Nigeria’s defense chief defended the destruction of a seized ship that was smuggling stolen oil, saying no investigation was needed. Critics say the military’s burning of the ship last week destroyed vital evidence and accused the military of a cover-up.
Nigeria’s chief of defense staff, General Lucky Irabor, spoke after last Friday’s national security meeting with the president.
Irabor said the swift response of security operatives followed the rules of engagement and that they didn’t need to carry out any investigation because the ship was caught in the act.
Security operatives last week seized and burned an 87-meter-long vessel allegedly carrying 650,000 liters of crude oil in southern Delta state. The vessel had seven crew members aboard.
The bust was one of the biggest in recent weeks led by a former Delta state militant, Government Ekpemupolo, widely known as Tompolo. Nigerian authorities in August awarded him a multi-billion-dollar surveillance contract in a desperate bid to address rampant oil theft.
On Sunday, popular human rights lawyer Femi Falana called for the removal of the defense chief. Human rights lawyer Marshall Abubakar said he agrees and said the burning of the ship is highly suspicious.
“Why the hurry in destroying this vessel?” Abubakar said. “There have been allegations that the menace of oil theft is being perpetrated by persons in authority. The hurried destruction lays credence to that particular allegation.”
Experts say Nigeria has been losing thousands of barrels and millions of dollars every day to crude oil theft.
The ex-militant’s company has so far uncovered 58 instances of oil being siphoned from pipelines, including one connected to Nigeria’s major export line where oil was tapped unnoticed for nine years.
Tompolo has also alleged that security operatives, oil companies and local residents usually collude to steal oil. Last week, lawmakers promised to investigate the matter and make public their findings.
Abuja-based lawyer and economist Eze Onyekpere said the burning of the ship will make any investigation more difficult.
“When you apprehend an offender, you’ll need evidence to be able to prove before a court of law that such a person committed the offense in question,” Onyekpere said. “The vessel on which the crude oil is being carried is one of those pieces of evidence that you’ll need to bring before a court of law.”
Abubakar also worries about environmental damage.
“The destruction of this vessel in open space without appropriate paraphernalia to protect the ozone layer is an injustice the struggles and environmental rights of the Niger Delta people,” Abubakar said.
Critics are waiting for answers and monitoring what authorities do next.