Lonely World of Kerosine Fire Victims
By Adetokunbo Abiola
On the evening of Jan 21, 2001 Christian Ekeluba,a motor cyclist, turned his motor bike into the AP filling station at New Benin, Benin City. After waiting for ten minutes his bike pulled up beside the fuel pump and he bought ten litres of kerosine. Satisfied with this, he whistled under his breathe as he manouvered his bike through about six cars that parked in the station and then rode home. He was not to know that the kerosine he bought would irrevocably change his life. When he got home, as usual, the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) had switched off power at the New Benin Area where he lived.So Christian gave the small gallon of kerosine he bought to his wife to pour into the lantern so they could have light in their one bedroom apartment.
Pushing the four year old child that clung to her away, Mrs Ekeluba dutifully poured the kerosine into the lantern and took out a stick of matches from its box, struck it and held out its flickering flame against the wick of the lantern. Instead of light, there was an explosion of fire. No one in the room was spared the consequences. Before Mrs Ekeluba could jump from the fire, it blazed through her right hand. Her daughter, who was nearby, got to her feet and ran but the fire reached out to her and burnt her at the back of her neck. Chibuzor Ekeluba, the four year old boy, was too bemused to run.
The fire lashed at him and burnt him from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. Christian Ekeluba did not know when he rushed the boy out of the house for treatment at the Owen Clinic, Upper Mission Road of New Benin.It was from here that his problem began. He spent about one hundred thousand naira in the six weeks Chibuzor was admitted at the Own Clinic. When he was referred to the Central Hospital, Sapele Road for treatment, Christian had to provide money for board, feeding and drugs for Chibuzor. When doctors at Central Hospital referred him to the University of Benin Teaching Hospital at Ugbowo, Chibuzor had to raise the hard cash alone to pay the bills. Three years later, broke and his motor bike sold in order to raise money to take care of his son, he is bitter:"Up till now, the Edo State Government has not done anything for me." While Christian Ekeluba made this declaration on March 7, 2004, other people had the same conclusion. They are saying the government led by Chief Lucky Igbinedion had done nothing for the kerosione explosion victims. Left to take care of situation anyhow they deemed it fit, bread winners have faced financial ruin in saving their children and wives from the effects of the kerosine explosion, with most of the victims still in pain and sorrow. Angry at the response to their plight, some of them have formed themselves into a pressure group to fight government indifference to their problem. On June 19, 2001, hundreds of people in Benin City and its environs bought kerosine from filling stations or from retailers who bought the product from filling stations. The filling stations got the product from the Nigerian National Petroleum Company depot in Benin City. When the kerosine was poured into lamps the following and subsequent days, and then lit up, explosions occurred. The explosion fire burnt through the flesh of women and children, scouring out muscles into bloody patches of scarred flesh, leaving faces, legs, stomachs disfigured and rotten with stink within a few days : 200 people died from the explosions, while over 1000 others were hospitalized. Mrs Eki Igbinedion, wife of the Edo State Governor, said on visiting the hospitals:"I feel so bad, that words are not enough to describe what I have just seen. Its so sad to see many women and children badly burnt." A week after the explosions donations started coming in. Church organizations, civil society groups, and individuals brought money, food and medical materials and presented them to government which served as trustee for victims.
The Nigeria National Petroleum Company, Standard Trust Bank, All States Trust Bank, Union Bank, Delta State Government and others donated drugs and food for the victims as well as cash for them.Officials of the health ministry later said the money got trapped at the Savannah Bank and victims ended up buying their own drugs. A few days after the tragedy broke out, following accusations that it was responsible for it, the NNPC set up a team to look into the situation. The team found out through standard analysis of the kerosine that it had a flash point of 27 degree centrigrade. The team also discovered that this was within the flashpoint for petrol, which is between 25 to 30 degree centrigrade. However, the NNPC did not hold itself responsible for the situation. Ndu Ughamadu, the Public Relations Director of the company then said:"The petrol came from people who vandalized NNPC pipelines, diluted it with kerosine, and sold it to customers as kerosine." About two months later the Edo state Government set up the Akomolafe Wilson Judicial Enquiry into the kerosine fire issue. The panel was to determine the overt and remote cause of the kerosine fire explosions. It was also to determine who was at fault and so be responsible for paying compensation to the victims of the tragedy.
Thirty six months later, say kerosine victims, the result of the investigation and the recommendations of the panel are not out, even though the panel submitted its findings to government. Three months after the Akomolafe Panel was set up, the House of Representative Committee on Petroleum held a public sitting in Benin City. It took memos from kerosine victims, civil society groups and government officials . It summoned staff of the NNPC Benin Depot, whose negligence many believed led to the killer kerosine problem, and questioned them. It sat for two days. Kerosine fire victims say the result of the committee's sitting has not been made public two and a half years after. The abandonment of the kerosine victims to their fate has made many of them to be very bitter. Beatrice Imafidon, 38, who lives at NIFOR, five kilometers away from Benin, is one of them. She had bought the killer kerosine from a filling station near NIFOR on January 22, 2001 and when she used it for her lamp it exploded and burnt her right down from the breast to her navel. "It would have been a different thing if I had gone to vandalize a pipeline and got this," she says, "But here I am, a poor housewife, who went to a licensed filling station to buy kerosine which I thought was normal, getting burnt. I bought sorrow and tragedy with my money."
The experience of victims and their families has been that of financial ruin and emotional collapse as a result of abandonment which came with the crisis. "That Jan 21 2001, there had been a blackout,"says Mr Johnson Owie, a father of a victim. "I sent my son, Osagbanka, to buy 20 naira kerosine from a neighbour who works at the NNPC Benin depot. My brother's daughter then struck the matches after the kerosine came. It exploded. She threw the lantern on my son who was lying on top of a well. That was when the problem started." Since assistance came from nowhere he bore the brunt of the problem alone "I had to borrow fifty thousand naira with an interest of fifteen thousand naira per month so I could take care of my son. I used the approval document of my house as a surety. I could not pay the money lender. I lost the approval document to him. Right now, I'm very confused." As if his son's tragedy was not enough, another came as a direct result of his son's condition. "As we were running around for my son my wife became worried. She then developed hypertension over the issue. My problem became compounded. I was running around for my son, I was running around for my wife. I was spending money for my son and I was spending money for my wife." Johnson Owie has six children, three of them in schools.
When the double tragedy occured, and he was spending money for his wife and son, the remaining children were also affected. "I had no money to continue to keep them in school so I withdrew them. Right now, the three of them are at home because there is no money to sponsor them to school. Conditions have become so bad that eating a meal a day has become a problem." This is not the only problem victims and their families go through. A number of them want their children to be as they were before the tragedy occurred. Johnson noted that the only way this is possible in Nigeria is through skin grafting at the University of Benin teaching Hospital or at the UCH, Ibadan. "We took our children to the University of Benin," Johnson says, "We noticed that all the children taken for skin grafting did not survive. They all died. So I refused to take my son there." The best option is to take the boy out of the country for surgery and this will cost hundreds of thousands of naira, which he cannot afford. Another issue that rankles victims and their families is education. "My son cannot go to school because his body is deformed," says one of the parents of the victims."He cannot play with the other children in the street. He used to attend Bethel Nursery and Primary School at Upper Mission Road before the incident.When he came to resume school, the other children did not accept him. Our children no longer fit in with others." As a result, they have to stay at home. The Edo State Commissioner for Health denied all the charges against the state government. "We care for the victims," he insists. "Their money got trapped at the Savannah Bank, we sourced for some other money and gave some of them.
The Akomolafe report is out. We have done everything we can do but a few of them remain trouble makers." Three weeks ago, victims say, the government seems to be doing a rethink as it sent feelers to the Kerosine Fire Victims Association (KEVA), the radical arm ofthe victims, for meeting with government to solve their problems. But government rethink after three years might not assuage them. "We want the government to publish those who donated money it received on behalf of victims," says Tony Erha, coordinator of LifeTag, am NGO which fights for victims. "If this is not done the public will feel further donation will be embezzled as others have been." The victims also want the government to publish the Justice Akomolafe Wilson Judicial Panel report, which they say greatly indicted the NNPC. If this happens, says Tony Erha, victims will have a chance of getting compensation from the NNPC and also be willing to meet with government for discussion. This, however, is not all. Christian Ekeluba, apart from having his family scarred by the fire explosionis also an executive member of KEVA, and he wants some things done by government. "We are aggrieved and we want all serious victims taken abroad for surgery because it can't be successfully done in this country," he says. "We are asking government that if the children who are victims are their children, can they accept them like that? If the women are their wives, can they accept them like that?" The victims would want a few other things before they can cooperate with the government. They want the committee set up by government to look into the issue to be expanded to include victims, since they are directly involved. Many want compensation from those responsible for the killer kerosine and free education for all those children concerned. "If they refuse our demands," says Christian, "We will go ahead and take the fight to the whole world. We are ready to fight and lose our last bloodas far as this issue is concerned." Back in January 2001, Chief Dan Orhih, a politician,. when speaking on the kerosine issue, said:"Honestly speaking, I am disappointed with how this issue has been handled."
After three years of badly scarred faces, arms and legs oozing stinking pus a result of wounds left untreated due to poverty, a lot of the victims have long come to similar conclusions.