The Impact of the Inferno
There has not been an incident of such magnitude in Nigeria since 1956 when oil was discovered in Oloibiri in the Central Delta. About half of the cassava farm was completely razed and the rubber and bush also were partially burnt. A huge chunk of farmland had now been taken for mass graves. A deep and wide grave of about 30metres from the fire point was dug and a pail loader was brought by the Ethiope West Local Government Council where the mass burial took place on Tuesday, October 20, 1998. Wheelbarrows and large bales of white linen cloth were used to convey the charred remains to the pit.
The Jesse fire disaster is a true and practical manifestation of the acute poverty that the Niger Deltan masses are immersed in, due to the past misrule by successive military regimes in Nigeria. The people, battered, deprived and famished in the midst of plenty are now in mourning. What an irony; a people hopeless in a vast natural environment of hope-a clear case of someone who is living close to the Niger and washing his hands with spittle. paradoxically, it is true that the Jesse people, like their counterparts in other parts of the Niger Delta Region, feeds millions of people in this country and yet, they have nothing in their plate. An area characterized by scanty infrastructure. Elsewhere in the world, they deserve the best place, where there are all the good things of life like potable drinking water, constant electricity, viable hospitals, excellent schools, good roads and the like. Honestly, the Jesse fire disaster reminds me of the poem written by Niyi Osundare: “THEY TOO ARE THE EARTH.”
It would be recalled that Nigerians have now come to live with fuel scarcity without any meaningful efforts on the part of government to arrest the ugly trend. When patrol was not scarce in the past, the consciousness of rural dwellers of its importance was very low. When the military government neglected the refineries and deliberately created artificial scarcity to facilitate its perpetuation in power, petrol quickly became the proverbial black gold. It became sought after by all since it was seen as a quick source of income. This consciousness rose astronomically among Nigerians including poor farmers who form the base of the most neglected Nigerians by military tyranny.
With the sabotage theory behind its mind, the Federal Government ruled out compensation for the victims of the inferno. But ERA recommended in its report that among other things, “the Jesse community should be apologized to profusely by the Federal Government and it should be paid adequate compensation for the colossal loss of lives, farms, farmlands and the psychological and emotional trauma the people of Jesse went through.” Apparently, the Federal Government stuck to its stance, and as Onakposegha said, “Government did not compensate anybody at all.” That left the victims on their own. So how have they been coping with the grim realities they suddenly found themselves? Were they able to pick up the piece of their lives and move on? Monday Ikori, a teenager and native of Atiegwor village, lost his mother and brother in the fire disaster on the same day. his mother has gone to the scene, not to scoop fuel, but as everyone else seemed to be doing, to feed her curious eyes with what was ‘amazing’ and ‘persisting’, and at that material time, the fire had exploded. I asked him how he had been faring in the aftermath of the explosion. Hear him:
“Since my father died several years ago, it is only my mother that is taking care of us. My elder brother and we are about eight in number. So after the death of my mother, we could no longer feed well. By then I was in JSS 3, so I managed to finish up my secondary school. I now have secondary school certificate. Now I am down. I have no money to move forward. I have younger ones at my back. They are suffering.” Ikori is certainly not the only one directly affected by the disaster. Others interviewed told their own harrowing stories.
But what about the ecology of the area? Being villagers, the native of Atiegwor depends directly on nature to subsist. A twist or change in nature, meant a twist or change in their lives. I sought to know the extent to which the wild fire impacted on their means of sustenance. “ As a matter of fact, the place taken by the fire is a very large one,” the Youths’ Chairman told me. “Now when we go to that place… you will find out that there is nothing; whatever you plant there cannot bring food again. The owners of the land are complaining bitterly”. The Vice Chairman added somewhat elaborately that “it affected the ecology of the area in the sense that our river was polluted; the fishes in the river died and…the animals too.”
Incidentally, the need to respect nature was one of the six fundamental values that some of the 150 world leaders agreed upon when they gathered in the headquarters of the United Nations in New York for the Millennium Summit in September 2000. That was exactly two years after the Jesse disaster. Specifically it states: “Prudence must be shown in the management of all living species and natural resources in accordance with the precepts of sustainable development. Only in this way can the innumerable riches provided to us by nature be preserved and passed onto our descendants.”
Now, as we reflect on the horrendous incidence of the Jesse fire disaster which took place twelve years ago, it will be proper and fitting for us as a people often relegated to the background, irrespective of our innumerable natural endowments, to let go of denigrating and divisive ideologies, to embrace the all-important message of unity. Here lies our strength. May I end this write-up by extending a hand of sympathy and empathy to the family of Ovbiora at Jesse, who alone lost seven persons in the fuel fire and the other Jesse victims. May their souls rest in perfect peace. Amen.