OWERRI – Mourners were nowhere to be seen as gravediggers in Nigeria’s southeast town of Ohaji-Egbema used shovels to place the unidentifiable charred remains of dozens who died in an explosion at an illegal oil refinery into three mass graves.
The bodies had started to decompose after not being claimed by family members at the open water-logged space days after the explosion killed at least 110 people.
“Most corpses here cannot be identified,” said Marcel Amadioha, chairman of the Ohaji-Egbema local government area where the illegal refinery operated.
The explosion on Friday night was triggered by a fire in the bootleg facility that was tucked away in the Ohaji-Egbema forest, away from the eyes of Nigeria's regulatory agencies. Such refineries have become common in the West African nation whose rich crude oil deposit is easily stolen.
Shortly after the explosion, people came from far and near to see if they could find the remains of their loved ones, said Amadioha, chairman of the council area.
On Tuesday, authorities and gravediggers returned to the forest to bury the remains of about 50 people.
“Lift it (a human body) and throw it inside before covering — if not it will smell!” a local shouted to a gravedigger who gathered remains near a mass grave with his shovel and makeshift stretcher.
Little is known of the refinery which had operated in a part of the forest surrounded by farmlands and palm trees. Residents told The Associated Press that many of those who died had come from various parts of Nigeria to buy the oil.
The refinery site was usually “very busy” at night,” said resident Francis Obi.
“There are individuals who buy over 100 drums of crude oil, others buy 200,” he said. “So, both the people that came here to do labor work, the people who came to buy, the drivers and people who come here for other commercial activities — all of them were trapped (by the explosion).”
The anger among the villagers is not just about the deaths but also because a refinery “that sustained us” is gone, he said, referring to the money the villagers made from the commercial activity surrounding the refinery.
It is a common trend in southern Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of crude oil where almost half of its more than 200 million people are living in poverty, according to the latest estimates from the statistics agency.
The local operators of such refineries do so “out of frustration” at being neglected by the government, said Bright Onyenwoke, a youth leader in Ohaji-Egbema. He said his community lacks social amenities despite being surrounded by at least 27 oil wells managed by international oil companies. “So, the means of survival here is hard,” he said.
In the quest for survival, such illegal dealings become an easy way out in the oil-rich Niger Delta region where the oil theft is concentrated.
Residents in Ikwere in Rivers state said 10,000 naira ($24) is shared every week between people in the village as benefits from the illegal refinery in the area.
There, dozens of young people are employed for various “non-technical works” with weekly earnings of about 40,000 naira ($96), he said, adding that the refinery workers “have police … (and other) security agencies guarding them.”
With no safety protocols, environmental hazards like the fire in Imo state are a regular occurrence at the illegal oil refineries. Back in Ikwere, a resident who only gave his first name as Akachi said two people in his extended family died in fires last year.
There is “no control whatsoever” on how the illegal refineries are run, said Nnimmo Bassey, a director at the Health of Mother Earth Foundation environmental group. “Apart from the fact that the nation is losing revenue, these refineries expose communities to grave health issues.”
As the remains of those who died in the Imo explosion were being covered in mass graves half-filled with water, a pastor arrived with a religious group to conduct a prayer session. Earlier, a traditional religion practitioner had come to perform rites over the bodies.
“We cannot continue losing our lives unnecessarily for peanuts,” said Amadioha, the administrator of Ohaji-Egbema council area. “Everything must be done to stop them this time around.”