OFFICIAL NEGLIGENCE RESULTS IN GRAVE TRAGEDY
AT IDJERHE, NIGER DELTA, NIGERIA
Doifie Ola & David Eighemhenrio
DATELINE: IDJERHE, OCTOBER 20, 1998
Jesse is the principal town in Idjerhe clan within the Urhobo heartland of the Niger Delta. The town is about 55 kilometers from the oil city of Warri, Delta State. On Saturday, October 17, 1998, the 32 communities in Idjerhe was thrown into unprecedented mourning when a pipeline carrying fuel exploded and killed over 500 people.
The estimated population of Jesse town is 7,000. The settlement is rural,
with wet weather, typical of Ocean influenced areas of the Hot-wet Equatorial
The indigenes of the locality are from the ethnic Urhobo nation. They are accommodative, law-abiding and live in harmony with neighbouring communities.
The community is situated on huge commercial deposit of crude oil. The soil is acidic clay, habouring fresh water swamp forest. The vegetation is diverse and economic plants like the raffia and rubber thrive in commercial quantity. Palm trees grow well where the soil retains its original drainage. The people of the communities are mostly crop farmers, rubber tappers and fishermen and women. But some few indigenes are involved in service activities like petty trading, tailoring, bicycle repairing.
Despite the immense wealth beneath their soil, Jesse like all the communities in the Niger Delta remain poor, ancient and neglected. Educational opportunities are limited. There are two primary schools and a secondary school. The schools are dilapidated with grossly inadequate facilities. There also exist a primary health post which is a mere symbol of primary health care delivery. There is a local market with few partially tarred single lane roads of the 1960s model. Although there are electric poles all over the Jesse Town, there exist no electricity. The people depend on water from the River Ethiope which separates Jesse from Sapele, a neighbouring town, for all their domestic use.
Their houses are mostly mud types. There is no hospital.
A direct victim of the Idjerhe fire, Mr. Onoriode Efenaya, now a patient at Nene Hospital, Sapele, told ERA that the leak from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation's (NNPC) high pressure pipeline conveying fuel from the Warri Refinery in Southern Nigeria to Kaduna in North Nigeria was first noticed on Friday, October 16, 1998 by a farmer returning from the day's work. On getting home in Jesse, he broke the news to his kinsmen, many of whom spread the story and trooped to Atiegwo, site of the 16 inch pipeline.
Efenaya, a rubber tapper and farmer, was in the field on Saturday, October 17, 1998, close to the leaking pipeline. Around 1.00pm, he heard a heavy sound like that of a burst truck tyre (Gboom!). The whole area was engulfed in flames. He fell down. Suffocating, he managed to crawl out of the immediate scene and was helped to Nene Hospital by a good Nigerian.
But close to 500 others were not as lucky. They were roasted to death. The immediate cause of the fire has yet to be established but everyone admits that prior to the fire outbreak, a leak had occurred and several people from the Idjerhe clan consisting of 32 communities had gone to Atiegwo either to fetch the fuel or simply to look at what was happening. It is being suggesting that because the whole atmosphere was high with fuel, even a little spark could have sparked off the fire.
This is likely as some of those who went to fetch the fuel had iron buckets with them and these are not known as one of the best means of carrying the product. ERA also learnt that about five minutes before the explosion, a helicopter belonging to Shell Petroleum Development Company Nigeria Limited hovered over the place and reportedly warned the people to leave the place.
Atiegwo, the explosion site is about 1.125 kilometre from Jesse community. The pipe that burst runs parallel to River Ethiope and has two major foot paths to it from the road. The area is actively cultivated by the local people. Next to the buried fuel pipe is a gas pipe line about 15 meters apart.
The massive flame of fire coming out from the leaking pipes has a base area of about 25 metres square, located in a cassava farm, surrounded by rubber trees and the forest by the River Ethiope. The smoke from the fire ascending into the atmosphere had formed a thick dark cloud over the area in particular.
At the scene of the incident, the team was shocked to the marrow as the charred remains of human beings littered everywhere. The dead included children, youths and adults. A majority of those burnt were women. They were burnt beyond recognition. Jerry cans, basins and other items still litter the scene.
There has not been such an incident in Nigeria since 1956 when oil was discovered in Oloibiri in the Central Delta. About half of the cassava farm was completely razed to the ground, the rubber and the bush also partially burnt. A huge chunk of farmland has now been taken for burial purposes.
A deep and wide grave of about 30 metres from the fire point was dug and a pail loader brought by the Ethiope West Local Government Council where the mass burial took place on Tuesday, October 20, 1998. Wheel barrows and large bales of white linen cloth and large were used to convey the charred to the pit by the mass burial team.
ERA confirmed that the NNPC fuel pipe from Warri refinery passing through many communities in Idjerhe clan and others such as Amukpe, Jesse, Okpe, Mossogar through Ologbo down to Lokoja, was laid in the early 70s. Under normal circumstances, the pipe ought to have been changed because it had out lived its usefulness. There also ought to have been an adequate protective facility
There were no regular check and maintenance of the pipe, hence NNPC could not detect the leakage at Jesse on time. They had to help themselves with the scarce commodity that was oozing out and wasting. The NNPC and its joint venture partner Shell and the military government did nothing immediately to salvage the situation when the leakage was reported. Rather, a Shell helicopter hovered round the place, warning the people to leave the scene. The law enforcement agents especially the police made the issue worse as they seized the petroleum product from the poor villagers who managed to draw from the hot pipe instead of chasing them away from the leaking spot that was a potentially dangerous area.
The Jesse fire disaster is a true and practical revelation of the acute
poverty that the masses of Nigeria are immersed in due to the continued
misrule by successive military regimes in Nigeria. The people battered,
deprived and famished in the midst of plenty are now in mourning. Hopeless
in a vast natural environment of hope. It would be recalled that Nigerians
have now come to live with fuel scarcity without any meaningful efforts
on the part of government to arrest the ugly trend. When fuel was not scarce
in the past, the consciousness of rural dwellers of its importance was
very low. When the military government, especially the immediate past government,
deliberately created artificial scarcity to facilitate its perpetuation
in power, the consciousness of fuel as a quick source of income rose astronomically
among Nigerians even poor farmers who form the base of the most neglected
Nigerians by military tyranny.
STATE OF THE DIRECT VICTIMS
Dr. Hastings Eduvie, Medical Director of Central Hospital, Sapele, the nearest hospital to the Jesse people explained on the day of the incident 40 people were rushed there. Of this number, 18 were immediately admitted while the other 22 were treated and discharged. Out of the 18, seven died and eight were removed by their relations for fear that they may be prosecuted for sabotage on discharge. In Nigeria under successive military dictatorships, including that of General Abubakar, the penalty for sabotage is death. The medical director explained that those that died had severe burns. They include Gladys Temilero, 36, Augustina Vincent, 33, and Ejowoke Enatamen, 18 . As at Tuesday, October 20, only four patients were still at the hospital. The four were: Blam Ewubamen, 21, a driver from Jesse, Mrs Caro Umukoro, Doris Solomon from Jesse and Aruguane from Sapele On the next day, one of the four lost his life.
The Medical Director noted that the Federal Government would settle the bills of the patients. Unconfirmed reports had it that, Shell and Chevron Nigeria Limited have made promises to donate antibiotics, infusions and dressings to the hospital. Only the Delta State Government had made good its promise to supply all the drugs so far administered on the patients.
At Imene-Eferakeya Medical Center, Amulepe, the most senior nurse on duty, Miss Monical Egagifo told ERA that eight of the fire victims were admitted but three of them died, while two were discharged by their relations for fear of arrest and charge.
Three people were still lying there by the time ERA visited. They were Onorude Futo, 17, student of Mossogor Secondary, Mossogar. Uniokoro Goodluck, 18, student of Zik's Academy Sapele and Okwo Fassa, 25 years old farmer, from Jesse.
Futo explained that, he was a victim of unnecessary anxiety. That he went to Sapele for a wake-keeping on October 16, 1998. While returning the next day , he was enticed by the crowd he saw close to the burst pipe and he went to catch a glimpse of the scene. About 100 metres to the spot , he heard high sound of explosion and balls of fire filled the whole place. He shouted "Jesus Christ", and found himself flying over and through the flames. He later found himself by the roadside and was immediately rushed to Nene Hospital by an unknown good Nigerian.
A relation of Futo, Mrs. Victoria Odumaka, farmer, residing at Mossogar, pleaded passionately with ERA to assist them in anyway possible. Mr. Matthew Obligho, a teacher at Jesse Primary School, lamented the loss of lives and described it as a disaster. He described the incident "was an unforgettable one". He berated the government for creating artificial scarcity of fuel. According to him, Jesse has nothing to show as an oil producing community. He warned that if urgent steps were not taken by the government to comprehensively review the plight of Delta communities, particularly the Idjerhe, the people "would be left with no option than to chase out the oil companies in their lands and practically take their destiny as a people in their hands". He later gave the name of the teacher who was burnt in the inferno as Mrs. C. Okwere, who was also a staff of Jesse Primary School, Jesse.
The Ovbioria family at Jesse, told ERA that they lost seven persons in the fuel fire. And that they were mourning their dead. Mr. Ovbioria also confirmed that many car owners who went to buy fuel from the villagers at the spot were burnt beyond recognition, while others were seriously injured. Mr. J. E. Okoniteyi, the supervisor of the mass burial said that they found some car keys on the ground which were taken away by policemen.
Environmental Rights Action recommends that:
i. A new fuel pipe should be laid immediately to replace the affected one, and other fuel pipes across the country in similar condition to the Jesse pipe. There should be adequate protective covering on incendiary facilities.
ii. The Federal Government should treat and comprehensively rehabilitate the survivors of the incidents.
iii. Jesse community should be apologised to, profusely by the Federal Government and it should be paid adequate compensation for the massive loss of lives, farm, farmlands and the psychological and emotion trauma they went through.
iv. The lingering fuel scarcity should be addressed without further delay.
v. We call for the setting up of high powered judicial commission of inquiry to look into the remote and immediate causes of the fire. NNPC officials must stop accusing the villagers of vandalisation when they have not done any investigation. The point of the explosion is still on as at Thursday October 22, 1998.
vi. We call on the media not to paint the local people of Idjerhe as vandals and saboteurs.
vii. We call on NNPC and Shell to take steps to restore the destroyed
ecology of Idjerhe.
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