Nine oil thieves and their vessel caught with N200million worth of stolen crude oil in 2015 are going to walk free after paying N2,000 fine each.

They were in November 2021, remanded in prison by the Federal High Court in Warri, Delta State, for them to pay the paltry fine and meet other conditions to be totally free.

The trial judge, Okon Abang, fumed over the scheming by the prosecution and the defence that brought about the inconsequential sentence in his judgement delivered on November 24, 2021.

Onyeka Ohakwe, the prosecutor from the Federal Ministry of Justice, had filed a questionable plea bargain agreement with the defence, after drastically watering down the charges in October.

She amended the case trading the original charges that carried life jail with the one punishable merely by the inconsequential N2,000 fine.

“What manner of amendment,” the judge wondered in his judgement, noting that it was not done in public interest.

He noted that charges are supposed to be amended “to strengthen and enhance the case of the prosecution”, but that in the case, “I am seeing for the first time where a charge is amended to give the defendants soft landing.”

Arrest, original case
The nine oil thieves and their vessel, which was loaded with the stolen crude oil, were arrested by the Nigerian Navy during a patrol of the offshore Forcados/Escravos, Ogulaha, Delta State, on November 11, 2015.

Altogether, 12 persons and the vessel were arrested, but three of them would later be dropped from the case by the prosecution.

The nine remaining persons prosecuted to the end by the Attorney-General of the Federation’s office are: Adeola Goodness Olanimiji, Olaoluwa Temitope, Kelvin Onyeka, Dare Lukman, Ibrahim Sese, Amaechi Nkwocha, Anayo Chukwu Ejiogu, Emmanuel Ekuma, and Lucky Urhie.

Their vessel, MT Camillie Mongolia (with registration number 7323473), was also charged along with them as the first defendant.

The oil thieves were aboard the vessel loaded with 4,000 metric tons of crude oil, when they were arrested by navy operatives, who were on patrol in the Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Delta.

After the navy’s preliminary investigations, the case was transferred to the Nigeria Police for further investigation, which revealed that the defendants engaged in dealing in petroleum products without lawful authority, and, indeed, stole 4,000 metric tons of crude oil, valued at N200 million.

The Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation subsequently took over the case and subsequently filed three charges dated April 8, 2016, against 13 suspects and proposed to call six witnesses to prove its case against them.

They were charged in two of the counts with dealing in petroleum products without and being found with a vessel loaded with 4,000 metric tons of crude oil valued at N200milllion in violation of section 1(17) of the Miscellaneous Offences Act 2004 which carries life imprisonment upon conviction.

In the third count, they were accused of stealing 4,000 metric tons of crude oil valued at N200milllion, property of the federal government of Nigeria, punishable under section 390 of the Criminal Code Act Cap C38 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, an offence punishable by three years imprisonment.

‘Prosecution somersaulted’
Over five years after the charges were filed, the prosecution team led by Ms Ohakwe amended the charges preparatory to a plea bargain last year.

The amendment saw the three original counts replaced with only one which was so watered down that it was filed under section 13(2) (b)IV) of the Petroleum Act CAP 10 Laws of the Federation 2004 which prescribes a fine of “not exceeding N2,000” as punishment.

Mr Abang said the Ms Ohakwe-led prosecution somersaulted when it amended the charges to replace life jail and forfeiture of seized product in the former charges with N2,000 fine as punishment in the new charge.

“The prosecution that pledged to prove their case before the court beyond reasonable doubt in April 2016, rather, in October 2021, somersaulted and decided to settle the defendants as if they did not steal 4,000 metric tons of crude oil the property that belongs to everybody in this country.

“A period of about four years after, the prosecution then filed further amended charge that did not only reduce the counts from three to one, but now charged the defendants under a written law where the defendants are found guilty, they will pay fine of N2,000 each, not life imprisonment or life jail, that the earlier counts in Miscellaneous Offences Act would attract.”

‘Dirty plea bargain’
Oil theft continues to be a major drain on Nigeria’s economy with Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, one of the oil-rich Niger Delta states, saying in 2019 that Nigeria lost at least $1.35 billion to oil theft in the first half of the year. The governor heads a federal committee to check pipeline vandalism.

Apart from the economic losses associated with the crime, the activities of the perpetrators cause serious environmental hazards detrimental to human lives, farming and aquatic lives.

Mr Abang, in his judgement, regretted the constraints of the plea bargain preventing him from imposing heavy punishments he would have wished to mete out to the defendants, to emphasise the seriousness of the economic adversity oil theft causes Nigeria.

He said, “Even though a heavy sentence in this regard will not deter hardened criminals in the crude oil bunkering, court’s judgements should assist the government in its efforts to curb the menace in the oil industry being the main source of the federal government’s income as there is the prevalence of the offence of crude oil theft in the country.

“The value of what the likes of the defendants stole if injected into the system would have made life more meaningful to our people that are really suffering.”

Pointing out the plot orchestrated to create a soft-landing for the defendants, Mr Abang said, “the original charge was amended on October 27, 2021, to pave the way for the instant plea bargain agreement,” which he described as “sordid, and morbid, very unpleasant and dirty.”

“Through the amendment, the charge and plea bargain agreement, parties were able to tie the hands of the court,” Mr Abang said, as the prosecution had “agreed with the defendants for them to plead guilty and be sentenced to just N2,000 fine each person.”

He noted that the plea bargain agreement was such that “once the defendants are convicted, they will just pay N2,000 and walk away freely, having contributed to the economic adversity of this country that led many to live in abject poverty in Nigeria in the midst of plenty.”

“With the amendment of the original charge, there is no option of imprisonment for the court to choose from – either to accept terms of imprisonment or option of fine,” he said.

The judge also lamented that the prosecution conceded to the release of the vessel bearing the stolen crude upon the payment of N5million, whereas, according to him, the vessel ought to be forfeited to the federal government or sold by public auction “if the defendants were properly charged on a proper law”.

Order
In line with the plea bargain agreement, which he said he had no power to reject, Mr Abang ordered the 10 defendants to pay the total N20,000 fine.

He also ordered that the vessel pays the N5million fine stipulated in the plea bargain agreement.

But in a slight departure from the plea agreement, Mr Abang ordered that the about N17million proceeds of the sale of the stolen crude oil with accrued interest must be paid into the federation account kept by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

He said the rest of the defendants should not be released from prison until the evidence of the lodgment of the money in the federation account is filed before the court.

Also, he ordered them to be remanded in Sapele prison, in Delta State, pending when they meet the condition.

Order
In line with the plea bargain agreement, which he said he had no power to reject, Mr Abang ordered the 10 defendants to pay the total N20,000 fine.

He also ordered that the vessel pays the N5million fine stipulated in the plea bargain agreement.

But in a slight departure from the plea agreement, Mr Abang ordered that the about N17million proceeds of the sale of the stolen crude oil with accrued interest must be paid into the federation account kept by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

He said the rest of the defendants should not be released from prison until the evidence of the lodgment of the money in the federation account is filed before the court.

Also, he ordered them to be remanded in Sapele prison, in Delta State, pending when they meet the condition.