A TRAGEDY of immense proportions occurred on Saturday, October, 17, 1998 in Idjerhe Clan comprising 32 communities in Ethiope West Local Government Council of Delta State, Southern Nigeria when a 16 inch petrol pipeline linking the Warri refinery to KAduna exploded at Atiegwo, leaving hundreds of villagers dead and critically injuring hundreds more in the ensuing inferno. The community most affected was Jesse, the main town in the area. Without any investigation, the Petroleum Products Marketing Company (PPMC), a subsidiary of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the Military Government alleged sabotage. But this charge has not been substantiated. Relying on this warped thinking, the Military Government of General Abdusalam Abubakar has ruled out compensation and the surviving villages even fear that they may be prosecuted.
The Environmental Rights Action (ERA) team that visited Idjerhe learnt that a leak in the high pressure pipeline was noticed on Friday, October 16. That day, the local people from Jesse and nearby villages trooped to Atiegwo. Some tried to scoop the fuel as the country has been under an unending fuel crisis since the time of late dictator, General Sani Abacha. Others went to the scene just to look. Some were in their farms while others were either fishing or returning from fetching potable water from the nearby river Ethiope when tragedy struck. A majority of the victims were women and children.
Idjerhe is in the grip of fear and gloom. The people are reluctant to tell their own story to challenge the picture put out by the oil industry and the military regime that backs it.
In the testimonies that follow, ERA brings you the voice of the local
people. They are saying they are no vandals. They are saying the issue
is that of resource deprivation. They are saying that the underlying cause
of this national tragedy is official negligence. They are saying they have
lost lives and means of earning a living.
HEAR THE PEOPLE SPEAK:
"CAN EUNICE BE A VANDAL?"
NAME: MRS AGNES ONOJOWO
She said she was going to the farm. She left us happy. We were expecting some red cassava for dinner. She never came back. We saw the basin of the cassava. We saw the "karta" (head pad). We recognised our basin and her cloth. Her body we did not see. Her voice we did not hear. The fire took her from us.
They say we are vandals. How? Can Eunice be a vandal? It is the oil
people who have been vandalising our means of livelihood. It is the government
that has stolen from us and continues to do so even to this minute (voice
quivering, and tears rolling down).
"NOBODY KNOWS WHAT CAUSED THE FIRE"
NAME: MR. COLUMBUS DAJU
In the afternoon of that Saturday, I was sleeping because I wasn't feeling well. I was woken by the explosion and we decided to rush to the place. When we got there , we saw many dead bodies. So we began to cry. Every body was running here and there looking for their children. In some families, man and wife, father and children, young men, young women, old mammas all died.
We trace this incident to the pervasive fuel scarcity in the country.
When the thing happened, many of them didn't know that it was fuel. They
didn't know. Many of those who died went to look at the strange substance
coming out from the soil. They did not go to collect fuel. Many of them
went to look. Many of them live by the River Ethiope. Those who were just
coming with basins/buckets on their heads with water went to take a look
at the scene. During the look, the explosion occurred. That is why you
see the many basins. Many people reside by the River. How can a motor bike
that is using fuel in a place that is bringing out fuel cause fire?
WHAT CAUSED THE FIRE?
Nobody really knows what caused that fire. Well, an helicopter belonging to Shell hovered around there, warning people to disperse. Five minutes after, the explosion occurred. I lost five of my cousins. One is a child to Papa Ishan. He died. The boy is about 18 years old. Then, another lady with a child on her back. Then another young boy aged about fifteen years old died also. Two young ones who are about 12 years are still in hospital today. We don't know whether the other two will be saved. We don't know. What the government is saying now that these people went to vandalise the pipeline in order to take the oil is untenable. How can a great number of people, almost one thousand come to a conclusion that they want to vandalise the oil (pipeline)?
The people that came from this village are very many. It is very difficult to get the exact figure. Many people rushed to look. Like when the helicopter carrying the Head of State landed on Monday, nearly the whole village went to look at it because they had not seen such a thing before. Many of them here are semi-literate. Even myself, I have not been living where helicopters are common. So if it lands I must go and look. This is why when news of the leak made their rounds, many went to take a look. Not that they went to collect fuel as is being alleged.
Government has power over everybody. If the pipeline had been protected in a very safe, like with iron rods people would not get access to it even if it was leaking. But that was not the case. Because of the pipeline was not well protected, so many of our people perished. When the Head of State came, he told the whole world that there was nothing he could do but that proper medical attention should be given to those who are still alive. In my own opinion, they should have given families of the victims some compensation because it is not good for whole households to perish at once just like that.
The people of Jesse are predominantly farmers. Even most of the farms surrounding that area have been damaged. Cassava farms were the most affected. These farms were mostly owned by women. The women in this community feed the men because the men have no employment. They are all jobless. Some of those who died were in their farms. This type of tragedy has never occurred before. When the incident occurred, many came on bicycles from the nearby villages to take a look at the scene. It is difficult to ascertain the figure (of casualties) now except you go from village to village. We have 32 villages in this clan. This is Idjerhe clan in Urhoboland. Some of those who died were fishing in River Ethiope when the incident occurred.
The River Ethiope is just about two poles from the spot of the explosion. Some of them were fetched out of the river. This is how it all happened. If our government is loving it should ensure compensation to families of the victims because the people never knew the danger surrounding this fuel. They thought fuel is just like the water they fetch from the river too. They only hear of fuel, fuel, fuel, fuel. That fuel passes through the earth, so when the leak occurred, they naturally went to take a look at it.
Many innocent souls died.
"MY WIFE WAS KILLED IN THE FIRE"
NAME: MR. O. OGBAKPA
My house is broken. I have lost the pillar of my house. My wife. She
was killed in that fire. We married a long time ago. Yes, in 1963. We have
nine children. I don't want to talk anymore. No talk can bring back my
wife. I am finished. What do you want me to say? It has happened. Death
has visited us and left us in sorrow.