Oil thieves in the Niger Delta have told Sky News they are desperate to be recognised as legitimate and put an end to the extensive environmental damage they are causing.
We gained rare access to thieves operating in the delta and saw the widespread pollution caused by their oil stealing.
One kingpin calling himself Emo, who said he employed nearly 2,000 people, told us: “There are no jobs. We have nothing to do. You understand?
“That is why we are seeking help. We are begging for the government to assist us. You understand? We know what we’re doing is wrong but we have no option.”
Emo admitted to us he was aware their activities can affect oil prices around the world and inside his own country but insisted he and his staff felt they had no alternative but to steal the oil.
“We are desperate,” he said. “We have no jobs and no future.”
He travels everywhere with armed guards to protect him from bandits and other thieves. We are taken to one of his camps in Rivers State by speedboat around 19 miles from Port Harcourt.
This area is lawless and kidnapping is rife.
We have our own security with us and Emo assures us his own guards are hidden in the mangrove swamps watching us arrive.
A military campaign against the oil theft simply causes a short-term setback for the gangs
“They know me. They will not attack us,” he said.
The sole Nigerian navy boat, which is patrolling the waterways long before we reach Emo’s illegal refinery, stops us and demands we hand over all our fuel to them.
Despite a well-vaunted military campaign to put a stop to the illegal activities here, corruption is apparent and part of the problem.
Emo insisted he and his staff felt they had no alternative but to steal oil
As we approach the illegal refineries, we see a plume of smoke indicating others are burning the crude.
Many of the thieves have stopped daytime burning to avoid being attacked by the Nigerian military.
But the government-authorised clampdown does not stop the thieving. It simply sets them back for a short time.
“We have been attacked,” Emo said. “It causes a lot of oil spillage and then we just start up again.”
The damage to the area is extensive with oil everywhere, coating mangrove swamps
His bravado is quite staggering.
I ask him repeatedly about being so outspoken about his illegal work and he replies: “I don’t care. What can they do to me?
“I want to become legal. I want the government to say we can be legal and do this legally.”
The damage to the area is extensive with oil everywhere, coating the mangrove swamps, all over the water and washing much further down the Delta polluting water supplies for thousands of others downstream.