Grimot Nane, PhD

People died in Jesse Fire Disaster, but why?

Grimot Nane Saturday, 18 October 2014 was the 16th anniversary of the Jesse Fire Disaster (JFD) that occurred in Atigwor, Jesse, Delta State. The disaster was as a result of conflagration due to people draining off petrol from a gaping leak in a transport pipeline that killed over 800 people, traumatised a community and exposed the inhumane brazenness of a Head of State.

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Interestingly, the Government of Nigeria (GON) and Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), who own the pipelines, never provided any humanitarian relief for the Jesse Fire Disaster victims. The then interim president of Nigeria, General Abdul Salami Abubakar, in an act of derisory statesmanship, made a 15-minute “political and oil market reassurance” visit to Jesse the day after the disaster only to claim of the victims, ‘Oh! Forget them, these are petrol thieves therefore, they deserve to die.’

A ‘search and arrest’ was threatened, causing many victims to flee from hospitals before dying. 300 charred bodies were buried in a mass grave, mostly women and children!

Well, presidents of Nigeria are no strangers to the theft. As Ancient Greek story teller Aesop says “we hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.” Nigeria presidents are also no strangers to irresponsibility and ineptitude, and their legacies reek of them. Nigerian petroleum extraction is fuel for kleptocracy and psychopathy in high places.

The Jesse Fire Disaster is very indicative of the severe nature of oil (production) related disasters, negligence and destruction in Nigeria that have become daily horrors for mainly the Niger Delta and its people. The oil sector and GON have created very vulnerable and neglected “extraction hotspots:” proximal ‘oil well communities’ and ‘pipeline communities’ in the Niger Delta. Jesse qualifies as both. Such communities are what Chris Hedges calls “sacrifice zones,” that is, zones providing much for corporations and government but receiving nothing in return untill they have nothing left but destruction.

Nevertheless, oil-related disasters are commonplace all over Nigeria, often faraway from extraction hotspots. Terrible fire disasters have occurred from traders adulterating petrol with kerosene which is cheaper. Amusingly, for the Government of Nigeria, the solution was to increase the price of kerosene to equal that of petrol.

Other common fire disasters have resulted from tankers transporting diesel, petrol or kerosene falling over because of disgraceful disrepair of the roads they ply. Local exploiters of the fallen tankers then unwittingly trigger fires/explosions. The GON’s amazing solution to these road disasters is to leave the badly dilapidated roads unrepaired.

People did die in Jesse but why? The extraction hotspots are usually well-populated settlements. No risk analysis was conducted by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) before laying the pipelines for the safeties of proximal communities and of the pipelines themselves it appears, a national disgrace considering the strategic importance and disaster possibilities of the pipelines that cost billions of dollars to build.

Occasionally, the NNPC did sponsor TV announcements warning pipeline communities of the dangers of pipeline sabotage or leaks. But these mostly uneducated residents neither had electricity nor TVs. Such was the avoided cost by GON and NNPC that became a high cost to the victims.

Were any lessons learnt? Jesse remains a vulnerable “extraction hotspot.” Jesse and communities of innumerable other “extraction hotspots” have learnt lessons, that ‘they are on their own.’ No solutions or support is offered by GON who issues licences for oil exploitation. Assuming, people are incentivised to vandalise pipelines, to steal or exploit leakages for financial gain, there are more incentives now than ever, considering the unrelenting economic hardships they face.

Before the 1980s, Jesse was long a superlative prime area in Nigeria for the production of (a) cassava foods and vegetables, (b) timber (AT&P, Sapele), (c) fish and (d) palm oil. These hitherto vibrant industries, sources of sustainable livelihoods, have since become anaemic because of oil. No support was ever given by the GON to these industries (except timber), and neoliberalism has vapourised any hope of such.

There are much commissioned research and reports on extraction hotspots, examining causes and solutions to disasters, and mainly recommending the re-invigoration of agribusinesses, education and clean-ups in those areas. They are characteristically ignored.

Today, pipelines still leak fuel regularly and they remain perilously unprotected and dilapidated. Fire disasters, oil-spillages, gas flaring, remain regular occurrences. Promises of oil-related remedies and clean-ups remain unfulfilled by the Nigerian government. It continues to engage in misinformation and denials concerning oil-related disasters in collusion with oil companies, blaming rather than helping victims and communities.

What next, I ask?

  • PERSPECTIVE is published every Monday. Dr. Nane is an errant scholar and economist. Follow him on Twitter: @Grimot

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