Abaezi forest explosion … National tragedy foretold, but not averted
The sheer number of persons burnt to death at the scene of the incident, as well as the number of vehicles that were razed down, were enough to clear the doubt that the Abaezi Forest artisanal refinery, in Ohaji/Egbama Local Council of Imo State, was a nondescript enterprise. No, it was not.
In fact, it was a big, thriving illegal venture, and not only had it been going on for a long while, but some highly-placed members of the society were also alleged to have a hand in the multi-million naira transactions that took place clandestinely in the belly of the forest.
How security agencies, including the Department of State Services (DSS), and the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) feigned ignorance or looked the other way, while such a mind-boggling act of economic sabotage went on, needs to be a subject of a serious inquest at the behest of the Federal Government.
Days after the deadly Friday, April 22, 2022, unprecedented national disaster that the people of Abaezi witnessed, odds and ends, as well as the remains of the victims, were still strewn across the large expanse of land that the economic saboteurs called artisanal refinery.
The gloomy faces worn by the villagers spoke volumes of the manner of loss that the death of over 110 persons, including husbands, wives, children brothers, and sisters in the facility allegedly owned by one Mr. Okenze Onyewoke (also an indigene of the area) represents.
As survivours and relatives of the 11 pm explosion, which gave rise to the massive inferno continue to ask uncountable questions, one thing remains certain, and that is the fact that their lives will never be the same again, neither would the village, which lost breadwinners, community/youth leaders, and sundry illustrious sons and daughters.
One of such affected families is the one that lost five members, while some others sustained serious injuries with six vehicles destroyed.
Recounting the incident, Mr. Eze Ikedi, an eyewitness, said: “Around 11 pm on that fateful Friday night, a large sound of the explosion rang out and the next thing we saw was a huge flame emanating from the Abaezi forest.
“Initially we were so scared to go close to the place because of the scorching heat that came from the fire, which covered the whole bush. But when we finally got close, we saw that many people were trapped inside the fire, but we couldn’t do much to help them because, at the time of the inferno, there were over 100 persons that had been burnt beyond recognition. Also, some of them who managed to come out of the fire came out with serious burnt injuries.
“All we could do at that time, was to rush them to hospitals around for treatment, but many of them later died because they were rejected by the village health centre where we rushed them to on account of the severe burns,” Ikedi said.
With tear-filled eyes, Mr. David Chibuike, a relative of one of the victims who were at site of the explosion in search of the remains of his elder sister, lamented that he returned home sadder after his inability to recognise her remains.
“Upon hearing about the incident, I rushed down to the forest because my sister, who was married to someone in this community was at the scene. Unfortunately, I could not identify her body because the bodies were burnt beyond recognition.”
The Head of Operations of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in the state, Ifeanyi Nnaji, who also confirmed that the victims were burnt beyond recognition said: “None of the victims was recognised as they were burnt beyond recognition.”
As a result of the development, Governor Hope Uzodinma, directed the state Ministry of Petroleum Resources and Environment to immediately carry out a mass burial of the charred remains, according to the state Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, Uzodinma.
At least 200 persons reportedly worked daily at the scene of the incident before the outbreak. The illegal facility, it was gathered, had been in existence for over two years.
It was equally alleged that the illicit activities went on with the full knowledge and consent of authorities in the state, with some state government officials being direct beneficiaries of the crime.
In February this year, the Federal Government said that it has launched a massive crackdown on illegal artisanal refiners, who populate most of the creeks in the Niger Delta region.
As in most other national challenges, the government’s efforts at ending the refining of stolen crude have been highly unimpressive, as over 60 per cent of the country’s crude is being stolen and shipped abroad by criminal elements, allegedly made up of shrewd businessmen, government officials, as well as members of the armed forces.
Stakeholders are unequivocal in their submissions that grinding poverty, and the soaring level of unemployment in the oil-rich Niger Delta, were contributory factors to the country losing an average of 200, 000 barrels of oil per day, and the routine vandalisation of pipelines.
The President General (PG) of the Abaezi Community, Mr. Afam Ogide, is still being jolted by the “rude shock” caused by the unfortunate death of his people, even as he stressed that almost every family in the community was affected by the ugly incident.
A security officer attached to the joint task force team operating in the area (names withheld), explained that illegal oil refining was rampant in the area, and had the support of the powers that be in the state.
Also, a local security operative, simply identified as Ugochukwu, disclosed that people come from other parts of the South East and South South to buy illegal product in the community.
He said: “People come from Rivers, Bayelsa, Anambra, and Abia states to buy petroleum products from the bunkering site. Because people from far and near troop in to buy the products, the place is always busy daily.”
Also commenting on the sad incident, the President-General of the Supreme Council of Oil and Gas Producing Areas in Imo State, Chief Collins Ajie, said: “The state and the 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,” he stated.
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.
Said he: “Some arrests were made, and some trucks and some boats impounded and later burnt. But all these have not been able put the situation under control perhaps as a result of the involvement of high-calibre individuals in the illegal trade.
“On our way coming to this place, you could count about 34 checkpoints and all these security operatives are awaiting the traders. So, if we have a high number of checkpoints and this illegal bunkering continues daily, then those officers have questions to answer,” he said.
Another community leader, who craved anonymity, lamented the environmental hazard caused to communities around the area by the illicit business.
He said: “Our community is in serious trouble. The level of environmental hazards is unbearable. Do you know that our crops are affected by this bunkering business? Do you know that our water now has taste as a result of this illegal bunkering? In fact, our health, environment, and means of livelihood are endangered. This is a campaign that even the media should show more than a passing interest, and join us in the fight.”
While on a visit to the scene, Governor Uzodinma represented by the state Commissioner for Petroleum Resources and Environment, Goodluck Opiah, declared wanted the alleged owner of the site, while pledging to assist in restoring sanity in the area.
According to him: “Apart from this calamity, the act has destroyed the aquatic life of the community. Our people before now were predominantly farmers and fishermen. Look around, you’ll find smoke coming from this illegal act. If this is not enough for any person to stop, I think the community is heading for what I can’t describe.
“Most of the people who are engaging in this act are from Rivers, Bayelsa, and other neigbouring states, and it is sabotage for our people to allow this illegal activity to continue. I wish to appeal to our youths to desist from making themselves available for this illegal act. This is a suicidal business that they got themselves into.
“On behalf of the Imo State government, we condole with the bereaved family. The Imo State government prays that God gives the families of those who lost their lives the fortitude to bear the irreparable loss,” he added.
Concerned stakeholders from the state, including two former governors – Emeka Ihedioha, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, and Senator Samuel Nnaemeka Anyanwu, described the incident as an unfortunate, worrisome, disheartening, and avoidable disaster, while also calling for a full investigation and prosecution of all those behind it.
Ihedioha, in a release signed by his media aide, Chibuike Onyeukwu, 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.” The former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives further called for a deliberate action to nip the increasing activities of illegal refinery and bunkering in the state.
In the same vein, Okorocha who currently represents the area at the senate, through his Special Adviser on Media, Sam Onwuemeodo, called on the Minister of State for Petroleum, Timipre Marlin Sylva, to set up a judicial panel of inquiry, to unravel the remote and immediate causes of the incident, to avert a future occurrence.
But for Anyanwu, this national tragedy would have been averted if the affected persons were gainfully employed.
Anyanwu, who is the National Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), also commiserated with the deceased families for losing their loved ones, describing the incident as avoidable and unfortunate.
“Every leader in the society should be involved in the business of employment creation for the youths, and avoid the idea of leaving everything to the government alone. It is painful and shocking for us to lose our youths now that the entire society is struggling to overcome raging insecurity.”
In the statement, which was signed by the Special Adviser (Media) to the National Secretary of PDP, and the Director of Media, Divine Mandate Movement (DMM), Ikenna Onuoha, Anyanwu charged youths to desist from indulging in any form of illicit trade, while calling on the present administration to create a conducive environment that will give the people the leeway to survive.
Without mincing words, the Nigerian Human Rights Writers Association (HURIWA), called on President Muhammadu Buhari and Uzodinma, “to stop being hypocritical about the recent inferno.”
In a statement, HURIWA’s National Coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, said, that “the Federal Government and the Imo State government were responsible for the gruesome occurrence for failing to carry out their statutory duty of protecting citizens’ lives and property.”
The group accused the governments at both levels of abysmally failing the people, by not uncovering and stopping the illegal crude oil bunkering site, or for covering up the criminal enterprise for selfish purposes to the detriment of the lives of the people.
“Why did the Federal Government not erect one refinery in Imo State, and why was the armed security services under the command and control of President Muhammadu Buhari fail to detect these illegal bunkering activities, or were the soldiers part of the illegality?
“So instead of making unnecessary noise in the media, the president and the governor of Imo State should constitute a judicial commission of inquiry to find out why these illegal refineries were allowed to operate even with all the massive deployment of soldiers to Imo State and South East of Nigeria.”
Also peeved by Abaezi Forest incidence is the African Democratic Congress (ADC), Imo State Chapter, which “condemned in strong terms, the ineptitude leadership and lackadaisical attitude of Governor Hope Uzodimma in handling the illegal activities of oil bunkering and theft in the oil-rich Ohaji Egbema and Oguta LGAs respectively, which has caused loss of lives and wanton destruction of property in the once peaceful Imo State.
The congress, which sympathised with the families and victims of the deceased, asked the governor to immediately apologise to Imolites for insensitivity and failure in governance and also immediately sack the commissioner of petroleum and natural resources, and the special adviser on security matters to the governor for none performance and/or incompetence.”
Earlier in a statement, President Buhari, through his media aide, Garba Shehu, described the explosion as a “catastrophe and a national disaster,” and commiserated with the families of the victims.
Buhari insisted that the sponsors of the illegal refinery should be held responsible for the loss of lives and property from the inferno, adding that they must all be caught and made to face justice.