By Bankole Shakirudeen Adeshina
It is no longer news that Ekoro, one of the communities at Oke Odo, Abule-Egba area of Agbado Oke-Odo Local Community Development Area of Lagos State was on Sunday, October 18, 2020, thrown into pandemonium and teeth-gnashing anguish, no thanks to the pipeline explosion that ravaged the area, consuming human lives and hundreds of millions worth of properties.
That the fire was caused by the activities of vandals of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation’s pipelines, who have been frequenting the area over the years, untamed, to illegally scoop the priced commodity, is equally no more news.
What appears to be generating serious attention however is the buildup to this event; the many unattended warnings, ignored concerns, as expressed by the residents and dwellers of the area, the suspected connivance of key actors of government with the perpetrators and the alleged shabby post-emergency management by the state government.
As at 11:00am on Monday, January 20, 2020, about 15 hours after the tragedy, and some nine hours after the inferno was effectively put out, the disaster management agency, Lagos State Emergency Management Authority (LASEMA), declared the rescue operations closed.
“We have completed the rescue operations. The fires have been effectively put out. And the environment is on recovery mood…,” Oke-Osanyintola, the Director General of LASEMA submits, while responding to this reporter’s question, during interview with newsmen at the site of the scene.
The inferno, unfortunately, recorded five casualties, two male adults, two female adults and one female minor, according to official statement by LASEMA.
An Hausa woman, who was away from home when the incident was happening and was hurrying home to save her child, was among the casualties. She and her son were both consumed in the raging fire.
According to on-the-scene investigation by this reporter, the residence of the slain mother and child, like many other houses gutted by the fire, was actually located over a 100 meters away from the explosion point and the said Right of Way of the NNPC Pipelines.
But the inferno penetrated through to the inner streets, as the highly inflammable spillage travelled through the open drainage system, razing down all objects on it way. About 30 houses, including schools, shops, worship centers, and 39 vehicles, 22 of which were articulated trucks, were consumed by the fire.
MANY IGNORED CONCERNS
As the residents lick their wounds, they became visibly furious too, reminiscing over the several complaints they have lodged, in the past, about the looming disaster and the lackadaisical attitude of the authority toward their lamentations.
“We have complained severally to the Police and even wrote and took petitions to as far away as the Abuja office of the NNPC, to draw the attention of the government officials to the crime going on in our neighborhood, but to no avail,” the Chairman of the Community Development Association of the area said.
According to the CDA Chairman, “the vandals have been frequenting Ekoro area for over a year now, coming at the dead of the night to scoop the Premium Motor Spirit into over a dozen waiting tanker trailers and run away before the day breaks. They are usually led by security officials who are heavily armed to the teeth,” he added.
Corroborating the CDA Chairman’s position, most of the residents who spoke with the reporter added that there are also worries over the complicity of some officials of a security agency designated to man the assets and some landlords in the area.
“Let me tell you the truth,” Otunba Olusegun Akinbode said. “It is a general knowledge in this area that the oil vandals who caused this disaster are most likely having the backings of the key state actors, including possibly officers of the Nigeria Police, Ikeja Electricity Company, some community leaders and even landlords among whose houses were also consumed.
“Otherwise, how can one explain the vandals’ unchallenged weekly visit to the same area to puncture the pipelines and steal thousands of liters of petroleum products into dozens of tanker trucks at the middle of the night, without meeting any security resistance whatsoever?”
Akinbode, whose name is probably made up in an attempt to evade victimization from the sensitive nature of the disclosure he is making, gave a graphical detail of how fluctuations in power supply to the area might have been aiding the crime.
“Usually, the scooping happens between 12am and 3pm. And during the entire operation, there would be a total blackout in the area. We notice that they will take power by 12am and bring it back by exactly 3am. The criminals would have been done and long gone by then.
“And how can one explain that each time these criminals come to scoop the fuel, they are guarded by heavily armed security operatives? How can one explain that most of the trucks parked that are now consumed by the fire are sometimes used as a decoy to create an impression that they came for repairs, only to be used to barricade the scooping operations while it last?”
Ademola Hassan, a 34-year-old artisan, who lives in one of the buildings erected on the NNPC Right of Ways, some 200 meters away from the inferno, said the residents appear to be used to the activities of the pipeline vandals, but “what we are uneasy about is the deafening silence of the authority expected to stop the criminality and protect our lives.
“On several occasions, I and my other neighbors have had to officially report our concerns to our Landlord, who in turn acknowledged the worrisome level of what was going on and equally expressed frustration over lack of result from efforts being taken so far from the Landlord Association.
“A friend recently escaped being killed by the security guarding their vandalism operation. Michael was returning from Ajah very late on that night when he ran into them, scooping the fuel from the same very point that exploded.
“He eventually landed in the hospital and spent three days before he could recover from the shuck. This was because he was actually shot at but the bullet missed him.”
The cubicle-sized post of officers of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC) manning the asset that exploded was filled with about six officers during our visits. They were all stern-looking.
Curiously, the cries for help, the lamentation over loss, the anguish and anger – as well as the second pandemonium that erupted due to a flame ignited from the ruins of a building, didn’t do much to sway these men into mingling.
An approach by this reporter to probe into why they acted in such a way and as well solicit their response to the allegation of their complicity in the activities of the pipeline vandals was quickly rebuffed.
One of them, a muscular, dark-skinned and mustache-wearing macho-man, asked this reporter to back off, saying “everything you need or want to hear should be provided to you by the senior officials on the scene,”
Early last year, the Civil Defense operatives were accused of “killing a young man, who was said to be frustrating the vandals’ activities in the area.”
“It was his death that eventually led to the death of his aged father same last year,” says Deji Johnson, another resident who lives close to the deceased home.
“The truth be told, the government has failed us. They have failed in their duty to protect and safeguard us, the citizen. This recurring pipeline explosion disaster in Abule-Egba here is a testament to that. It is most painful that nobody is concerned enough to do something about this.”
A senior official of the NSCDC at Alimoso, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the agency, however told CITYVOICE that his colleagues always maintained professionalism and that the presence of civil defence officers has reduced incidence of pipeline vandalism across the state.
LANDLORDS KEPT MUM
With more than 20 houses razed to the ground, alongside shops, schools and worship centers, the pains of the landlords in the area were visible. What wasn’t conceivable however, according to investigation, is the loud silence over their alleged aiding and abating of the nefarious activities of the pipeline vandals in the area.
“Some of the Landlords in this area are also partaking in the crime. Not by directly involving themselves, to the best of my knowledge, but by allowing themselves to be bribed by the criminals.
“And these same elements when they get to the CDA and Landlord meetings, would just maintained innocent face. We know some of them and some other leaders in the area who are reaping from the crime. When the time comes, we shall name and shame them all,” said a source, who pleaded anonymity because of fear of attack over the sensitivity of the issues raised.
His position was validated by another resident who simply identified himself as Mr. Benjamin
“Me, I am an Okada rider. I see a lot of things happening here. But you dare not say. But now that this has happened, the best time to speak is now.
“Look, the government should order the arrest of all the landlords here. They should drill all of them. When that is done, the honest ones amongst them would be known and the criminally-minded ones who aid and abet the pipeline vandals would be dealt with.
Benjamin also carpeted the Nigerian police, saying its leadership should launch an investigation on the possible involvement of its staff in the criminality.
During his visit to the scene of disaster, the Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu acknowledged that the police have not made any arrest of any persons connected to the crime.
“…But be rest assured that anybody who is connected, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, shall never go unpunished,” he promised.
“Investigations have started. We have our men, in plain uniform, already getting the information needed. And very soon, we will address the public on the number of people we have picked.
“Remember, when similar thing happened in Idimu the other time, we knew how we went round and got them (perpetrators) arrested, professionally. It is the same approach we are going to use here (Ekoro, Abule-EGBA).
“They (the perpetrators) ought to have done similar thing last week, but we got the information on time and moved in and some of them were arrested and prosecuted. It is the same thing we are going to do in this case. As soon as we get the necessary intelligences ready, we will move in and get the perpetrators arrested and prosecuted,” he explained.
PAST PIPELINE EXPLOSIONS IN ABULE-EGBA
IN December 26, 2006, the first pipeline fire explosion rocked Abule-Egba, killing over 500 people, according to a Reuters reporter’s personal count. No official figure was released by the government.
In 2016, a similar explosion was experienced in Abule-Egba, killing 260 and destroying hundreds of millions worth properties.
In December 18, 2018, another explosion happened, luckily with no human casualties. But it consumed over 100 houses, 320 shops and 77 cars.