The managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. (NNPC) sparked controversy this week when he said thieves from all levels of society were stealing 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
Mele Kyari even accused churches and mosques of keeping stolen fuel, an allegation religious groups rejected. Kyari addressed a weekly ministerial briefing in the presidential village on Tuesday and said up to 95% of Nigeria's oil produced at the Bonny Terminal was being stolen.
The NNPC official cited one oil pipeline in the area and said 295 illegal connections had been attached along its 200-kilometer course.
Kyari said the oil theft was mostly being done by organized groups who sometimes work with residents of local communities. He also said religious leaders, churches and mosques were involved in crude oil theft.
Kyari said authorities were attempting to address the problem, but added that the theft was difficult to stop.
"We have some visibility around nearly everything we have, particularly on the security platforms," Kyari said. "Currently there are 122 arrests, and they will be prosecuted. About 11 vessels, 30 speed boats have been arrested, 179 wooden boats and then 37 trucks."
Kyari's comments on mosques and churches taking part in the theft sparked a backlash among religious groups.
A spokesperson for the Catholic Society of Nigeria, Micheal Umoh, said the oil company head must be specific in his opinion.
"Even this thing they're talking about, that religious leaders being part of it, if there's any atom of truth in it, it will not be possible if government was responsible and doing its work," Umoh said. "They're just trying to bring in all these distractions, but I will not want to begin to disagree with him until he really explains what he means, because many people go by the name 'religious leaders' but with very terrible characters."
Kyari said security operatives had recovered nearly 36 million liters of crude oil and about 22 million liters of diesel. He also said they'd recovered some gasoline and kerosene.
Kyari emphasized that apart from revenue losses, oil bunkering activities and pipeline vandalism were causing irredeemable environmental damage.
But critics such as Umoh are pointing a finger back at authorities, saying they have been reckless in the handling of oil assets, limiting national profit.
Faith Nwadishi, the executive director of the Center for Transparency Advocacy, said the government was only trading blame.
"The question for me to ask is: Can you park a ship in a church or in a mosque? The volumes that we're talking about are between 85 and 95 percent of crude. I understand the fact that now Nigerians are talking about crude oil theft, depletion of revenue, and that's why they're saying the easy way out is to say that other stakeholders are the ones that are stealing the crude," Nwadishi said.
In August, Nigerian oil officials launched an online portal to track oil theft and promised to reward whistleblowers.
In a controversial move, they also awarded a pipeline surveillance contract to a former militant who used to steal oil.
The governor of Delta state, one of Nigeria's oil-rich southern states, praised the awarded contract, saying it showed the government took his advice to involve the oil-producing communities in pipeline surveillance.