ABUJA Nigeria's government is preparing to prosecute 500 people it has detained on allegations of stealing oil, officials said on Thursday in a crackdown on a criminal enterprise that drains up to a fifth of the country's oil output.
Gangs tap into pipelines in the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta, siphoning off hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day in operations known as "bunkering".
The governor of Delta state, Emmanuel Uduaghan, told reporters after a meeting at President Goodluck Jonathan's house that the government was preparing cases for oil theft, which carries a prison sentence of 21 years.
"The resolutions included that a legal task force ... be set up immediately to commence prosecution of proven cases, using relevant laws," Uduaghan said.
Finance Minister Okonjo Iweala was quoted in the Nigerian press this week as saying that an estimated 400,000 barrels a day was lost to theft, or about a fifth of the output of Africa's leading energy producer.
About 90 percent of the stolen fuel is sold onto international markets, to criminal networks in the Balkans or refiners in Singapore, analysts say. The rest is refined for local consumption, filling a gap left by Nigeria's defunct legitimate refineries.
Security forces said on Sunday they had impounded three barges laden with 600,000 liters of illegally refined fuel in the Delta. But enforcement has proven difficult because Nigeria's own security forces are complicit in the practice.
Residents of the Delta say the lack of development and environmental devastation in the region of mangrove swamps has given many a feeling that they are entitled to help themselves to a share of Nigeria's vast oil wealth.
(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Grant McCool)