On Saturday, the 22nd day of June, a pipeline fire erupted in KomKom community in Oyigbo Local Government Area of Rivers killed at least 70 persons.
The National Oil Spill Detection Agency, NOSDRA said that over 16,000 litres of petrol spilt over an expanse of 21,000 hectares of land.
The local authority had said that there was a valve issue leading to the damaging of a section of a pipe belonging to the Pipelines and Product Marketing Company, PPMC, a subsidiary of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.
Gerald Oforji, the Oyigbo Local Government Area chairman, explained that engineers of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation and Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) had visited the location on Friday, a day before the explosion, due to the discovery of a faulty valve on the pipeline.
He said that while it was hoped that both the NNPC and Shell engineers would have returned early on Saturday to continue the maintenance work but an explosion occurred at night causing massive fuel leakage which attracted locals before their arrival.
Oforji explained that as soon as people realised there were petroleum products leaking from the pipeline, they rushed to the scene in mass to scoop fuel and in the process, the fire was ignited which claimed over twenty lives.
“They said it was a valve problem. I would not want to accuse anybody that they broke pipe because I didn’t see anybody. I have to say what I know. They said it is a valve problem, they said NNPC/ Shell people came yesterday (Friday), thinking that they will be coming today (Saturday) to seal it. Before they could come, maybe the pressure got overwhelmed and exploded and the product started dripping” he said.
While the fire burnt, ruining lives, the state government had no words for the people of the area. The state government did not also send a team to the area to help with the evacuation of the dead and the injured. The state officials stewed in silence.
As days passed, and as the death toll rose, non-governmental bodies were the mouthpiece of the people, calling for inquests into the disaster.
Ogoni Youth Federation had blamed the Nigeria National petroleum corporation, NNPC, for the fire, adding that their negligence necessitated the Explosion.
The youth body said the incident was completely avoidable and it was.
First, PPMC, who sent engineers to the site upon discovery of a faulty valve, failed to stop pumping fuel till it must have completed the repair of the valve. This is giving the fact that the pipes have aged. PPMC has since chosen silence over the matter.
More worrisome is the fact that police officers from Afam Police Station were blamed for sparking the fire which led to the explosion.
Locals said the Afam Police Division Patrol Team fired gunshots into the pipeline over failed negotiation for bribe with people scooping petroleum products from the leaking pipeline.
A community leader said police officers stormed the scene of the incident on Saturday morning: “in their van to collect money from the people they saw scooping fuel from the leaking pipe.
He added: “But a few minutes later, the explosion occured after we heard gunshots. Those who escaped unhurt said the police caused it.”
“This is not the first time these people from the Afam police station cause problems in this area.”
Another chief who did not want to be named said police shot directly to the site before the explosion erupted.
“Early that morning, I saw people and a police van moving into the swamp where the pipeline is. So I called my security to go find out what they were doing.”
“About 40 minutes later I heard sounds of gunfire and later, the explosion. When he returned, he told me that the policemen fired gunshots directly at the people scooping fuel. Other people I met testified the same,”.
Friday Orlu, an eyewitness, said: “A police patrol van was seized by the youth after the incident because they fired directly at the crowd scooping fuel and that was when the fire started.”
“These people have caused a lot of pain in this Oyigbo, from extortion, illegal arrest, to cause of deaths. I was there, Instead of chasing the people away, they began to negotiate and collect money to the point of shooting into the pipeline to kill people.
“No less than 50 people have lost their lives because of these criminal-minded policemen”
Corroborating the story was the Zonal Director of NOSDRA, Cyrus Nkanwang, who stated while speaking with newsmen on the outcome of its report on the incident that the Joint Investigation Visit’s to the site revealed that the spill affected over twenty hectares of land.
“We gathered that when the pipeline started leaking people rushed to the scene and started scooping. Some sources in the community told us that the fire was ignited after a police officer shot around the scene. They said the police was trying to scare the people away and immediately he release his bullet the fire sparked.
“The second source said that somebody was holding a phone and as his phone rang, it sparked the fire but most of the security reports show that the fire started after the gunshot.
“We discovered that the area was filled with dead bodies and other organisms that died in the process. So we have ordered for immediate remediation of that land to enable the restoration of proper living in the area,”.
Despite the information available to the public regarding the disaster in the area, the state government has not said a word, neither has it taken approaches to avoid a disease outbreak in the area.
Silence of any form cannot solve any disaster. Pretending that such never happened will only prolong the disaster and not solve the problems it caused.
The Nyesom Wike administration, which takes a populist stance on national issues has gone mute on an issue in its domain. That dozens of people perished did not force the administration to speak in words or in action.
The federal government which released a statement did not back it up with action. The National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, which is supposed to move into the area to coordinate evacuation from the site was also nowhere to be found.
While we await the police to conclude investigation into the alleged involvement of their personnel in the ugly incident, it is expected that those remotely responsible will be sanctioned.
Or, maybe, the KomKom lives do not matter.