Highlight: Over 20 persons die as a direct result of latest inferno

Location: Ibelebiri community, Ogbia Local Government Area (LGA), Bayelsa State.

 GPS Coordinates: Elev: 9m N0456.069’ E 00625.092’ [taken in the main community]

Date of fire Incident: 8th December, 2017

Report by: Akpotu M. Ziworitin and Alagoa Morris

INTRODUCTION

Ibelebiri is the first of Ijaw communities situated upstream along the Kolo Creek in Ogbia LGA of Bayelsa State. Traditionally, the people’s means of livelihood include fishing and farming. Oil bearing pipelines belonging to the Nigerian Agip Oil Company [NAOC] and Shell Petroleum Development Company [SPDC] traverse this community environment.

Ibelebiri community is accessible by car, as the federal government Road which started at Okaki junction [along Chief Melford Okilo Road/Mbiama –Yenagoa Road] in Yenagoa LGA proposed to terminate at Twon-Brass in Brass LGA passes through the community, dissecting the community into two.

The community has been rumoured to be harbouring bunkering/ local refinery sites for some time. This illegal activity is the reason for the several police check points between the community and Yenagoa, especially passing through Otuasega/Elebele environment. The last time field monitors of ERA/FoEN visited the community in connection with three youths arrested and whose whereabouts were unknown, the paramount ruler repeatedly said he would not like to discuss issues relating to the bunkering activities in the environment.

When a major fire incident occurred in one of the local refinery camps in the environment, the destruction wrought was so massive that it became impossible to prevent the information from spreading. A lot of deaths occurred instantly while some who were rushed to medical facilities died subsequently.

SENSITIVE OPERATIONS

Having worked with communities along the Kolo Creek, ERA/FoEN was not completely unaware of bunkering activities, especially as the Creek has often been polluted and necessitating expression of concern by some of the locals. Unfortunately, because community folks from some of these communities along the Kolo Creek were involved, they were economical with related information.

About two months before the fire incident, the Chairman of the Community Development Committee [CDC] of one of the immediate downstream communities reached out to ERA/FoEN and, complained [via phone] that the Kolo Creek is so polluted as a result of crude oil spreading from upstream. He attributed it to bunkering and related activities upstream.

After he agreed for ERA/FoEN Field monitors to visit the community for independent observation and get testimonies; he later declined. Another executive member of the CDC in that community later revealed to ERA/FoEN that because some community leaders were also deeply involved in the bunkering activities, they would not be disposed to cooperate with our field monitors in exposing what they were part of.

He related how officials of another NGO working on environmental issues who visited the communities and were taking photographs of the sleek in the polluted Creek at another neighboring community were attacked and almost had their camera seized by community folks. Aside the involvement of community members, some security personnel are, alleged to be part of the racket. The syndicated nature of the operation has given confidence to the main operations to continue, especially the camp owners.

TESTIMONIES

Emmanuel Eze, a commercial driver

This operation seems to be operated by a syndicate. I say so because there was a day I drove through Ibelebiri community in the night, at about 11:00pm and, I was surprised to see many persons on the road as I got to the community. They blocked the road and I was even scared of my life. They demanded that I carry them or else I won’t pass.

They wanted me to drop them at the next community, Okaki [which is a community that is administratively part of Rivers State]. Before I knew it, some of them had rushed into my car and were lapping themselves.

Some even occupied the boot. Up till now I cannot tell how many of them I carried in the car that night. Between where I picked them and where they dropped, a team of police men stopped me. The passengers promptly indentified the police men and said, “Officers, nothing today. We didn’t work because there was low pressure; they didn’t transport crude oil in the pipelines today so there is no raw material to work. And the police men understood and allowed us to proceed without demanding anything”

Pointing a guy to ERA/FoEN’s field monitors, he said:

You see that guy, he retired from the police not so long ago within the Ogbia environment where he was serving until he retired. He is now deeply involved in the business of dealing on local refinery products. He has two cars and this one you see him with is the one he uses in the local refinery business. As you see him pass now, I am sure he is heading to the community where the refining is taking place; to load products.

Since the policemen on the route are his former colleagues; how do you think they will ask him any question? He may decide to give them something if he likes, but I don’t think he has any problem from the police patrolling the route especially as he was a Senior Officer before he retired

Due to the sensitive nature of the operation and related risk, it was not easy for ERA/FoEN to get the real facts in time. Anyone that is sighted with camera in the community where the incident happened is highly suspected and confronted by community youths. However, when was identified by ERA/FoEN volunteer in another community and the victim indicated interest to speak on the matter; that window was explored promptly by ERA/FoEN. That was about three weeks after the unfortunate incident. Narrating his ordeal, how the incident happened and how he managed to survive while his best friend didn’t survive it; he said.

Obonin Austin (eye witness who narrowly escaped death) from Imiringi community, Ogbia LGA of Bayelsa State

It was because of the bunkering fire incident that happened on the 8th of December, 2017 that you are seeing part of my body like this. That night we went there around 7pm. It happened when one lady struck match so that she could put on a stove and prepare Indomie noodles. She used to be one of the women in the camps preparing food and selling to customers. That actually caused the fire because the bush was already saturated with enough gas evaporating from refined products and refining operations were still ongoing.

The flame from the match attracted gas from the refining oven. There was an immediate explosion. When it happened, workers who were working at the upper side started rushing down like rain. When I looked up, I saw huge fire so I started running away from the area. As I was running, some of the refined products splashed on my hand and so my hand caught fire too. As I was running I noticed that my shoes were on fire too. So, when I ran a certain distance I stopped and removed the shoes so as to avoid them burning to melting point. I was later taken to Christ the King Hospital. But we were three who went together that evening. One was rushed to another medical facility where he later died. The third one was admitted at the Cottage hospital, at Otuasega community. That is what I know about the incident. But, according to people who went there the next day, they saw a lot of dead bodies; some burnt beyond recognition and so only their bones were left and they gathered the bones to go and bury. It was a mass burial. Some dead bodies started floating on the Creek after about two days, because that night of incident; even the water in the Creek was on fire. Some of us were able to swim across to the other side

When asked if he would be able to estimate the total number of deaths occasioned by the fire, Obonin Austin said:

Over twenty people died that particular night. It is difficult to say the total, because some also died in the hospital. All I know is that the dead were more than twenty. There were over a hundred people that were there before the incident. But in the morning, you will observe that the number of people there is more than one community. The fire incident occurred at about 3:00am, that night. Not only workers were there, some were there as customers to buy and arrange for finished products to be transferred to various destinations in the morning. The environment was a hustling place

I cannot tell people to stop going there because, we take that place as a hustling ground where we use to go and hustle instead of to go and steal. I will advise people not to go in the night, but in the morning when all the ovens have been put off. The ovens are normally put off around 5:00am. They should avoid anything like naked flame, matches, lighter or anything that will cause flame. 

Government should formalize this business because, without this the crime rate would be high. This has presented an avenue for people to get busy and assist themselves and I can say it has reduced the rate of crime. Government should please allow them do it. The death rate is the only big issue in the operations. For me, they should look for a safer, modern way so that it will not cause these types of death anymore. This is my advice

When asked to comment about the other two who went with him, he said:

Yes, we were three who went together and one of the other two was my best friend. Unfortunately he died at the hospital. I knew him as Trust, but I don’t know his surname. His father is from Kolo community but the mother is from Onuebum community, all in Ogbia LGA. Three of us went there but, to God be the glory, two of us are still alive to see Christmas and New Year.

For my friend, God chose to take him and I don’t know why. I pray that God should see him through because our going to the site of the unfortunate incident was not for any trouble. It was for us to struggle to survive. But my late friend was burnt from head to toe. Parts of his burnt body were falling off. He died at the hospital around 8pm, three days after the fire incident. He was about twenty years of age when he died. Before he died he was calling the names of several people and screaming before he fell off the hospital bed and died

 Chief from Ibelebiri community (who wants to remain anonymous for security reasons)

The fire incident, which occurred in our community environment is common knowledge. It is not a secret. It was a most unfortunate incident, even though no one from this community died as a result of the fire. But over sixteen souls perished in the inferno. None of them was a member of this community. A lot of strangers are involved and in the operations in the environment and, I reliably heard that the refining camp where the fire incident happened was owned by an Ijaw guy, not from Ogbia LGA. It is being rumored that the guy also own refining camp in Rivers state and a similar thing occurred there too; at his camp. Some people are suspecting it to be related to rituals for money and so, when the owner of the burnt camp came with a brand new jeep; he was booed by people here.

When ERA/FoEN field monitors expressed surprise as to people owning camps and whether there were several camps in the community environment, the chief said:

There are several camps in the environment, about 30 [thirty] such camps. Security agencies are aware; even some top state government officials might be involved in this.

If not for the involvement of security agents and government officials, what else would explain why the business still thrives here? After the fire incident, the security agencies just came around and did some kind of controlled burning of what could be termed condemned oil and part of the already burnt environment and left. Operators and some government/security agencies that ought to ensure the business is completely stopped here settled at last. From an initial demand of N50million, I heard they brought it down to N11million. And, that settled it. It has returned to business as usual since then.

 

PICTURES FROM THE COMMUNITY

The earth shows field was spilled

 

 

Burnt hands of Obonin Austin

 

 

Spilled crude at Imiringi end of Kolo Creek

 

OBSERVATION/CONCLUSION

When ERA/FoEN visited Ibelebiri community again on 8th January, 2018 the transfer/loading of refined products into cars and tricycles was still ongoing. For strangers passing through the community environment, it would be difficult to have any idea such things are happening there as there are no rising column of dark smoke for anyone to observe during the day. The crude oil polluted Kolo Creek is not visible from the road and the refined products are not transferred in conventional containers associated with liquid substances.

Refined products are put into special bags and loaded into cars or tricycles. Trucks also have points where loading takes place at night only. Some who also confirmed how the fire incident happened informed ERA/FoEN that the lady who struck the matches and other customers who were within the camp to buy products died in the inferno. A lady whom they said usually bought in large quantity also died.

A tell tale sign of any environment where refining of crude oil is ongoing is thick column of smoke rising and spreading above the particular area. Two other signs are large presence of strangers in the locality and crude oil freely spreading on the creeks within the environment. However, since security agencies and contractors like the Oil and Gas Task Force took the fight to operators of local refineries and did colossal destruction of many of the sites and equipment, most have since closed down in Bayelsa State [especially in Southern Ijaw LGA which used to be like the headquarters of the business] and the few that are still in operation have taken to operating mostly at night.

We had earlier been informed that some security operatives had suggested/supported the night operations; since the accompanying think column of smoke cannot report the incident to the public at night. Be that as it may, the pollution of creeks in areas of operation has continued to tell the story. Unfortunately, because folks from communities along the polluted Kolo Creek are involved, such environmentally inimical hydrocarbon in the water has not elicited the sort of outcry expected from the communities.

Incidentally, the route where refined products leave the community where refining is taking place is highly policed by security agencies; especially the Police and civil defense. This, instead of curtailing the act, seems to be providing security coverage and rather embolden those engage in the business. Some petrol stations in Yenagoa are identified as dispensing products from such sources to unsuspecting members of the public.

The activities of local refinery operators are remotely encouraged by greed, unemployment, unavailability of refined products, cheap price of the locally refined products, high demand for the products, inadequate monitoring/inspection of petrol stations to ascertain source of products by the Department of Petroleum Resources [DPR], etc.

No matter how unhappy and uncomfortable some fellow community leaders/folks may be about the local refinery related hazards in their community environment; unless the government and security agencies do the needful; lives of those who oppose the operation could be on the line. The culpability of the military, police and civil defense cannot be ruled out; especially as the environment of interest is just few kilometers from the Headquarters of these relevant security agencies in the state capital. And yet the business is thriving.

 

ERA/FoEN DEMANDS

[1.] The Federal and state government encourage youths by providing willing scholarship for training in the area of renewable energy as the world is gradually moving away from fossil energy.

[2.] The Federal Government build more refineries in the country and ensure that the existing four are functional and producing in full capacity. This will make refined petroleum products available and at cheaper prices to the Nigerian public. The export of Crude oil and importation of refined products is not only a bad business principle; it makes Nigeria a laughing stock in the committee of nations.

[3.] As promised by the Federal Government, Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] be visible and ongoing in the Creeks, as a confidence building action preceding approval for the location of modular refineries promised by the Federal Government during the tour of the Niger Delta state by the then Acting President [Vice-President]. This is critical and would go a long way to minimize risks associated with lives and environment in general.

[4.] The Bayelsa State Government and Security agencies inform the public whether the refining operation ongoing within Ibelebiri environment is approve by them and, if so; why other sites in the Creeks have been destroyed?

[5.] Communities along the Kolo Creek take measures necessary for the protection of their natural fresh water. They should join in condemning the crude oil pollution of the Kolo Creek by operators of local refineries. Keeping silent on such self-inflicted injuries weakens any argument against oil industry related environmental degradation.