An oil tanker inferno that reportedly killed over 20 people in Felele, near Lokoja in Kogi State in July 2017
An oil tanker inferno that reportedly killed over 20 people in Felele, near Lokoja in Kogi State in July 2017

Sunday, October 8, 2017 began like any other day. There was nothing to show that it would be a day of horrific deaths and destruction for Tafa community in Kaduna State. Abubakar Umar, a vulcaniser by the highway at about 8am never knew the danger that lurked until a tanker bearing petroleum product exploded.

The inferno that raged for about an hour before help arrived from men of the Federal Fire Service, killed over 20 people. It left Umar and many others critically burnt and 17 shops and houses along the highway burnt down.

“A tanker developed fault and stopped abruptly by the highway and suddenly a truck brushed it and opened a hole on the side of tanker where the petrol began to gush out and people flooded the scene to scoop the content.

“I was not among those scooping the fuel but I was affected when I went to rescue my friend’s son as the initial fire started. As I was lifting him, there was an explosion which lifted me off my feet. I fell flat some metres away from the fire while the child and over 10 others were burnt to death,” recounted Umar who is still recovering from burns to his back, face and limbs.

He said many of those injured were rejected at hospitals they were taken to initially because of the severity of their burns. “We were taken to a local treatment centre at Suleja about 15 kilometres away from Tafa community where we started receiving attention. Unfortunately three of the patients died in the process,” Umar recalled.

His story is similar to that of another survivor, Hamza Musa, a mechanic who decried abandonment of the over 20 survivors in Tafa community by the government.

“I started walking without any support just a month after the incident. We have surrendered to Allah who has pitied us to still be alive. We would have been among the dead in the inferno,” Musa said as he stretched his legs and arms that now have scares from burns from the fire.

Sadiq Haruna, whose car wash shop was affected, corroborated the story of others saying the tanker belonging to Shema Oil loaded with petrol was parked by the roadside when a truck smashed into its side.

“It leaked seriously for over 30 minutes and people were scooping and fighting over fuel before a fire from a ‘masa’ (rice meal delicacy) spot ignited the fuel in the drainage.

Hauwa Saidu, whose restaurant was lost to the fire along with 10 others by the roadside said, “When I saw my shop in flames, I just knelt down and prayed to God to help me; the fire completely razed the shops and a part of our residential house that was some metres away. What most those of us affected now have are makeshift shops. I spent N140,000 to put up this place in the meantime.”

Like the others, Haruna and Hauwa are still expecting some form of assistance from the government five months after the on-the-spot assessment was done. 

Mohammed Sule, who was among the rescue team said, “I was part of those who evacuated the victims to hospitals. It was a gory sight as we had to use rake and mats to gather burnt body parts as thick smell of burnt flesh hung in the air. On the spot, I counted at least nine bodies that were burnt beyond recognition while others died in the hospital after some days.”

Sule said Tafa, notorious for the unchecked parking of trailers and tankers on the highway, explained that the people of Tafa have continually complained about the high risks with at least two to three disasters occurring around the axis every year.

“The Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA) started constructing a trailer park about 10 years ago in Tafa after rampant cases of such tanker fire and trailer accidents but the project has been abandoned.

“After the incident in October, FERMA came in February and began what they said was expansion of the roadsides around where the inferno occurred. I don’t believe this is a solution to the danger these tankers and trucks pose as long as they are not in a trailer park,” Sule lamented.

Tankers: 308 accidents, 100 deaths, injuries recorded in 2017

The Tafa disaster is one of the 308 tanker fire accidents that occurred in 2017. A breakdown of the 2017 Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) statistics on accidents obtained from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), shows that that 92 tanker fire accidents occurred in the first quarter of the year.

In the second quarter, 77 infernos triggered by oil tankers were reported; 83 tanker fire accidents occurred in quarter three and 56 others happened in the fourth quarter of 2017.

A chronicle of some of these tanker infernos by media reports showed over 100 deaths with more people injured in recent times in other parts of the country. On December 15, 2017, six persons including three soldiers died in a tanker fire explosion in Iwuru community along the Calabar-Ikom highway in Cross River State. A diesel tanker also exploded at FESTAC Link Bridge in Lagos on December 13 razing 21 vehicles.

In Imo State, 20 persons died from a kerosene laden-tanker inferno at Njaba bridge on November 25. On October 19, three persons were killed in a petrol tanker explosion in Ogere, Ogun State.

The Tafa incident of October 8 was one of the cruel manifestations of the monstrous oil and gas triggered infernos.

At the Apapa Jetty of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), an inferno claimed four lives on September 13.

Felele area of Kogi State had a bitter taste of the monstrous infernos on July 28 when about 20 people were burnt to death while six others sustained injuries when a petrol tanker went up in flames.

Other reports indicate that massive deaths have been caused by tanker infernos in the past. One of the worst happened at Okobie community in Rivers State in July 12, 2012 when 104 people died and about 50 were wounded as they scooped fuel from a crashed petrol tanker. Similarly, 93 persons died in Kaduna State on March 26, 2007 as they scooped fuel from a crashed oil tanker.

Felele: ‘Horrible sight as helpless victims burned’ 

In Felele town near Lokoja in Kogi State, about 20 persons mostly travelers died in a tanker fire last year. The highway connects the North with the South and western parts of Nigeria, popular for the heavy traffic of trucks.

The tanker fire of July 28, 2017 in which about 20 persons and property worth millions of naira were destroyed was still fresh in the minds of the people when our reporter visited the area.

Mr Oyiza Haruna who lost a vehicle to the inferno said he parked by the roadside, near his shop, when a tanker conveying fuel manoeuvring the bad road, crashed into an 18-seater bus and a tricycle that were speeding.

“This road has many tankers and trailers coming and going to Lagos; it is a busy road. I rushed after I heard the explosion but my car along with about 10 others were already in flames.

“It was a horrible sight as the helpless victims burned; the intensity of the heat prevented people from  helping until the fire service arrived. By then, the passengers in the vehicles were all burnt beyond recognition,” Haruna recalled.

At a roadside mechanic’s workshop, there were about five burnt vehicles which the mechanic, Samuel Adeniyi, said were from the accident scene.

“The problem here is that there is no drainage. There is a point there, whenever the rain is falling, it becomes a pothole on the road. And because of the many potholes, when trailers are coming they want to dodge and in the process, accidents happen,” he lamented.

Inactive depots, bad roads fuel tanker infernos – Stakeholders 

The poor nature of the highways across the country and the inoperative petroleum product depots are said to be the major contributing factors to the occurrence of oil tanker fires in many parts of the country.

Daily Trust spoke with some witnesses, survivors, tanker drivers and the authorities in the oil and gas sector about the issue. A petty trader along Felele road, Abdulfatai Mohammed, who witnessed the inferno last year said, “Some of the accidents occurred as a result of recklessness and over speeding by most drivers of articulated vehicles.”

He urged the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) to evolve some measures to check the excesses of tanker drivers and other trucks while pressing on government to fix the bad portions and put speed bumps to reduce the many accidents there.

Akin Olabayo, a driver for Total, a major marketer of petroleum products said to reduce tanker accidents that have claimed many lives in recent years, Petroleum Tanker Drivers (PTD) has prohibited members from traveling at night, most especially for interstate delivery which covers many miles.

An official of the Ibadan depot, Dayo Adegoke  (not real name) said the depots were not in the shape to deliver products to nearby areas and cut the long distance trips for petroleum tankers.

He said government should think of improving the facilities – from the generators to the storage facilities. “They can also privatise them so that business people like the major marketers can manage them. They are also old, so government should substitute them or rehabilitate them,” he opined.

Poor safety rules for downstream sector

While reports have shown improved implementation of Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) policies in the upstream section of the petroleum industry, especially in exploration activities, the few HSE policies that exist in the downstream are yet to positively affect activities of distributing petroleum products.

The loss of lives in the downstream resulting from tanker fires over the highways, depots and filling stations are still highly ignored by authorities including the DPR.

In 2017, a new National Petroleum Policy passed by the Federal Executive Council said it was considering jail terms for directors of oil and gas companies found guilty of abusing the industry’s safety standards while acknowledging that HSE practices by operators in Nigeria’s oil and gas industry were very poor.

PTD blames bad roads for tanker infernos

The Petroleum Tanker Drivers (PTD) members have blamed bad roads for the many oil tanker infernos just as they said over 8,000 drivers have been trained on defensive driving to reduce accident rate.

The National President of PTD, Salimon Oladiti told Daily Trust that, “Part of our rules and regulations for our drivers is that they are not allowed to drive at night. They should not drive from 7pm to 7am. They should not give trucks to motor boys (those under the learning process).”

Like the drivers, he blamed most of the tanker accidents on bad roads, giving instance of the dreaded Mokwa-Jebba road in Niger State. He said: “For instance, on the road between Jebba and Mokwa, some vehicles have various faults because of the road conditions. We are also appealing to the mass media to help us in whatever way they can to encourage the Federal Government to fix them.”

Oladiti noted that the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr Babatunde Fashola, recently met with road sector stakeholders and they presented the issue of Mokwa road where, according to him, “a journey of one hour takes about five hours for tankers. They should also remember that what the tankers are carrying is a flammable product.”

Functional depots to take pressure off highways – NNPC

Speaking for PPMC/NPSC, the NNPC spokesman, Ndu Ughamadu, said the corporation was doing a lot to rehabilitate the depots. He said last year, Ibadan and Kano depots were fixed and are operating to ensure that they complement the operation of local refineries.

He also confirmed the state of the bad roads recalling that recently, tanker drivers went on strike because the Mokwa–Jebba road was bad, adding that what contributed to the poor state of the road was because several tankers plied it.

“What PPMC is trying to do is to ensure that all the depots are working and they have supply. Our depots in Ibadan and Kano have supply, and our depot in Yola will have supply.

“Once the depots are all functioning, the roads will no longer be under pressure especially as they take products from Port Harcourt and Lagos and these movements are affecting our roads,” Ughamadu said.

This report is supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) and the Facility for Oil Sector Transparency and Reform (FOSTER).