Imo villagers seek respite after illegal refinery explosion kills over 100, burns vehicles
CHIDIEBUBE OKEOMA writes about the deadly explosion at an illegal refinery in Imo State
•Youths blame govt, accuse security agents of connivance
Perhaps, there was no premonition that the over 100 people who lost their lives at an illegal refinery site in Abaezi forest in the Ohaji Egbema Local Government Area of Imo State wouldn’t return to their homes when they left last Friday.
Our correspondent gathered that the illegal bunkering site had been in existence for many years and drew illegal oil dealers from far and near including from states in the southern parts of the country.
Located in the centre of a forest, the illegal refinery is a stone’s throw away from Rivers State. Despite its bad road network and distance, people still thronged the place to buy fuel.
Apart from the illegal oil activities which were held there, people sold food, hard drugs and other things. This obviously allowed workers and buyers at the place not to have any reason to leave the forest in search of food, water or drugs.
Our correspondent who through an access route located the community a day after the explosion observed that the villagers live far from the illegal refinery site. The area is denoted by a swampy soil. On arrival, charred bodies littered the place alongside sprinkled refined oil and burnt vehicles.
It was impossible to recognise any of the victims considering the crowd which besieged the place to have a glimpse of the site. Those who tried escaping the inferno finally succumbed to death on road paths; others died on the site while two persons who tried climbing trees were caught in the web of fire and died on treetops.
A horrible sight
It was an awful spectacle which many described as one of the biggest horrors since the creation of the state in 1976.
The state commissioner for Petroleum Resources, Goodluck Opiah, who was the first government official to visit the scene after the explosion stated that the incident was unfortunate.
Extending sympathies of the state government to the victims’ relations who he said were unidentifiable and to community members whose farmlands and crops were destroyed by the explosion, the commissioner said that the state government had declared the owner of the illegal refinery, Okenze Onyenwoke, wanted. He advised Onyenwoke, who he said was on the run, to turn himself in at any police station. Opiah, who is an indigene of the community, described the development as sad.
He said, “This is wickedness. This is an economic sabotage. It is also destroying our youths. I therefore call on the youth to shun this kind of illegitimate business. There are many legitimate businesses one could do to make genuine money.”
People who spoke to our correspondent from at the scene of the explosion blamed the government for the incident.
Some blamed the inability of the government to provide jobs to the teeming youths as responsible for their taking to oil bunkering, while others claimed complicity of security agents in the area.
Despite the magnitude of the explosion, our correspondent observed people engaging in illegal refined oil from different oil bunkering sites in the community. They also part with money at each of the security checkpoints along Egbema- Izombe-Ogboaku road.
The Chairman, Interim Management Committee Chairman of the Ohaji Egbema LGA, Marcel Amadioha, after visiting the scene of the explosion, blamed security operatives in the area for the tragedy.
The council chairman said that security lapses in the area contributed hugely to the economic sabotage ongoing in the area.
He called on the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, to overhaul the security architecture of the area to ensure optimum delivery.
The chairman said “I was at the scene of the fire incident and was conducted round the Abaezi forest Egbema to mourn the victims and consoled the affected families of the fire incident and the people of Ohaji-Egbema Local Government Area over Friday’s fire incident that has left many people dead and scores sustaining life-threatening injuries.’’
Amadioha noted that the incident which left himself, the state governor, Hope Uzodimma and the people of the state deeply sad, occurred, when a pipeline in an illegal refinery camp in a forest in Abaezi Egbema exploded, killing many and keeping scores of persons in a life-threatening injuries.
He added, “It is heartbreaking. The government is looking seriously into the matter to critically assess the immediate and remote cause of the incident and ascertain the level of damage. The said incident left me deeply sad. I’m deeply touched because it is coming at a time when we are also dealing with all sorts of issues surrounding loss of lives and insecurity in the state.
“It is also unfortunate that the security agents in Ohaji-Egbema are the people masterminding the economic sabotage. I called on the Inspector- General of Police and other security chiefs for total overhauling of the security architecture in Ohaji-Egbema. The unfortunate situation would have been aborted if not for security lapses.
“Life is sacred and when it is taken forcefully, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. To families and friends of victims, I can say it is not only Egbema that is mourning but the entire Ohaji-Egbema and Imo State. I therefore convey the government’s heartfelt condolences to the people of Ohaji-Egbema, especially to the victims. We pray to God to give them the fortitude to bear the loss. While we can’t restore lives, we are committed to assisting victims as they grapple with this tragedy.’’
A huge casualty figure
The National Emergency Management Agency pegged the casualty figure at 110 but some locals said that the figure could be more than that.
One of the youth leaders in the community, who identified as Kingsley Obi, told our correspondent at the scene of the incident on Saturday that many perished.
He said that the bunkering site was bubbling like a market and there was a possibility that hundreds of people were involved.
The youth leader said, “This is about the biggest oil bunkering location in the whole of this area. It is close to Rivers State and people from far distances came to buy fuel. Apart from the illegal refinery activities, food, water and hard drugs were sold there. The unfortunate thing is that the victims are not identifiable. It was such a painful way to die. I could imagine the pains and horrifying experience they went through before they finally died. They were roasted like goats and cows. Only their skulls and skeleton remained.’’
A community leader who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the menace of oil bunkering in their farmlands was becoming unbearable.
He said, “Our crops and water have been polluted by crude oil. This is because of the illegal oil activities in the area. We do not have any clean water to drink again. Our farm produce such as cassava has been polluted. They are darkish and are no longer good for human consumption. We want the government to help us because if this is not done urgently, a time will come when starvation will kill our people. Food security is going to be a serious issue in a few years’ to come.’’
Also, the Organising Secretary, Egbema Youths Association, Ben Marcus, told Saturday PUNCH that the victims had yet to be identified including the cause of the explosion.
The youth said, “The unfortunate thing is that there was no survivor. All those who were there died. Nobody can actually tell the true story of what happened. How the place was engulfed by fire and consumed those who were there remained a mirage.’’
In unravelling the cause of the fire outbreak, the Commissioner of Police in Imo State, Muhammad Berde, ordered investigation into the cause of the explosion.
The police spokesperson in the state, Michael Abattam, told our correspondent that it was only when the cause of the explosion was ascertained that other angles of the tragedy would be explored.
Abattam said, “You know that the cause of the fire outbreak has not been uncovered. It is when that is known that we will look into other things. The CP has ordered an investigation to unravel the cause of the fire outbreak.”
On the allegation of complicity of security agencies in the incident, Abattam said that the state CP had zero tolerance for corruption.
Abattam stated that the command had various processes of checkmating activities of its officers.
He said, “We cannot work in isolation. We need the cooperation of everybody. People can come forward and report any erring officer and be assured that the proper thing will be done.
“The CP has zero tolerance for corruption. He is a professional who understands the law. We need the cooperation of the members of the public to serve them better. Immediately after the explosion, the CP launched an investigation into the incident to find out the cause of the explosion. It is when the cause of the incident is established that other issues would be explored.”
But the Imo State government disclosed that it had ordered security operatives to comb bushes in the oil-producing community to uncover illegal refineries.
The state commissioner for information and strategy, Declan Emelumba, in a statement said that the state government ordered a mass burial for the victims and fumigation of the scene.
The statement read “Imo State Government condoled with families of victims of last weekend’s illegal refinery fire disaster at Egbema.
A statement on Monday April 25 by the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, said the government deeply regrets that more than 70 Nigerians lost their lives in the unfortunate incident even when they were engaged in illegal activities, including sabotaging the nation’s economy.
The statement said that Governor Hope Uzodimma has directed immediate evacuation of the charred remains of the victims for mass burial, while the area should be fumigated for environmental safety.
Emelumba said, “It said the governor has also assured that the Imo State government will do everything humanly possible to stamp out illegal bunkering and refinery in the state. According to the statement, both operators and patrons of illegal bunkering and refinery have been ordered to cease operation forthwith having realised that the consequences of their actions could lead to mass murder.
“The statement said the government has directed security agencies in the state to intensify their search for the owners of the illegal refineries and ensure their immediate arrest and trial.’’
But a Non-Governmental Organisation, Igbo National Council, flayed the state governor, Hope Uzodimma and the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) for not visiting the scene days after the explosion occurred.
A statement by its President, Chilos Godsent, urged the federal and state governments to declare a state of emergency on unemployment.
The statement read, “The Igbo National Council condemns in its totality the ugly incident that occurred at Abaezi in the Ohaji Egbema Local Government Area on the night of Friday, April 22, 2022, where over one hundred Igbo youths were burnt and roasted like goats in a forest at Abaezi, Ohaji Egbema Local Government Area Imo State at the site of illegal refinery activities.
“The INC is shocked that 72 hours after the ugly incident, the Executive Governor of Imo State, Senator Hope Uzodimma and President Muhammadu Buhari have not physically visited the site to condole with the Abaezi people, Ohaji Egbema people, Imo people, the Igbo Nation and Nigeria for this irreplaceable generational lost.
“Consequent upon the above, the Igbo National Council INC therefore calls on the Imo State Governor and President Muhammadu Buhari to immediately visit the site and also declare a state of emergency on youth employment in South-East and South-South geopolitical regions to forestall the recurrence of this satanic incident.
“INC therefore demands the immediate arrest and prosecution of the owners of the site inclusive of all the security agents that were protecting and aiding the operation of such an illegal refinery site.
“INC therefore requests the state governor to immediately visit the site within 48 hours of this release in other for him to have a firsthand on-the- spot report of the sufferings of the unemployed Igbo youths.’’
The council also urged the state and federal governments to carry-out a census of the families that lost their wards and children, including those whose farmlands were damaged and pay them adequate compensation without delay.
The youth from Egbema told our correspondent that they had begun a sensitisation against oil bunkering in the area to avert a recurrence.
One of the youth leaders, James Ogbanja, who spoke to Saturday PUNCH said that the essence of the programme was to disabuse the minds of the youth from engaging in oil bunkering.
According to the youth leader, the sensitisation is ongoing in all the communities in Egbema.
Ogbanja further said that the security agents and community leaders were aware of the youth body’s genuine intentions to ensure sanity in the area.
Ogbanja said, “We have started sensitisation in all the communities in Egbema. The essence is to highlight the dangers of indulging in illicit businesses like oil theft. We know that there are no jobs in Nigeria. People will go to school without getting jobs after graduation but that is not an excuse to take to crime.’’
He added that the explosion would have been avoided if the youth had taken to legitimate businesses.
He said, “It was a tragedy. We are mourning. In order to stop a future recurrence, we have started a campaign of reconscientisation to lure youths from oil bunkering business and other similar businesses. There are other endeavours one can undertake and be successful.”
The African Democratic Congress in a statement in Owerri, blamed the explosion on what it tagged leadership ineptitude.
The group’s secretary in the state, Charles Okoro, said that the disaster would have been averted had the government done what was right.
He said “The ADC Imo State condemns in strong terms the ineptitude leadership and lackadaisical attitude of Governor Hope Uzodimma in handling the illegal activities of oil bunkering and theft in the oil rich Ohaji Egbema and Oguta LGAs respectively which has caused several lost of lives and wanton destruction of property in the once peaceful Imo State.
The party asked the governor to immediately apologise to the people of the state for what it described as insensitivity and failure in governance and security of lives and property since the inception of his administration.
The senator representing the area, Rochas Okorocha, called for the inauguration of a panel of inquiry to ascertain the cause of the explosion.
A former member of the House of Representatives, Jones Onyereri, said that the oil bunkering masterminds could be trained by the government to be helping the country in refining good products.
Onyereri, who spoke to our correspondent when he visited the scene, said “This is unfortunate. These oil bunkers can be harnessed by the government. They can be trained by the government and be used to refine good petroleum products. Instead of importing patrol, when trained by the government, they could be used to stop fuel importation.’’
The charred remains of the victims were given a mass burial on Tuesday by the state government and the scene fumigated four days after the explosion. However, no family members of the victims attended the ceremony.
Amadioha noted that it was because the victims were unidentifiable.
He said, “We have the instruction of the governor to conduct a mass burial for the victims of the explosion. This is the least we can do for them because they were burnt beyond recognition. You can see there are no relatives of the victims who are here. This is because the victims were unidentifiable. This is the least we could do to avoid their bodies from decaying further.
“I believe this will serve as a deterrent to others. We are clamping down on all illegal refineries in this area. We can’t allow this economic sabotage to continue. We deserve better than this. The governor has shown enough compassion by providing us with enough logistics to carry out this mass burial.”
The victims were buried after six hours after the traditional head of the community, Cyril Ikem, cleansed the land.
He further submitted that that upon conduct of the mass burial done, the government would intensify its clampdown on illegal refineries in the council area.