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DEVELOPMENT-NIGERIA: Burnt Alive, as History Repeats Itself

Sam Olukoya

LAGOS, Dec 27 2006 (IPS) - “The location, the timing all made a perfect situation for this kind of tragedy,” said Bode Olufemi of Environmental Rights Action, the Nigerian affiliate of non-governmental group Friends of the Earth – this after walking through the distressing aftermath of an oil pipeline fire that broke out in Nigeria’s financial hub of Lagos, Tuesday.

At last count, more than 260 people were confirmed dead in the incident, which saw residents of the Abule-Egba suburb try to collect petrol from the vandalised pipeline to sell. Despite its substantial oil resources, Nigeria is currently experiencing acute fuel scarcity: a litre of petrol sells for about 1.5 dollars, approximately three times the normal price.

“The scene of the incident is an area with the poorest of the poor. Where people have to struggle hard to make ends meet, they felt it was their turn to make some money,” Olufemi told IPS.

With several bodies having yet to be recovered, there are fears that the final death toll will be much higher.

More than 300 people were also injured in the fire, some of whom are in critical condition. In addition, a number of houses, two saw mills, a plastic recycling plant, three mechanical workshops, a market, a church and a mosque caught alight.

Fuel thieves had punctured the pipeline under cover of darkness, and left it leaking. “At about two a.m. a few people who were aware of the leakage started going to the pipeline with plastic buckets and jerry cans to collect the leaking fuel,” Bola Adeyi, who lives in the area, told IPS.

“By four a.m. the entire neighbourhood had been woken up by the noise of…a crowd scooping fuel from the pipeline,” Adeyi added. “For most of them it was like manna from heaven.”

But it all ended tragically at about 08.00 local time when fire broke out, as it has so often before. Over recent years, Nigeria has witnessed scores of pipeline fires which have claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people.

The pipelines are typically located in very poor suburbs. Olufemi – who monitors the pipeline disasters – believes that if this infrastructure was in areas where the rich live, something would have been done to halt the frequent cases of pipeline fires.

The fact that such deprived suburbs even exist is evidence of the paradox of plenty that blights Nigeria. While this West African country is the world’s sixth largest oil producer, earning billions of dollars yearly in revenue from fuel sales, few citizens have reaped the benefits of more than 40 years of oil exploitation.

“Massive corruption denies the majority of the people access to the oil wealth, and this makes the poor who live with these pipelines…desperate,” says Patrick Naagbaton, a resident of the Niger delta where the bulk of Nigeria’s oil pipelines are located.

“It is the desperation to change their fortunes that make these poor go to scoop fuel anytime thieves punctures the oil pipelines.”

The fact that those who collect fuel are only likely to earn a few dollars and place their lives at great risk in the process means little, Naagbaton adds: “They don’t have access to the basic needs of life; they are desperate to make money, no matter how little.”

But Levi Ajuonuma, group general manager for public affairs at the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation – the government company which owns the pipelines – says there can be no justification for collecting fuel.

“This is a criminal activity that must not be condoned. We feel sorry for the loss of lives, but anybody who willfully goes to tamper with the pipelines knows that they could die in the process,” he said on national television.

Most pipelines carry crude oil, while a few – like the one that caught fire this week – carry refined petrol.

The practice of piercing pipelines to steal fuel is referred to locally as “oil bunkering.” Those involved in oil bunkering are believed to come from outside the communities where the pipelines are located, and form part of syndicates which puncture high pressure pipelines with specialised equipment to siphon fuel into tankers and oil barges.

It is said that they make millions of dollars yearly through this practice, while consistently evading arrest. They also alleged to be working in conjunction with powerful individuals in Nigerian society.

Ajuonuma said the NNPC is doing everything to end the spate of pipeline fires, working closely with communities near oil pipelines to make them aware of the dangers of gathering fuel. “No amount of fuel is worth a human life,” he noted.

But the governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu, says the real solutions to the problem lie elsewhere.

“How do we fight this, how do we stop it, except we fight poverty, except we fight unemployment, except we fight hopelessness in the country, except we do things right – in a manner they ought to be done.”

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