Akinbo, five in Aditu, 17 in phase two, 22 in Ikate, five in Upstairs, three in Virgin Land, three in White House, and over 62 in Akaraba. Since that operation, the JTF has carried out more raids, discovered more illegal holes and destroyed more shanties.
Having been deterred by the Operation AWATSE Joint Taskforce (JTF) on previous occasions from laying pipes underground to siphon products from NNPC pipelines, the vandals found a ingenious way to continue their atrocities by digging manholes. It was further gathered that prior to digging the manholes, the vandals usually, first vandalise one of the pipelines belonging to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). With the products from the vandalised pipelines seeping into the ground, it then runs into the already dug manholes, which acts as a crude storage, before the vandals scoop it into jerrycans for onward transportation to the end buyers.
Speaking after some of the illegal products were destroyed, the FOC lamented that the NNPC has been breached and the nation is suffering losses of petroleum products while pumping, adding that it was in a bid to stop these losses that the CDS gave a matching order that the perpetrators be brought to book and the illegality stopped. Adding that this operation would be extended to Mosimi, he said: “Pipelines must be sanitised, loopholes must be blocked and all those involved in this illegal activity will be brought to book. The resolve of the federal government of Nigeria led by Muhammadu Buhari to ensure that we have full control of every inch of the country’s territory is our duty to uphold. “There is a new resolve and that has been backed up by the CDS’ order to ensure that every illegal structure, settlement causing emcumberances and aiding sabotage of fuel distribution pipelines on critical NNPC System 2B are removed. We are undaunting and we will go all out to ensure that the political will and backing we have received are actualised on the ground. Whoever is responsible or supporting the vandals have no hiding place. This operation is out to ensure that. The masquerade has been unmasked.“ On possible plans to fish out the end buyers he said: “We are going to stop them from getting the product from the source and deny them the capacity to move them to end buyers. The end buyers are of no significance if the criminals do not get the products. “All security agencies who are part of pipeline surveillance were carried along in this exercise. The Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) were part of the coordinating conference on December 4. We are working together to ensure these pipelines are sanitised”.
Update on Operation
Giving a recent update on the operation, the FOC West said it is being conducted in line with its mandate and Rule of Engagement. He further noted that, “the mandate of Operation AWATSE is to curb pipeline vandalism, crude oil and petroleum product theft, anti-kidnapping, anti-robbery, anti-cultism and other related criminal activities that would impact negatively on the security of Lagos and Ogun; particularly Epe and Ogunwaterside. This mandate entails the protection of the critical NNPC pipelines, within the Right Off Way from Atlas Cove to Mosimi where billions of naira has been lost to the activities of pipeline vandals. “You will agree with me that Operation AWATSE in the past had engaged in series of operations within the same corridor with huge seizures of various petroleum related materials from criminals. After several considerations and consultations, the DHQ deemed it necessary to embark on a surgical operation in order to sanitise the entire Atlas Cove and environs of all forms of criminality. “Specifically, from the early hours of Saturday 21 December 2019 till date, troops of Operation AWATSE are engaged in surgical operation to dislodge pipelines vandals from NNPC facility at ATLAS Cove and environs in Lagos. The NNPC facility is a strategic national infrastructure for reception of refined petroleum products for distribution across the county. During the raid, devices which include fabricated pipes and multiple hoses connected to the NNPC pipelines to illegally siphon petrol were discovered over 300 points along the pipelines and were subsequently dismantled.
“It is instructive to note that during the raid, some foreigners were also found on the Islands without any form of documentations. Interrogations of dwellers by troops further revealed that vandals collude with these miscreants to export these stolen products to neighbouring countries thereby short changing Nigeria. In view of these atrocities, it became expedient to identify these illegal structures so as to sanitise the entire island of these mischief makers. “The enumerated areas indicated a total of over 200 illegal structures (shanties). Areas already surveyed for ongoing demolition include; Old Akinbo – 12 structures, Aditu–5structures, Phase 2 – 17 structures, Ikate – 22 structures, Upstairs 5 structures, Virgin Land- three structures, White House – three structures, Akaraba – 62 structures and Idi Mangoro – 28structures. “Others are Waterside – 19 structures, Ilado – 57structures, Robert – 13 structures, Abule Glass – 21structures, Ilashe – 37 structures. So far destroyed are 462 illegal structures, 150 thousand empty jerry cans discovered, over 5 thousand jerry cans with PMS confiscated, 310 discovered well/pits with PMS and 21 canoes and two boats. “For legitimate residents of the Islands, let me reassure them that for no reason will troops of Operation AWATSE unduly harass or intimidate anyone as they are there to carry out the mandate of the operation using its Standing Operating Procedure and Rules of Engagement as guide. You are please enjoined to cooperate with the troops to rid criminals from the islands for the benefit of inhabitants of the place and for a safer environment. “Furthermore, members of the general public and indeed law abiding citizens especially in Lagos and Ogun States are advised to go about their lawful business and are enjoined to promptly report any infractions by criminals to the operation’s headquarters for prompt actions. Operation AWATSE will continue with the ongoing operations to destroy the capacity of pipelines vandals to disrupt the distribution of petroleum products by NNPC.”
The Well-oiled Vandalism Scheme at Atlas Cove
During one of the visits of this reporter to Atlas Cove, a notorious den of pipeline vandals, nothing in the rustic island gave credence to the high- powered pipeline vandalism going on there. Set in the deep of the mangroves and surrounded by the beach at the back and river at the front, Atlas Cove, was a perfect front for illicit dealings in pipeline vandalism. Given that these oil pipelines belonging to the NNPC were virtually on the ground surfaces, these vandals dug boreholes two kilometers away from the pipelines and siphoned the products illegally. These products then run into their already dug boreholes, from which they now turn it into kegs and drums and sell to the buyers both within Nigeria and to neighbouring countries at lower rates. In early 2017, the authorities were forced to shut down the 76km stretch of pipeline running from AtlasCove to Mosimi Depot for 11months due to severe acts of vandalism on the lines This was to allow total refurbishment of the lines which cost the Federal Government billions of Naira. The maintenance of the lines was later completed and pumping of products to Mosimi commenced on March 21. Yet that hasn’t deterred these vandals.
But Atlas Cove wasn’t always like this. The influx of vandals to the area was caused by Operation AWATSE, a joint military operation which means Scatter in Hausa Language. Set up in Ishawo in Ikorodu, the taskforce sacked the entire area, forcing the vandals to move to the far hinterlands. The JTF comprises the elements of the navy, army and air force, as well as the Department of State Security Services (DSS), the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and the Nigerian Police Force (NPF). The aerial bombardment and subsequent invasion of the enclaves at Ishawo and environs by the JTF was undoubtedly a success that made the vandals more desperate as the operation spread to Arepo, Awawa, Elepete and Ibafo. With this recent operation by the JTF, it is hoped that they would be able to stamp out the menace of pipeline vandalism in Atlas Cove, as well as protect the critical pipeline infrastructure across board.
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