The Rumuekpe tragedy is one too many

No fewer than 12 people were confirmed dead last Friday following another pipeline explosion from an illegal oil bunkering site in Rumuekpe community, Rivers State. According to the state police spokesperson, Grace Iringe-Koko, preliminary investigation indicates that the victims were scooping crude products when the site caught fire. Five vehicles, four Tricycles (Keke NAPEPs), and one motorcycle were also burnt. 

Nothing explains Nigeria’s notoriety with human-induced petrol pipelines fires better than greed, collective recklessness and utter disregard for health and safety practices. It is therefore no surprise that the number of fatalities arising from pipeline bursts and associated fire explosions is now simply staggering.   

Before the latest tragedy, there had been several others, claiming thousands of lives. In October 1998, no fewer than 500 villagers in Jesse, Delta State, were burnt alive while scavenging for petrol from a ruptured pipeline. Two years later in July 2000, about 250 people were killed while doing the same thing near Jesse, as well as 100 in Warri in the same month. In November of the same year, no fewer than 60 people died in another pipeline fire that occurred in Ebute area of Lagos. By June 2013, the country reported another 125 deaths from pipeline fire in Umuahia area of Abia State. Earlier in May 2006, about 150 people were burnt to death around the Atlas Cove in Lagos, and about 500 more in December because of similar explosion in Abule Egba area. There was also an explosion in Ijegun area of Lagos when a bulldozer struck a petrol pipeline in 2008, and two more in January and July of 2016 in Akulagba area of Warri South and Arepo in Ogun, respectively.   

    While the list seems endless, most appalling is that these deaths have become mere statistics such that many would have viewed the number of latest casualties as ‘insignificant’. Yet, every time Nigerians fall to an avoidable death such as from these pipeline fires, it signifies nothing more than the plain absence of responsibility, and lack of commitment to the welfare of the citizenry.   

To be sure, petroleum pipeline breakages and related fire outbreaks are regular accidents associated with the oil industry everywhere in the world. They also happen in other jurisdictions, including the United States which in August 2019 had one – the Enbridge natural gas pipeline – that ruptured and killed one person while leaving five people injured. The challenge in Nigeria is that these tragedies are avoidable. The recent fire in Rivers State was caused by the activities of vandals, who were said to have cracked into the pipeline of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) Ltd to steal petrol before fire started from vehicle ignition. It is a familiar story.   

The vandals or petrol thieves often resort to crude means of cracking the pipelines which they clearly do not have rights to access, with products left to flow out to pollute the environment. This subsequently results in explosions. Given that the possibilities of third-party intrusions on its pipelines are almost inevitable, we are curious to know if there is a crime map with which to track the repeated breaks into the NNPC pipelines.   

In an era where crime prevention is greatly aided by technology and additional local intelligence, it is no longer enough for the authorities to surrender to fate. Considering that such crimes are also usually local, we would also ask if there were a local intelligence database from which to draw up preventive measures. A multi-dimensional strategy to the issue should be pursued by blending technology with local intelligence if we are to stem the harvest of deaths which also impact negatively on our national economy.   

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