On Friday, 22nd April, there was a devastating explosion at an illegal refinery in Imo State, Nigeria. According to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the recorded number of deaths is 110. NEMA officials have been on the scene discovering and evacuating bodies since Friday night. On Sunday, more bodies were discovered in the nearby Orashi river and some casualties who were being treated at hospitals died. Arrangements for a mass burial of the dead are currently underway, as their bodies have been burnt beyond recognition. Charred human remains and fragments of various items littered the horrific scene of the incident. The police are searching for the owner of the illegal refinery, and are yet to find out the exact cause of the explosion.
An image from the scene of the explosion (Reuters)
In a statement on Sunday, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari said that the country is in a state of “shock and trauma” following the catastrophic incident. President Buhari offered his condolences to the victims’ families and expressed his resolve to make sure those responsible for the explosion face the full wrath of the law. The president has since ordered security forces to amp up their efforts to shut down these illegal refineries
Ifeanyi Nnaji, the acting head of the Abia/Imo office of NEMA urged the government to facilitate the operation of genuine businesses within the oil producing communities in Imo as a way to curb the youths’ interest in such illegal activities. He also appealed to oil companies in the state to assist the government in job creation for youths in their host communities.
Illegal refining has become a rampant practice in Nigeria’s oil-producing states. In a country ridden with poverty and unemployment, many have sought illicit ways to survive. For several youths in the oil-producing “Niger Delta” states of Nigeria, this has looked like stealing large amounts of crude oil from national pipelines. In 2021 alone, Nigerian petroleum authorities reported that crude oil barrels worth between $3.8 to $9.9 billion were stolen. About 80% of this crude oil is said to be exported to foreign refineries while the remaining 20% goes to the numerous illegal refineries in the Niger Delta region. The conspicuous, yet mostly unhindered operation of these refineries have made many question whether the government somehow benefits from it.
An illegal oil refinery in Bayelsa, Nigeria (Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye)
The Imo refinery explosion – and a similar incident in Rivers State that cost 25 lives in October – instantly brought several people to their death. However, the consequences of these illegal refining activities have slowly been killing the people in the region for years. There has been dreadful environmental pollution with soot in Rivers and Bayelsa States. Inhabitants of these states report blackened skies, homes, roads and rivers almost every day. Worse still, there has been an increase in recorded cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases which can be linked to the pollution.
Those problems were largely unattended to, but perhaps, an incident as loud and harrowing as this explosion will be the defining impetus for the government to act.