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One Week After Lagos Explosion: New Fatalities Reported, Occupancy Rights Distorted, and Community Life Utterly Contorted

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By Chudi Okoye with Philip Nwosu and Stella Nzekwe contributing field reports

They are still counting the bodies in Abule Ado even one week after the devastating explosion. Every so often another unforeseen fatality would be reported, adding to the body count from the bolt of explosion that jolted Abule Ado, a community in Amuwo-Odofin Local Government Area of Lagos State, Nigeria.

On the day of the incident, Sunday March 15th, 2020, an Awka Times reporter who was at the scene had counted no fewer than 17 corpses being evacuated from the rubble. In the succeeding days, the body count had gradually increased, rising to 22 by Friday March 20th when the Director-General of Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA), Dr. Olufemi Oke-Osanyintolu, disclosed that another body had been recovered from the rubble.

And then on Saturday March 21st, there was yet another fatality. LASEMA’s Dr. Oke-Osanyintolu, in a press statement said that the latest casualty, a female victim, had died at the National Orthopedic Hospital, Igbobi, Lagos, where she had been receiving treatment. The latest fallen victim brought the total figure of fatalities to 23. It is unclear if this will be the final tally in the morbid arithmetic of death from the Sunday morning explosion seven days ago.

The circumstances surrounding some of the casualties are particularly depressing. There is the story of the well-loved administrator of Bethlehem Girls College, Rev. Sister Henrietta Alokha SSH, who died along with a female security staff, in the midst of a heroic effort, as the first casualties in the school. The school is considered one of the worst hit establishments in the blast. The reverend sister had died having plunged back into a collapsing building to find a couple of students who were missing from the crush she had rounded up in her rescue effort.

Late Rev. Sister Henrietta Alokha, SSH

The explosion had occurred with the students gathered in the school refectory for the 9 a.m. mass which had just started. A witness told Awka Times that shortly after service had started a deafening explosion rent through the refectory which sent the students scampering, in dazed confusion. However, according to the witness, the school principal, the late Rev. Sister Henrietta Alokha, was able to rally about 300 students and shepherded them towards a school fence where they used an improvised ladder to climb over to safety. The students were shaken up but safe, thanks to the selfless reverend sister who lost her life trying to save the children.

Late Rev. Sister Henrietta Alokha was a native of Agenebode in Etsako East Local Government Area of Edo State, Catholic Diocese of Auchi. Born on May 11th, 1967, she made her First Religious Profession of Vows on August 23rd, 1987 and her Perpetual Profession of Vows on November 12th, 1995.  She celebrated her Silver Jubilee on November 3, 2014. Arrangements are being finalized for her funeral on March 25th and 26th.

Three other school staff were later reported dead, trapped in the school’s staff quarters that lay in ruins, according to the Director of Education of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, Monsignor Jerome Odutan.

Apart from the school casualties, Awka Times also learned of a family of three – a couple and their son – driving to church whose car was blown apart in the explosion. All three were killed in the instant.

There is also the story of another victim, a man who according to witnesses usually attended mid-morning mass but who decided on that fateful day to switch to the early morning service. He had just returned from service with his wife and was settling down at home when the blast occurred. It is reported that the foundation of the man’s building shook so violently that the walls started to cave in. As the man tried to run out of the building with his wife a wall collapsed on them, killing them instantly. The deadly blast occurred at a time, by his usual routine, that the victim would have been at his church.

Meanwhile, emergency workers are still searching for a man, declared missing by family members three days after the massive explosion. He is now presumed dead and a search is on for his body.

Trail of Destruction

A week out from the day of the catastrophic explosion, the scene of wreckage remains mind-numbing. Even as dust from the rubble settles, one can still hear anguished cries with some confused residents returning to the wreckage and picking through the rubble to see what they can salvage. But there is hardly any silver lining, hardly much to recover from such gruesome damage.

Littered everywhere are personal belongings, mementos of personal lives lying in tatters. All around there is debris from collapsed buildings and other structures, blown rooftops, mangled vehicles, cratered pavements etc. It looks for all the world like the site of a bomb explosion – a massive detonation at that. And this is precisely what informal local opinion insists on: that this was unquestionably a bomb explosion, and not devastation from gas depot explosion or an oil pipeline explosion, as other official and unofficial explanations would have it.

Wreckage from the Lagos explosion

The precise nature and cause of the explosion is still being investigated. But the result is all too real.

At what was said to be the epicenter of the incident, fire was still smouldering several days after the explosion, with isolated tongues of flame glowing at the scene and palls of thick smoke billowing into the sky. No fewer than 10 fire trucks had been seen at the scene by 7 p.m. on that fateful Sunday, but several days afterwards, they were still struggling to overmaster the flare and the air pollution.

A week on from the massive explosion, the grim physics of the damage remains very much in evidence. Debris from physical damage are still piled high, a forbidding heap still undented even with determined effort. It is estimated that over 50 buildings collapsed in the explosion. Among the worst-hit were the buildings in Bethlehem Girls College, a school owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos.

Even survivors of the explosion have a grim story to tell about their experience on that ill-fated day. One such victim, Mr. Caleb Nwachukwu, a resident of Abule Ado, recounts his experience: “It was like the beginning of the end, as I sat in my living room watching television with my family. We [had] just returned from 6 a.m. mass, then suddenly there was a blast that threw all of us off balance and relocated us to different places. But thank God Almighty we only sustained minor injuries.”

Mr. Nwachukwu said that all his properties were destroyed, including television and furniture, as the impact of the explosion went through their apartment like a hurricane, smashing windows, doors, iron railings and even burglar bars.

Caleb Nwachukwu’s experience, frightful and traumatic as it must have been, pales in comparison to the devastation at Bethlehem Girls College. The explosion had torn through several of the school’s structures, leaving a trail of destruction. The administrative block, the chapel which was still under construction, the staff residence, the dormitory and the grotto – all ripped apart in the fiery devastation. A tally of the destruction at the school is only just beginning to be carried out.

Apart from institutional losses, individual residents incurred unimaginable losses as well. One affected landlord, Chief Emmanuel Ume, said that he had lost two duplexes, a luxury hair salon and a sewing factory in the conflagration.

Narrating how he escaped death, Ume said: “I had gone to church with my family that Sunday morning and that was what saved me. When we got back, we discovered that we had lost everything. What I and my family are left with are the clothes we wore to church. We want the government to come to our aid.”

State Government Rescue Effort

The Lagos State government is working frantically to salvage the situation. Briefing journalists on rescue efforts a few days after the explosion, LASEMA Director-General, Dr. Oke-Osanyintolu, had said there was a total of 276 persons displaced as a result of the explosion. But as of Saturday March 21st, the number of displaced persons had risen to 500, according to Dr. Oke-Osanyintolu. The LASEMA DG disclosed that about 100 of the displaced persons were being accommodated in the LASEMA relief camp at Igando, in Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos State.

LASEMA Director-General, Dr. Oke-Osanyintolu

In his press briefing days before, Dr. Oke-Osanyintolu had said that 57 of the victims who were trapped under the rubble had been rescued, 47 of whom were assessed at various hospitals and discharged. Ten of the rescued victims were said at the time to be receiving treatment for minor and major injuries. Among the three with severe injuries, Dr. Oke-Osanyintolu said, “one is on admission at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, another is being treated at the Nigerian Navy Reference Hospital Ojo, and the third is at Gold Treat Hospital.”

Dr. Oke-Osanyintolu also gave the tally of damaged properties.

“A total of… 93 houses were damaged out of which 44 were mildly damaged, [while] 49 were severely damaged. 40 cars and three articulated vehicles were destroyed, seven schools were destroyed, three churches, one hotel, and one shopping complex were also destroyed.”

Dr. Oke-Osanyintolu disclosed that a committee had been set up by the governor of Lagos State, headed by the state deputy governor, to coordinate rescue and relief efforts. He also announced that a relief camp had been established.

The Lagos State governor himself, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, announced later that a relief fund of ₦2 billion had been set up and that the state government was depositing ₦200 million immediately into the account. He said that he was also reaching out to other state governors and the private sector to assist.

Federal Complication

Meanwhile, there appears to be an emerging controversy over the ownership of land in the affected area. The acting Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Federal Housing Authority (FHA), Umar Saliu Buntu, who visited to inspect the site of the explosion and to commiserate with the victims, took the time to warn that the federal government had long acquired much of the area, saying that many of the residents might be illegal occupants encroaching into federal government land. H said that the federal government would initiate plans to retake the area in question.

However, in a riposte to the FHA’s claim, a traditional ruler in the area, the Baale of Soba, Chief Raheem Agbebeji, insisted that the portions of land in question were community-owned. The traditional ruler first sough to clarify media reporting that the March 15th explosion occurred in Abule Ado. He said that the explosion actually occurred in Soba town and not in Abule Ado. “Soba Community is a distinct and different community from Abule Ado, though they share a common boundary,” the traditional ruler noted.

In a press statement issued by his spokesman in response to the FHA’s claim of federal ownership, the monarch said that “Soba is not an illegal community.” He said archival documents would show that the community had been in existence for over 300 years, and insisted that the community would assert its right of ownership.

Landlords and residents in the area are backing up the Baale’s stance. The chairman of Landlords/Residents Association of Soba, Chief Gani Adams, told newsmen recently that the landlords of Soba had legal documents and that even before the incident the landlords had been communicating with the FHA to secure certificates of occupancy in the area.

Representatives of Landlords/Residents Association of Soba, Lagos 

Speaking through a representative, the leader of the landlords said: “Some of us have been here for over two or three decades, and we have met FHA on several occasions. They have our master plan and survey plan, and they know we are living here. We are not aliens and we have been working hand in hand with them. We are not illegal occupants. Our documents are intact. They even delineated this place to us. They know we are here.”

It seems the land ownership issue is quite confused. But the FHA boss, Umar Buntu, whilst insisting that “the [federal] government is coming back to take charge”, also indicated that the state and federal authorities would work together “to sanitize this place”, with proper investigations carried out before decisions are taken. Chief Emmanuel Ume, one of the residents who said he lost a lot of property in the area, advised the federal government to tread with caution as a takeover of the affected areas may do more harm to victims.

Amid the daunting task of rescue and rehabilitation, a disagreement over land ownership is emerging. Added to all this is a severe disagreement over just what happened on the morning of March 15th, 2020. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), through its Group Managing Director of NNPC Mr. Mele Kyari, claims that the blast was caused by some gas depots operating close to the pipeline right of way. But some residents blame the NNPC which they say did not lay its pipes deep enough into the ground. Other residents assert a more dramatic explanation, insisting that the explosion was a bomb blast. The chairman of the Soba landlords association, Chief Gani Adams, said that his group was “convinced that it was a bomb detonated on the pipeline which caused the unprecedented blast and damage to lives and properties.”

With disagreement over the cause of the explosion, with a massive rehabilitation and reconstruction work ahead, and with dispute over land ownership in the area, it may be a long time before any semblance of normalcy is restored to these devastated lives and these devastated areas of Lagos State.

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