Updated: 2000


Idjerhe: Petroleum Pipeline Explosion and Fire Disaster

In the halcyon years of wealth of the 1970s, every form of development seemed possible in Nigeria. Suffused in oil wealth that it did not know how to manage, the Nigerian economy was experimenting with all types of new ideas. One of these projects was the uploading of oil to the politically privileged North by means of pipes. An oil refinery at Kaduna, the informal political capital of Northern Nigeria, is the main beneficiary of this expensive operation covering many hundreds of miles. The valuable mineral oil from the Niger Delta is mined by powerful international oil companies in close alliance with the Federal Government of Nigeria.

The pipes that drained oil from the western Niger Delta in south most Nigeria run through farmlands and near homes of ordinary people. Urhoboland in the western Niger Delta is not only a main involuntary "supplier" of mineral oil; the pipes that carry the crude oil to Kaduna run through its territory. Idjerhe is an Urhobo division on the western side of River Ethiope through which the Federal Government's oil pipes run from the western Niger Delta to the North.

These pipes were laid more than twenty years ago. They are ageing, with little maintenance to help prolong their service lives. There have been many incidents of oil leakage from these pipes. On Saturday, October 17, 1998, an oil leak from a section of these pipes in Idjerhe developed into a fiery hell that consumed lives, farmlands, houses, and other properties. The military ruler of Nigeria at that time, General Abdulsami Abubakar, gave the Federal Government's verdict and reaction: the victims were to blame for causing the fire! This insensitive reaction, arrived at without any investigation and widely condemned at the time, provides a backdrop for the reports published in these pages on the Idjerhe Fire Disaster.

Ekakpamre: Shell's Fire Disaster

Eleven months after the Idjerhe debacle, while Urhobo communities were still struggling to cope with the massive emotional and economic ill-consequences arising from Idjerhe's hell fire, another preventable petroleum fire disaster has been wrought on a vital area of the same region. Ekakpamre, in eastern Urhoboland, is within a fifty-mile range of Idjerhe, which is in the western zone of Urhobo. Its lands and those of neighbouring communities of Ekrusierho, Ekenewharem, Ekroghen, Ekrezeghe and Ekrata have harboured Shell BP's operations since the 1960s. Together, their lands have twelve oil wells. Shell BP's equipment, installed from the 1960s, have aged and even decayed in several instances. If Shell were operating in the United States or Western Europe, it would be required to replace its equipment before continuing with any further operations. But Ekakpamre is not in the United States nor in Europe. It is in West Africa where international oil companies are the law.

On Friday, September 17,1999, ruptured equipment, which had been leaking crude oil into streams and into lands, developed a huge and uncontrollable fire. Its range of destruction is broad and catastrophic for the communities. Its pollution effects will be felt beyond these communities. Lives, property, animals, fishes, people's entire livelihood have all been affected. This is an agricultural bowl of Urhoboland valued for its farmlands and streams.

What Next?

It is invidious to compare two disasters. But it is necessary for reasons of preparing for their inevitable reoccurrence. Idjerhe's hell fire was provoked from a pipeline that can be watched and repaired if enough care is taken. Ekakpamre's hell fire bodes greater dangers for Urhoboland and the Niger Delta. These places are littered with Shell's oil wells, featuring equipment that should be replaced. But Shell and other international oil companies will continue to operate with such decrepit tools because it is cheaper to face the wrath of the communities whose lands are occasionally destroyed by Shell's fires than it is to refurbish its operations with entirely new devices. What happened at Ekakpamre could have happened at Kokori or any of the hundreds of locations in Urhoboland from which Shell drains oil.

Urhoboland is one of the few remaining areas in the Niger Delta where angry youths have not forcibly assumed power from leaders who are incapable of facing up to Shell, Chevron, and the other oil companies. There is still an established leadership in Urhoboland that seeks to negotiate on the abuses that the citizens of these areas have absorbed from the oil companies and the various corrupt military regimes who were the natural allies of the international oil companies. Whether established Urhobo leadership will continue to enjoy any legitimacy from their people is a question that the Idjerhe and Ekakpamre experiences may provoke. It may all depend on how much respect will be granted to the leaders of the Urhobo National Assembly by Almighty Shell and a Federal Government of Nigeria that is cash-hungry and fully dependent on the powerful oil companies for its financial resources.

We invite those who have documents on the Idjerhe and Ekakpamre Oil Fire Disasters to provide them for publication in these pages. We would also want to receive the names of those who died in these Government-made and Shell-made disasters for future publication and honouring in these pages. Please write to us at FireDisasters@waado.org.

Peter Ekeh

October 5, 1999


A BBC Picture Taken At A Scene From
A Fire Disaster Near Warri, Friday, 14 July, 2000

Sadly, the rash of great fire disasters caused by the actions of the Federal Government of Nigeria and the powerful but negligent Shell oil company continued into 2000, with a vengeance. The path of these great fires is now well defined. It lies along the Warri-Sapele corridor of Niger Delta through which ageing and ill-maintained oil pipelines run. The fires at Amukpe,Egborode, and Elume consumed hundreds of lives and large lands and waters, aside from wasted and uncompensated lost properties.

When the great Idjere fire of 1988 occurred, the Federal Government of Nigeria blamed the victims of the fire. It still alleges sabotage, but few people believe in its defence any more. It seems quite clear now that the age of the oil pipelines is the main culprit, often assisted by sophisticated vandalization through the use of rare equipment which is only available to powerful and privileged men from within the ranks of those who work for the oil companies or the Federal Government of Nigeria.

It is striking that less attention is being paid to these later instances of fire disasters than those that occurred in 1998 and 1999. But as some of the pictures from the Elume fire disaster will point up, they were no less severe. Sadly, the indifference of the government of Nigeria to the victims of these fire disasters, which its own actions have caused, is as cold today as it was during the years of ugly military rule in 1998 and 1999.

Peter Ekeh

July 31, 2001

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