Governor Babatunde Fashola (SAN)
Tomorrow is January 27. It will be exactly 11 years since some people fleeing from the deafening sound of military shells died in canal. For years, just as it is today, they unknowingly lived in homes that are on the path of bombs stored in dumps that cannot hold them once detonated as was the case at the Ikeja Military Cantonment back in 2002, writes Bennett Oghifo
Tomorrow wreaths will be laid at a burial site the Lagos State built at the spot where those who drowned at the Oke-Afa canal in Lagos left their last footprints. Flowers will also be thrown into Canal in remembrance of the thousands that drowned there while fleeing the deafening explosions at the Military Cantonment at Ikeja on January 27, 2002. A Memorial Wall the government raised has names of some victims inscribed on it.
After the blast, the Federal Government instituted an enquiry, which blamed the Army for failing to properly maintain the base, or to decommission it when instructed to do so in 2001. Others said on the afternoon of 27 January, a fire broke out at the soldiers’ (Mammy) behind the Cantonment, which was also home to the families of soldiers. Shortly after that the fire apparently spread to the base’s main munitions store, which was being used to store a large quantity of “high calibre bombs”, as well as other sundry explosives.
That was all and, since then the Ikeja Cantonment armoury explosion has kept everyone guessing. Some said it was the accidental detonation of a large stock of military high explosives at a storage facility by a garden fire.
What is certain, though, was that the fires created by the debris from the explosion wreaked havoc in Lagos that Sunday afternoon and created a panic that spread to other areas. As people fled the flames, many stumbled into the Oke Afa canal that was covered with overgrown weeds and were drowned. The explosion and its aftermath are believed to have killed at least 1,100 people and displaced over 20,000, with many thousands injured or homeless. This blast killed many of the base staff and their families and immediately destroyed several nearby streets, flying debris starting numerous fires further afield. Tremors from the explosion also collapsed many buildings in the area, trapping people in the ruins and starting new fires amidst from damaged cooking appliances. These tremors were so powerful that windows shattered 15 km away and the blast could be felt more than 50 km inland.
Also thrown up by the blast were thousands of as yet unexploded military munitions, which fell in a rain of exploding shells, grenades and bullets casting further destruction across most of the northern section of the city. Thousands of people from Ikeja and neighbouring districts, seeing explosions and fires breaking out, fled their houses in an attempt to leave the affected areas. As the streets became more and more crowded, explosions amid the fleeing crowds from shells falling from the initial explosion created panic.
Till this day, nobody has seen the report of the investigation the government conducted to unravel the cause of the blast on that Sunday afternoon.
The only salient lesson that keeps popping up is the fact that it is dangerous to have heavy Military hardware in residential areas.
Residential areas are purpose-built safe havens where people can lead fulfilled lives, free of violence and where avoidable deaths do not reside. However, housing sector players say certain landmarks like water body, market or defence structures have a great pull on settlements. These hardly count these days because of the pressure to have a shelter regardless of its location.
The Cantonment and Airport at Ikeja were said to be very far from other settlements until there was need for more land for homes. But then, it not a reason the dangerous ordinances were not relocated or stored in temperatures and pressures that would keep them safe at all times.
Reminiscing on the events of the blast day, a realtor, Makinde Mark said, “The army is not known to be careless with weapons, particularly with those at their armoury. Any time they want to have their manoeuvres, they usually alert people in the area to prevent panic situations. That they are still not revealing what happened at their armoury that caused the explosion is baffling.”
Makinde said there is always a therapeutic effect whenever somebody understood the cause of an accident. “Knowing what happened will surely calm the nerves of most of the survivors of those who died as a result of the explosions.”
The Federal Government ought to be responsible for the relocation of the armoury or to keep it safe in a controlled environment. Also, the Federal Government ought to take a lead in assuaging the nerves of families who lost their loved ones in that unfortunate incident, said Madu Okoroafor, whose brother-in-law died as a result of the explosions. “There is no talk of compensation or even a word to empathise with relatives of the victims from the Army or the Federal Government.”
Okoroafor said the family would visit the site tomorrow and that he often restrained his sister from visiting too frequently on other days to prevent her from breaking down. “I don’t want her to have any medical problem from thinking too much. Her children are still very young.”
Also, a group of aggrieved people who lost family members to the blast said they wrote many letters to the office of the Secretary to the Federal Government on the subject, but none had been acknowledged. A representative of the group, Mr. Majekodunmi Olaniran recalled that, “The Federal Government promised to pay compensation to the families of the victims but we don’t know what has happened to that promise.”
Olaniran said their lawyer, Mr Femi Falana, also “wrote to the Ministry of Defence and copied relevant government agencies and, he has also written reminders, but the initiative did not yield positive answer.”
All they wanted, he said was justice for the spilled blood of their relations at Oke-Afa and other places in Lagos.
The Lagos State Government has done its bit by building the memorial site in addition to releasing cash to some families as a way of showing it cares.
During a memorial service at the site last year Governor Babatunde Fashola urged the bereaved families to take solace in the fact that “there will always be a special place in history for people whose deaths bring about change.”
He pleaded with them to cast their mourning clothes aside and move on with life. “Let me say, grieve we must for our dear departed and we have grieved. But 10 years on, we must now finally let go of our grief.”
Shortly after the memorial service, the governor announced a grand programme to clear all canals in the state for a flood-free rain season.
He planned to construct a new bridge at Ajao–Ejigbo that will pass over the Oke Afa canal and Ejigbo end of the canal. This is designed to open up water transportation from there to Lagos Island and Festac Town area.
The bomb blast practically tore down buildings at the Ikeja Cantonment, including residents of soldiers, schools and the clinic. The Lagos State Government reconstructed these buildings.
According to Governor Fashola, “In the Ikeja Cantonment, we have rebuilt 8 school blocks containing 82 classrooms, which have been fully operational since 2010. We have now rebuilt the damaged hospital and funded the provision of equipment there.”
He said part of the change the needless deaths would bring was better cooperation between the military and the civilian population.
Thus, the administration would inch closer to the Cantonment with the construction of 10 blocks of housing units to accommodate 120 families under the Lagos HOMS Scheme, on a piece of land adjacent to the cantonment. The homes would serve as a testimony that some people made the ultimate sacrifice and, that it was a reminder that the victims did not die in vain. “We can never regain the lives that were lost. But the depth of our compassion for one another has put death to shame. We can never regain the lives that were lost. But the acts of the heroes of Oke Afa rekindled our faith in one another. Even today, those acts remind us so eloquently that no matter our tribe or faith, we are and will always be.