Tears on the Burning Field (1)

Tears on the Burning Field (1)

By Ochuko Tonukari


“This is terrible, it is really terrible! I can’t believe these are human beings…” That was how Navy Commander Walter Feghabor, the then military administrator of Delta State gave vent to the emotions that gripped him as he stood spellbound before the human bodies burnt beyond recognition in the wake of the fire disaster in Jesse on Saturday, October 17, 1998. How come? Oil, petrol, that liquid gold that in our present time energizes machines adopted to it in the world over. It had oozed out wastefully from a leak (or was it a burst?) high pressure pipeline, forming something of a pool at the source. Nobody knew for how long it had gushed out before a farmer returning from the day’s work, reportedly noticed it at first, and spread the news to others.

The information stirred the interest of those who heard, then spurred and set them on the move to the spot, more so when petrol was not just scarce but its price was prohibitive. Before long, informed locals had crowded the spot, sticking to it like ants that have found honey, scooping fuel with reckless abandon. As the news spread even farther, more people were attracted, some to scoop, some to look and others to search for their loved ones within the concourse of people. As they scooped in the way and manner they must have done, little did they know that they were making, in fact detonating a gunpowder in whose immediate vicinity they planted themselves and little did the world know that Jesse was becoming a time-bomb, waiting to explode. And it did explode in the afternoon of Saturday 17th October, 1998 with a huge “gboooooom!!!” sound. Nobody knew exactly how it was detonated; only the effect was known. A huge range-glowing flame had suddenly developed, covering a radius of the entire expanse of area, engulfing whoever and whatever was within that radius.

A number of people (perhaps between 500 and 1000) were literally said to have been roasted alive, then to death; the grim images of their scrawny skeletons and charred bodies, displayed on newspapers and television provoked fright and shock, sympathy, empathy and unbelief. Many who sustained varying degrees of burns were rushed to hospitals in Sapele, Amukpe, Warri, Eku and elsewhere. The unidentified dead were given mass burial, close to the scene of the incident. On the whole, it was one disaster like no other, one holocaust at the turn of the twentieth century in which, words, expressive as they can be, seemed inadequate to describe in full extent. Jesse was shaken, to say the least. Jesse lamented the fate of her sons and daughters, young and old! Jesse groaned over her wounded! Jesse mourned her dead at the time. It was a most pathetic incidence!

Where then is Jesse? Jesse is the principal town in Idjerhe Clan within the Urhobo heartland of the Niger Delta. The town is about 55 kilometres from the oil city of Warri. The estimated population of Jesse Town at the time was 7,000 people. The settlement is rural, with wet weather, typical of ocean influenced areas of the hot-wet equatorial climate. The indigenes of the localities are from the ethnic Urhobo nation.

The Jesse community is situated on huge commercial crude oil deposits. The soil is acidic clay, harbouring fresh water swamp forest. The vegetation is diverse and economic plants like the raffia and rubber thrive in large quantity. Palm trees grow well where the oil retains its original drainage. The people of the community are mostly crop farmers, rubber tappers and fishermen and women. Some of the people are involved in service activities like petty trading, tailoring, bicycle repairing and so on.

Despite the immense wealth beneath her soil, Jesse, like all the communities in the Niger Delta, remains poor, ancient and neglected. Educational opportunities are limited. At the time, there were two primary schools and a secondary school. The schools were dilapidated with grossly inadequate facilities. There also existed a primary health post, which was a mere shadow of a primary health-care delivery. There was a local market with two partially tarred single-lane roads. Although there were electric poles all over Jesse town, there was no electricity. The people depended on water from the River Ethiope that separates Jesse from Sapele, a neighboring town, for all their domestic use. Their houses were mostly adobe types and there was no hospital.

Black Saturday

A direct victim of the idjerhe fire, Mr. Onoriode Efenaya, who was then a patient at the Nene Hospital, Sapele, spoke to Environmental Right Action (ERA). He said that the leak from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s high pressure pipeline, conveying petrol from the Warri Refinery was first noticed on Friday, October 16th, 1998 by a farmer returning from the day’s work. On getting home in Jesse, he broke the news to his kinsmen, many of whom spread the story and trooped to Atiegwor, the site of the 16 inch pipeline. Incidentally, Onoriode was in the field again on Saturday, October 17th, 1998, close to the leaking pipeline. Around 1.00 pm, he heard a heavy sound like that of a burst truck tyre. Almost immediately, the entire area was engulfed in flames. He was knocked down by the force and only managed to crawl out of the immediate scene, through the suffocating smoke of the fire. A good Nigerian helped him to Nene Hospital. However, up to 800 others or even more were not as lucky. They were roasted to death.

Atiegwor, the explosion site, is about 1. 125 kilometres from Jesse community. The burst pipe, runs parallel to River Ethiope and has two major footpaths to it from the road. The local people actively cultivate the area. Next to the buried pipe is a gas pipeline about 15 metres away. The massive flame from the leaking pipe had a base area of about 25 square metres. It was right inside a cassava farm, surrounded by rubber trees and the forest by River Ethiope. The smoke from the fire retained a huge dark cloud over the Jesse sky. At the scene of the incidence, the sight of charred remains of the victims shocked the ERA team. Days after the inferno, their remains still littered everywhere. The dead included children, youths and adults. A great majority of those burnt were women; most were burnt beyond recognition. Jerry cans, basins and other items were scattered everywhere.

Back then there were many claims that some of those who visited the scene of the incidence days after heard the strange voices of people wailing, weeping and sobbing. Someone said he actually heard the faint voice of an elderly woman wailing. Another maintained that he heard an unidentified voice lamenting profusely. A third said he took to his heels after hearing the voice of a young chap complaining or questioning the rationale as to why he was not buried. And after then, he didn’t visit the site again.

The Vexed Question Mark

Had fuel not oozed out from the pipeline, there wouldn’t have been a pool of the product at the spot. Had the later not been the case, it wouldn’t have attracted the forest of people who besieged it, and of course, there wouldn’t have been the resultant explosion. That meant a hornet’s nest wouldn’t have been stirred in Jesse. So what went wrong? Who on earth open a can of worms in Jesse? Who failed to perform a crucial duty that ought to have been done in the first place to prevent the opening of that can of worms? Who? To my knowledge, nobody, no institution owned up to been the one; none claimed responsibility for the disaster, and I am not surprise. Seldom, if at all, do we take responsibility for a fault, directly or indirectly connected with us. Perhaps, we have not developed to the stage where someone, somewhere could do just that. Yet, we’ll readily claim an undeserved credit for a worthy deed remotely, if not even outrightly connected with us.

Anyway, everyone, however, admit that prior to the fire outbreak, a leak had occurred and several people from the Idjerhe Clan, consisting of thirty two communities had gone to Atiegwor either to fetch the fuel or simply to look at what was happening. It is being suggested that because the atmosphere was charged with petrol fumes, even a little spark would have sparked off the fire. What caused the ‘spark’ is unknown and if someone saw it happen, it is not possible that such a person would be alive to tell the story. There is the theory that since some of those who went to fetch the fuel had iron buckets with them, these may have clashed and set off sparks. ERA also learnt that about five minutes before the explosion, a helicopter belonging to Shell Development Company Nigeria Limited, hovered over the place and reportedly warned the people to leave.

Well, at the very best, the questions opened up a game of blame. Two schools of thought cropped up for that purpose. One advanced the theory of sabotage, while the other, the theory of neglect. The Federal Government championed the former, arguing that the safe value pit of its 16-inch pipeline was tampered with by villagers to make fortune. As the Federal Government was busy pointing a finger of blame on the villagers, Environmental Right Action, which is the arrowhead of the neglected school, was absolving them of it, arguing instead that, “the NNPC fuel pipe… was laid in the 70s,” and that “under normal circumstances, the pipe ought to have been replaced because it had outlived its usefulness.” It maintained that “there also ought to have been an adequate protective facility along the route and because there were no regular check and maintenance of the pipe, NNPC could not detect the leakage at Jesse on time, which was why  the people may have decided to help themselves with the scarce commodity  that was oozing out and wasting!”

Excellent exoneration of the villagers! Direct accusation of NNPC! But the latter wouldn’t take that accusation. “You can hardly find any government organization that will have the facility of being on the spot to police 5,100 kilometre pipeline that we have in this country.” Engr. Dalhatu Bayero, the group managing director of NNPC had earlier said then, adding that, “the havoc must have been done before you even detect the line break…. “

Anyway, I didn’t bother myself examining the logic behind the arguments of both schools. I quickly boarded a bike and headed straight to Atiegwor, the Jesse village where the inferno took place, and asked the youths whether in all sincerity, they were not the ones. There at Atiegwor, I met one Onakposegha Emmanuel who was the Youth’s Chairman of the community. Hear him: “it wasn’t the people who died that caused that thing (fire). We don’t even know how that thing happened in the first place.” Nathaniel Iruoghene, the Youth’s Vice Chairman, corroborated the denial further: “Yes, I cannot say the villagers are the cause because, I remember that when the incident happened, we were having a burial ceremony on this land. It was a big burial where the whole community trooped to the burial ground and we were all there celebrating when unknown to us, something was happening right there… so I will say that we the indigenes of this community, don’t know how the leakage of that pipe came about”.

6 thoughts on “Tears on the Burning Field (1)” by Ochuko Tonukari (@ochuko)

  1. There is a careless attitude on the part of government and the oil companies towards the maintenance of their facilities in the Niger Delta. When the facilities fail, they turn around to blame the communities that are victims. You story is right on the mark, and I look forward to more of it, as the plight of communities and citizens of the Delta need to be told by its people.
    Good job Ochuko.

  2. Accidents happen at times with no one to blame.

    1. Yes accident but the response matters.

  3. Hm.

    Food for thought.

  4. I wonder how these accidents keep repeating themselves. The blame is not simple I think, but may be more complicated than we think.

    @ochuko, I usually enjoy your writing, but this was a bit heavy going, maybe due to the subject matter.

  5. @Ochuko, I still remember when I first heard about the accident; it was the first of many pipeline leakage disasters I was to hear about in the following years.

    I like that you have recorded your perspective on this. Sometimes, the stories that we write need not be fictional; they can (and should) be stories that have happened to us, that reflect our history through our personal experiences.

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