Ghosts of Jan 27 bomb blast, 20 years after
Just like yesterday, it’s already 20 years since the horrific bomb blast explosions that rocked the Ikeja Military Cantonment, Lagos State and shattered the serenity of a cool Sunday evening leaving in its wake not only sorrow, tears and blood, but deaths, numbering over a thousand lives.
Anyone in Lagos will always remember with great clarity what he was doing on January 27, 2002, at the precise moment when loud bangs and tremors vibrating through buildings rock the entire city.
At about 5:15 pm on that fateful day, the explosions were triggered by a fire outbreak in the nearby Mammy Market, which was also home to the families of soldiers living in the barracks. Soon after, high calibre bombs stored in the armoury of the cantonment began to detonate in quick successions.
This blast killed many of the base staff and their families and immediately destroyed several nearby streets. Flying debris started numerous fires further afield. Tremors from the explosion also collapsed some buildings in the area, trapping people in the ruins and starting new fires from damaged cooking appliances.
As the bombs exploded, the city was thrown into confusion. Every part of the metropolis felt its pangs. The farther away one was from the scene, the more it appeared the blast was happening next door.
Thousands became homeless after fleeing from their homes; many others lost their means of livelihood. The restless city of Lagos suddenly went numb.
However, the most horrific consequence was the human casualties that resulted from the disaster. To date, no one knows the exact number of persons that lost their lives, though no fewer than 1,000 people drowned and perished in the Oke-Afa canal, Ejigbo, which was at the time concealed by water hyacinth, as they attempted to escape the uncertain calamity.
On the other side of the canal was a banana plantation. Apparently, much of the panicking crowd thought they could seek refuge in the banana fields. As thousands of people pushed toward the fields, at least 1,000 people drowned in the canal.
A senior journalist who covered the sad event for The Guardian, Ehichioya Ezomon, recalled: “Apart from reporting on the millions that fled through the Oshodi-Apapa expressway that evening/night, I took it upon myself to cover the developing story on a daily basis.
“In one of the coverages, I crossed that canal, through the very point from which many of the victims crossed, some in the dark, perhaps not realizing the depth, which is neck-deep. This was why many of the panic-stricken people trying to rush (wade or swim) across at the same time drowned on their own, while others were pushed or trampled upon” in the process.
“Later in that week, I covered a heart-rendering scene in which a father grieved over the recovered body of his son of about 10 years, coincidentally at the spot on which the cenotaph for the victims stands today.”
Stampedes in other parts of the city killed hundreds more, most of them children separated from their parents. Approximately 5,000 people were injured in total, overwhelming the city’s hospitals. Explosions continued throughout the night. Due to a lack of firefighters in Lagos, the blazes were not contained until more than 24 hours later. At least 12,000 people were left homeless by the disaster.
Afterward, the commander of Ikeja issued a statement: “On behalf of the military, we are sorry … efforts were being made in the recent past to try to improve the storage facility, but this accident happened before the high authorities could do what was needed.”
The state failed the victims but they didn’t die in vain. After several years of waiting, first they got a befitting well-managed cenotaph built at the mass burial site, then the street adjoining the canal was renamed January 27, a Primary Healthcare Centre in Ejigbo was also named January 27 and in honour of the victims, a link bridge connecting Ejigbo to Ajao Estate was built and named January 27 as a fitting acknowledgment of the sacrifices of those who died, to keep their memories in perpetuity. All these came during the administration of Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola (2007-2015).
The link bridge at January 27, now popularly known as Canoe Bridge, was in fulfillment of the promise Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, then governor of Lagos, made to the bomb blast victims in 2002.
The ghosts of the tragedy were finally buried and both Oke Afa and Ajao Estate never remained the same. The once quiet estates lost their serenity to the flowing traffic from Ejigbo, Ikotun, Ijegun, Isolo up to Iba, Ojo and other parts of Lagos, shortening travel time to Airport Road and Oshodi.
However, beyond what has been done so far, the stretch of the Oke-Afa canal needs to be thoroughly dredged to pave way for boat ride and jetty services linking Ejigbo to Festac, CMS and other parts of the state. This would be the icing on the cake as part of efforts to boost intra-city transportation and bury the ghosts of the January 27 bomb blast victims.
In 2017, the Lagos State government had promised that the Ejigbo Jetty, built in 2014, would be completed and put to use before June 2018. But five years after, it is still a promise waiting to be fulfilled.
The pledge was then made on behalf of the state by the Special Adviser to the then governor, Akinwunmi Ambode on Community and Communication, Mr. Kehinde Bamgbetan.
Bamgbetan, whose administration as chairman of Ejigbo Local Council Development Area (LCDA) built the jetty, had said dredging and the Faseun wooden link bridge was the only impediment hindering the operation of the jetty.
The chairman of Ejigbo LCDA, Monsuru Oloyede Bello, said the jetty project was not abandoned, adding that the council was making moves to ensure that the bridge was reconstructed for the jetty to commence operations.
Olaiya is the News Editor of The Guardian