The recent fuel tanker explosion in Okogbe village, Rivers State, has left many Nigerians wondering when the end to all these disasters will come.
By Margaret NONGO-OKOJOKWU
Thursday, July 12, 2012 has indeed gone down in the history of Nigeria as a day the residents of Okogbe and the entire people of Nigeria will never forget. It was a black Thursday when hundreds of people were roasted to death in a fuel tanker explosion while trying to eke out livelihood.
The explosion at Okogbe village between Ahoada and Mbiama on the ever-busy East-West Road, which occurred when the fuel-laden truck, while trying to avoid a head-on collision with oncoming vehicles, veered into a ditch and spewed its content, is amazingly not the first in the history of Nigeria, and, sadly, it may not be the last.
Events such as this have become too common to the average Nigerian, even though some were never reported. Yet it is the number of lives that it claims at every occurrence that is gradually becoming a thing of concern to various stakeholders. More than 100 people who went to scoop up oil from the overturned oil tanker were burned to death that fateful day, including a pregnant woman carrying a baby on her back. It was reported that the vehicle caught fire and consumed everyone around.
Ibim Semenitari, the Information commissioner in Rivers state, said, “More than 100 people were killed in the inferno from the petrol tanker, while around 50 with severe burns have been hospitalised.” Also, according to Emeka Idika, a journalist, the death toll might be higher as some people from the nearby village of Okogbe were on fire as they ran into the bush and their bodies had not yet been located. Another journalist, Oluchi Iwuoha Chimezie, said she had counted more than 100 bodies.
“The tanker swerved as it was trying to avoid a collision with three oncoming vehicles including a bus,” said Kayode Olagunju, sector commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC, in the state. “Residents said that shortly after the collision, hundreds of locals flocked to the site to collect the spilling fuel, when suddenly there was an explosion followed by fire. 93 people were burned to death on the spot. Two died later in the hospital (and) 18 people were seriously injured,” adding that at least 34 motorcycles were destroyed in the blaze.
An AFP photographer at the scene said many of those killed were motorcycle operators, known locally as Okada, who raced to fill up their tanks after learning of the crash. Motorcycle driver Kingsley Jafure said the vehicle collision occurred at roughly 6:00 am, and the spilled petrol caught fire about 90 minutes later, but that time sequence could not be immediately confirmed by officials.
“At about 7:30, while I was inside trying to decide whether to go (scoop fuel) or not, that was when I saw that the tanker explode,” Jafure said. The area had been cordoned off by security forces and a large number of rescue officials were on the ground, said an AFP correspondent. The NEMA statement said that “rescue workers from the police, road safety, fire service, civil defence and NEMA were at the scene to evacuate victims and control the traffic.”
But a recent report has it that death toll from the fuel tanker explosion has so far risen to 143, following the discovery of six decomposing bodies from the bush near the scene of the incident. The death toll as at Sunday, July 15, was 137. Olagunju, however, said: “We are still battling with the actual injury figures, as a lot of victims were transferred from one hospital to the other, which could result in multiple counting. Some victims initially went home for traditional treatment while others headed for some private clinics. We will work with other agencies and the Rivers State government to collate the actual figures.”
Meanwhile, Chief Medical Director of the government-owned University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, Prof Aaron Ojule, has called on relatives of victims being treated locally to move them to the hospital for free treatment, adding that some of the badly burnt victims might be flown abroad for further treatment. He said many of the survivors were being referred to the teaching hospital from other hospitals and centres, and that a sub-committee had been put in place to collate the actual figures of the victims in order to know those who have died so far to avoid confusion.
As expected, several reactions have continued to trail the Okogbe explosion. The Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) has blamed the fuel tanker explosion on the Federal Government’s failure to deliver on social infrastructure and the apathetic attitude of relevant government agencies to disaster management. In a statement issued in Lagos, ERA/FoEN described the incident as “very unfortunate” and an unmistakable reflection of the poverty in the Niger Delta due to mismanagement of the oil wealth derived from the region.
“That this sad incident occurred in the heart of the Niger Delta where the resource is extracted and the people suffer deprivation to such extent as to scoop petroleum products from an accident scene is an indication of poverty and a government that has failed to honour its social contract with the people. Nothing can be more depressing,” said ERA/FoEN Executive Director, Nnimmo Bassey. “It is even more disheartening to note that the people caught in the inferno are victims of a system that has refused to halt large-scale oil thefts in the country.”
Bassey pointed out that the Okogbe episode brings back memories of the 1998 Jesse pipeline explosion in Delta State which claimed over 1,000 lives, the Abesan and Ijegun explosions in Lagos in 2006 and 2008, respectively, and many others that were not reported, even as he added that the woeful state of social infrastructure like the situation at the East-West Road can only encourage such disasters.
“It will be recalled that at the South-South Peoples Conference held in Asaba earlier this year, the Minister for Niger Delta Affairs disclosed that contracts for the dualisation of the East-West Road was awarded in 2006 without required contract designs and specifications. This, for us, is a recipe for non-delivery and blatant corruption. The delay in executing the project caused this calamity. We therefore refuse the usual verbal empathy of the government whenever avoidable incidents like this occur. We frown at the fact that community people were on ground and ready to put out the fire but could do little because the entire Ahoada Local Government did not have dependable emergency response facilities and had to wait for firemen from far away Port Harcourt to put out a fire that could have been contained within the local government. We cannot continue sacrificing the lives of innocent Nigerians on the platter of corruption and inefficiency,” Bassey insisted.
Meanwhile, chairman of the Senate Committee on Petroleum Resources (Downstream), Magnus Abe, has bemoaned the petroleum tanker fire. Describing it as avoidable incident, he said the government could no longer afford to ignore investments in pipeline infrastructure to transport petroleum products across the nation. “This unfortunate incident offers us another opportunity to address the critical issue of our pipelines. As we mourn, let’s also pray that God give us wisdom and courage to address issues of our pipelines so that this incident will be the last of its kind in our country. Moving petroleum products in small quantities by tankers over long distances is simply too expensive, too dangerous and financially unsustainable in the long term,” Abe said.
Major accidents, often involving large-haul trucks, are common in Nigeria, where many of the roads are in terrible condition. Lorries operating on the country’s roads are often old and poorly maintained, and roadworthiness checks are scant. Abandoned trucks, some of them destroyed by heavy collisions, can regularly be seen along major Nigerian motorways.
Many hundreds of people have died over the last decade while trying to take fuel leaking from pipelines that have broken or been vandalised. In March, a petrol tanker caught fire after skidding off the road in southern Port Harcourt, killing six people and injuring several others. In April last year, a fuel tanker overturned at an army checkpoint in central Nigeria, sparking an inferno in which some 50 people were killed.
Nigeria is a major oil exporter, but millions of its citizens live in abject poverty, most especially those living in the oil rich Niger Delta region. We may be right to say poverty is not enough reason to go running after a leaking fuel tanker just to scoop a handful of fuel to sell and eat, yet in a given situation, most people lose the ability to think properly, especially when the given situation is dire.
Another issue most compelling is the lackadaisical attitude of the government in tackling relevant issues on infrastructure. One can rightly argue that if only the East-West Road had been in good shape, perhaps this ugly incident could have been averted. Of course, fingers have pointed to the fact that contracts have been awarded for the dualisation of this particular road, but nothing has been done on the project. And what exactly is the government doing to nail these culprits?
This again brings us to the issue of corruption. We cannot just go ahead carrying on as if it doesn’t matter, and someday it could be worse than this. These issues need to be addressed. Government must wake up to its responsibilities to see that its citizens are provided the basic amenities of life. Isn’t that what tax payers’ money is meant for? Yet we have more than that; we even have enough looted money to channel to the common masses, if the powers that be so wish.