How Fire Explosion at Illicit Refinery Killed over 110 People in Imo Community

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An illicit crude oil refinery in Abaezi woodland in the Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area of Imo State recently exploded and killed over 110 people. Amby Uneze reports that the explosion was the first of its kind in the history of the state considering the number of people burnt 

No doubt, Friday evening of April 22, 2022, was a black day in Imo State as the peace and tranquility of a remote oil community, Abaezi woodland in the Ohaji/Egbema Local Government shattered owing to the explosion of an illicit refinery that claimed over 110 people.

The fire explosion was the first of its kind in the history of the state considering the number of people burnt in the inferno. 

Thriving Illicit Business

Notably, the site of the illicit refinery was located at the middle of the forest in the Abaezi community. The community has a common boundary with Rivers State and an oil rich area. Therefore, some unscrupulous individuals latch on to the remoteness of the area to perpetuate series of negative oil bunkering and operate illegal refineries in the quiet and sleepy environment.

Severally, the state government had warned the public against patronising the illegal activities of these oil thieves. Due to the flourishing nature of the business, albeit illegal,  these oil thieves are persistent in illegal siphoning of the crude that passes through the pipelines thereby denying the federal government the expected revenue that usually goes to her coffers- sabotage of the highest order and an offence against the state.

Since it is a flourishing illegal business, many people engage in it, which explains the high number of victims recorded during the explosion. And because they operate the business crudely, there were no safety measures put in place to fight emergencies. Also, because the business is carried out in the thick forest, it is not a habitat for the indigenes except those who engage in the business on a daily basis, which was why there were no houses burnt in the inferno.

Sadly, illegal crude oil refining has become a lucrative business, mainly among residents of oil producing states, despite its dangerous consequences. The incident came months after scores were reportedly killed in an oil explosion at another illegal refinery in Rivers State in October last year.

Oil theft, known as “bunkering” in local parlance, has been a source of concern to many stakeholders across the country. The Nigerian government is reported to be losing an estimated $4 billion yearly due to oil theft activities.

In Rivers State, air pollution, especially the soot in Port Harcourt, the state capital, and its environs, has been attributed to the operation of illegal oil refineries. Recently, Governor Nyesom Wike had to take it upon himself and visited some of the illegal refinery sites and handed orders for the arrest and immediate prosecution of the owners.

Condolence and Investigation

So many reactions have trailed the unfortunate incident. While President Muhammadu Buhari has condoled with the government and people of Imo State and directed immediate investigation into the incident, Imo State government in her own, commiserated with the people of the Abaezi community and the Ohaji/Egbema people.

Meanwhile, the state government went ahead to issue an order mandating the owner of the illegal refinery to hand himself over to government. 

Buhari, in a statement by his spokesperson, Garba Shehu, described the incident as “a catastrophe and a national disaster,” and ordered security agencies to clamp down on all illegal refineries across the country.

He said the responsibility for the loss of lives and property “must squarely lie with the sponsors” of the illegal refinery, assuring that they “must all be caught and made to face justice”.

The president conveyed “the condolences and the full depth and range of the nation’s shock and trauma” to families of the victims, the community and the people of the state. 

He urged community leaders and the personnel of the Nigerian Police Force to take steps to ensure that such “heartbreaking incident” is not allowed to occur again in any part of the country.

Describing the incident as a “sad development”, the Imo State Commissioner for Petroleum, Hon. Goodluck Opiah who is also an indigene of the area on behalf of the governor, Senator Hope Uzodimma visited the scene of the fire explosion and advised the suspected owner of the illegal refinery, one Okenze Onyenwoke, whom he said was on the run to turn himself in at the nearest police station.

“I advise him to hand himself over to the police or any security agency. This is wickedness. This is economic sabotage. It is also destroying our youths. I therefore call on the youths to go away from this kind of illegal business. There are so many legitimate businesses one can do to make genuine money.”

Again the Imo State government, on Tuesday directed security operatives to comb the forests in Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area in the state to fish out operators of  all illegal refineries and their locations in the forests in the area.

Speaking through the State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, while commiserating with families of victims of last Friday night’s explosion at an illegal refinery at Abaezi community also directed the fumigation of the explosion site for environmental safety.

Emelumba said: “Imo State Government yesterday condoled with families of victims of last weekend’s illegal refinery fire disaster at Egbema. 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.”

He added: “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. The governor has also assured that the Imo State government will do everything humanly possible to stamp out illegal bunkering and illegal refinery in the state.

“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 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.

“The statement further directed security operatives to comb all parts of the state to flush out illegal refinery operators and bunkers for the safety of citizens and economic growth of Nigeria,” Emelumba said.

Expressing shock over the fire explosion, former governor of the State, Emeka Ihedioha described the disaster as “unfortunate but avoidable”, while calling for full investigation and prosecution of all those behind the carnage to avert future occurrence.

He said, “This is one loss too many. My heart bleeds for the victims, families and affected communities of this unfortunate and avoidable disaster.  It is a period of grief and sober reflection for our State, which has been bedeviled by insecurity and other challenges.”

While calling for a deliberate action to nip the increasing activities of illegal refinery and bunkering in the state, he enjoined citizens to take adequate precautions and avoid activities that will expose them to danger or risk of losing their lives and property.

In her condolence message, the United Nations (UN) expresses sympathy with Nigeria over the explosion at an illegal refinery in Imo State. Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, Mr. Mahamat Annadif, on Monday offered condolences to Nigeria over the Imo illegal refinery explosion.

Annadif stated in New York that he learned with deep emotion about the tragic explosion that occurred on Friday at a gasoline refinery in Imo and wished those injured in the explosion a speedy recovery.

The Igbo National Council (INC) yesterday called on the federal and Imo State governments to conduct a census on the affected families of the last Friday night explosion.  INC President, Chilos Godsent said the issue of census became necessary regarding the level of damage the inferno caused the affected families.

According to the group, by doing the census, the authorities would appreciate the level of suffering the unemployed youths in the oil-rich communities are currently passing through.

“The INC is very shocked that seventy hours after the ugly incident, the Executive Governor of Imo State, Senator Hope Uzodimma and President Muhammadu Buhari have not physically visited the deadly site to condole with the Abaezi people, Ohaji Egbema People, Imo people, the Igbo Nation and Nigeria for this irreplaceable generational loss”.

“Consequent to the above, the Igbo National Council INC, therefore call 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.”

The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) disclosed that the death toll in the explosion has risen to 110. Acting Head of Imo/Abia Operations Office of the agency, Mr Ifeanyi Nnaji, disclosed this on Monday.

Nnaji said more dead bodies were recovered in Orashi River, near the scene of the incident on Sunday, while some died at various hospitals to increase the total casualty figure.

 On what might have led to the disaster, the NEMA boss said “those who should tell the story and give insight to the incident are all dead, we are still on the ground, we will soon come out with a report on the incident.”

Nnaji further appealed to the government to create the enabling environment for genuine business to flourish within the oil-producing communities in Imo, to discourage youths from engaging in illegal activities.

A resident who identified himself simply as Ejike said, “Nobody survived the incident. Those who were rescued yesterday have all died this morning (Sunday). The casualty figure is over 100. This is sad. People are rushing to look for their relatives but the unfortunate thing is that the victims were burnt beyond recognition.”

A community leader and President-General of the Supreme Council of Oil and Gas Producing Areas in Imo, Chief Collins Ajie, described the incident as ‘unfortunate’.

Ajie said: “It is unfortunate. A tragedy no one dreamt of where about 108 people got burnt beyond recognition due to illegal oil bunkering. The state and federal governments should step up efforts to stop this illegal bunkering because it has claimed many lives from Ohaji/Egbema and other Niger Delta areas.

“It’s shocking to see these bodies lying down here. Most of them are breadwinners of their families. Most of them are young promising people, undergraduates, and graduates.”

Past Efforts

The community leader noted that the Imo State government had some time ago made efforts to stop this illegal business, but it yielded no fruit. According to him, some arrests were made, and some trucks and some boats impounded and burnt, yet it had not been able put the situation under control perhaps as a result of the involvement of high calibre individuals involved in the illegal trade.

Also speaking, Mr David Chibuike lamented that he was at the site in search of the remains of his elder sister. “I heard the information about the incident and I had to rush down because my sister, who was married to someone in this community, was involved.

“I came to identify her body but couldn’t recognize her here,” he said while shedding tears. He also called on government and security agencies to put an end to the illegal bunkering to prevent such huge loss of lives.

Conspiracy of Silence

A youth from Abacheke community, Mr. Desmond Ajie, who expressed sadness over the development, expressed concern over the inability of community leaders and security agents to end illegal bunkering in the area.

“There is a conspiracy of silence by both those who call themselves leaders and security agencies because they failed to arrest this issue. It is unfortunate that those with the capacity to put an end to this have failed,” he said.

He said youths in the oil-producing communities in the state hardly felt the impact of oil companies which could have reduced illegal oil bunkering.

Ajie advised the state and federal governments to step up efforts at ending the illegal business. “On our way coming, you could count about 34 checkpoints awaiting the illegal bunkerers and traders. So, If we have that figure and this illegal bunkering continues on a daily basis, then they have questions to answer,” he said.

Sensitisation Campaign

Youths in Egbema in the Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area of Imo State have begun a sensitisation programme following Friday night’s explosion. A youth leader in the area, James Ogbanje said the essence was to disabuse the minds of the youths from engaging in oil bunkering.

According to the youth leader, the sensitisation program was going on in all the communities in Egbema. He said that the security agents and community leaders were away from the youth body’s genuine intentions to ensure sanity in the area.

Ogbanje said “We have started a sensitisation program 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 commit crime.

“The explosion would have been avoided if the youths had taken to legitimate businesses. It was a tragedy. We are mourning. In order to stop future recurrence, we have started a campaign of conscientisation to lure youths from oil bunkering business and other similar businesses. There are other endeavors one can undertake and be successful,” he said.

Mass Burial

Meanwhile, about 50 victims of last Friday’s illegal refinery explosion were given mass burial at Abaezi forest in Ohaji Egbema Local Government Area. More than 110 people were said to have died in the explosion.

The mass burial was supervised by the Chairman of the local government, Marcel Amadioha, security agents and officials of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).

The victims were buried in three graves dug by locals at about 5 pm on Tuesday. Both journalists, security agents waited for more than six hours awaiting the arrival of health officials who were expected to fumigate the area after the bodies were collected from various spots where the fire caught them as they tried to flee from the raging inferno. 

Chairman of the local government, who spoke to newsmen at the site, said that 50 of the victims who could not be identified were given mass burial. One of the youth leaders, Ben Marcus said that some of the victims were identified by their relatives and were allowed to carry them for burial. 

He said that most of the victims came from far and near, adding that the incident would serve as a lesson to those people engaging in such illegal business. 

He urged the government to provide employment for the teeming youths of the community to dissuade them from getting involved in such illegal and risky business.

 Quote

“This is wickedness. This is economic sabotage. It is also destroying our youths. I therefore call on the youths to go away from this kind of illegal business. There are so many legitimate businesses one can do to make genuine money”