Christiana Akpode was knee-deep in gasoline when the fire started.
No one knows how it started exactly, only that a roaring fireball
suddenly engulfed a river of raw petroleum on the outskirts of this
rural village in the Niger Delta. Some days before the tragedy in
October 1998, a pipeline valve either had malfunctioned or was intentionally
breached to steal the gasoline that was being pumped from a refinery
in Warri to Kaduna. For days, amber gasoline spurted into the sky,
first pooling around the valve station and eventually flowing up
to a half a mile away along a ditch approximately 50 yards wide.
Though Nigeria is the world's 12th-largest producer of crude oil,
it's a telling sign of its backward nature that it must import gasoline.
There are only four refineries in this country of 123 million, and
only one is fully operational. But Nigerian law dictates that gas
be sold at 22 naira per liter, about 18 cents, making it among the
cheapest in the world. Therefore, it's tempting for tanker truck
drivers to steer toward the Cameroon and Niger borders--where they
can sell their entire load on the black market for up to 30 times
the state-mandated rate. Much of the gas ends up back in Nigeria,
sold on the side of the road by profiteers hawking the fuel from
plastic yellow jugs adorned with religious stickers. The fuel is
often double the price of that from gas stations, but it's far more
widely available. Shortages have created mile-long lines of cars
at filling stations.
In a country like Nigeria, where endemic corruption and misguided
subsidy policies combine to create constant fuel shortages, free
gas isn't something villagers keep away from. Indeed, in Jesse Town
they swarmed the river with buckets and jerrycans to scoop up the
precious fuel for sale on the thriving black market. By the time
of the inevitable cataclysm, village elders say, the gas was chest-deep
in some locations.
Alfred Dmamogho, spokesman for the Jesse Town council of elders,
says there were up to 1,000 people wading through the river and
standing on the banks when it caught fire. He muses that perhaps
a careless person with a cigarette or heat from the sun started
the blaze. "The fuel," he says slowly, in a massive understatement,
"does not like the fire."
"Just as I pull you to me in a quick hug, that's how fast the fire
came," recalls Edward Akpodonor, a farmer from the village who was
standing on the bank at the time. In a deafening whoosh he was instantly
ablaze. He ran screaming from the fire, stumbling out of his burning
clothes as quickly as he could, but not before suffering severe
burns on his legs and buttocks.
Most of the people in the river couldn't escape, their bones reduced
to ashes as the fire burned for two weeks. Christiana Akpode, however,
managed to run through the river of fire to the bank, a human torch
emerging from the inferno.
Almost three years later, she wishes she hadn't escaped.
Though it's one of the most dramatic examples of how oil pollution
has ruined lives in the Delta, the tragedy at Jesse Town is hardly
unique. Pipelines carrying both gas and oil rupture with alarming
regularity in Nigeria, either at the hands of saboteurs or through
neglect. Most of the 3,000 miles of above-ground pipelines crisscrossing
the Delta are 30 years old and built to lower standards than modern
Shell Petroleum Development Corporation--the Nigerian arm of Royal/Dutch
Shell--reports that 50,200 barrels of oil were spilled in 1998 and
123,377 barrels in 1999, citing sabotage as the cause for 70 percent
of the volume spilled in 1999 (these are the most recent numbers
available from Shell's 2000 annual report).
Gasoline pipe explosions occur less regularly, but with more deadly
results. In December 2000, a pipe that had leaked for weeks exploded
in Atlas Cove, near Lagos, killing about 50 people. Media accounts
have implied that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, the
state-owned refinery and distribution company, didn't repair the
damage because high-ranking officials were receiving kickbacks from
the black marketers.
Recent arrests have bolstered this theory: In Lagos State, several
police officers have been arrested in the past eight months for
allegedly plotting with fuel scoopers to vandalize pipelines. In
April 2000, the head of Ajowon Police Station was arraigned on charges
of colluding with fuel thieves to hack open an oil pipeline. In
July, Lagos police arrested three members of the Nigerian navy alongside
fishermen who claimed that the men supplied them with hoarded petroleum
products. And that September, two more naval officials were caught
with fuel believed to have come from a breached pipe.
Shell--the largest field operator in Nigeria, accounting for half
of the country's oil operations--claims to adhere to the highest
standards of practice in cleaning oil spills, but even a cursory
visit to the Delta shows that those standards are far lower than
in other countries. On the side of the highway leading to the town
of Besini, two separate 2-year-old oil spills turn the jungle black.
The lakes of oil make it seem like passing motorists could scoop
it out with tin cans and feed it directly into their engines.
Near Shell's Etelebu flow station, where a roaring flare of spent
natural gas torches the atmosphere around the clock, an oil spill
ignited in January when a nearby farmer burned her fields to prepare
for harvest. "It's frequent," says Chief Diekivie Ikiogha, the head
of the Bayelsa State Bureau of Pollution and Environment. "We have
a lot of spills. At this spot alone we have had three spills."
Even though Ikiogha is the government bureaucrat in charge of fining
Shell for the spill and signing off on the cleanup, he's also Shell's
contractor hired to do the cleaning. Apparently aware of his conflict
of interest, he refuses to be photographed while overseeing the
cleanup operation, which amounts to four shirtless men scooping
oil from the surface of the polluted water with Frisbees. He claims
most of the oil was removed earlier with absorbent foam and blankets.
"This area is not so bad," he says, surveying the blackened moonscape
of dead coconut and mangrove trees. "This will regenerate in about
No one is sure of the exact environmental impact of the spills.
To date, there have been no baseline studies of the Delta's ecology,
says Miriam Isoun, director of the Niger Delta Wetlands Center,
an environmental group in Port Harcourt. "Nigeria has never had
that as a priority," she says. "In Nigeria, you've got the attitude
that [oil spills] are only affecting 400 people, but for those 400
people it's absolutely devastating. It's a very serious problem.
We as scientists would like to know what we have so we can start
working with it."
Such shoddy remediation efforts have fueled more than destructive
fires. Lackadaisical response from oil companies and virtually no
governmental oversight of pollution problems have been a source
of high tension in the Delta for decades. Two years into democratic
rule, little, if anything, has changed.
What we need now is for Shell to come in and settle with us 4 billion
naira [about $40 million] for destroying our stream," says Isaac
Osaro Agbara, village chief of Ebubu in Ogoniland. "We have been
waiting for Shell to come in and say sorry."
Ebubu residents want Shell to apologize--and pay for--a massive
oil spill that occurred in 1970. An oil pipeline ruptured and caught
fire, destroying 30 homes and killing about as many people. The
fire was so intense that it created a lumpy asphalt surface where
the homes once stood.
The facts about the fire are disputed. Ebubu residents clearly
blame Shell for the accident, but Shell has long maintained that
the fire occurred at the end of the Biafran civil war in 1968, when
it wasn't operating in the area. The company claims that the fire
was set intentionally by retreating soldiers.
Chief Philip Ode, the only survivor of the fire, remembers things
differently. In his cinder-block and linoleum home near the fire
site--slumped under a 1998 calendar from the Nigerian National Petroleum
Corporation that proudly announces, "We touch your lives in many
ways"--Ode says the day the fire occurred was a normal one. He only
escaped death by walking to town to retrieve food for his family,
all of whom were killed. He says there were no soldiers in the area.
In June 2000, a Rivers State high court apparently agreed more
with Ebubu's version of events and ordered Shell to compensate the
community with $40 million. The company has appealed the decision.
Awaiting the outcome of the court fight is a monstrous piece of
machinery designed to clean oil-polluted soil. The equipment was
installed by Safewater Technologies of Dallas, Texas, an environmental
remediation company. A year ago, the company performed a pilot test
and determined that it could almost completely remove the oil from
the ground, but nothing has been done since then, pending the appeal.
Six Ogoni men have been guarding the machine against thieves and
looters night and day even though they stopped receiving wages eight
months ago, according to one of the guards. "The type of water we
are taking in here because of the pollution is killing us," Agbara
says. "The air we breathe is poisonous, no crops grow well because
the oil has killed the land. It is time for them to come into this
area and pay us."
"If they fail to settle with us," he adds, "we will take this problem
Many have stopped waiting. In Ebubu, the elders created the Ejamaa
Youth Council--run by a handsome, gregarious man who looks like
he could coach high school basketball--to keep the town's youths
from attacking tanker trucks with rocks and bottles. Even though
Shell ceased operations in Ogoniland in 1993, trucks filled with
gasoline must pass through Ebubu to other areas in the Delta. The
Ejamaa Youth Council is meant to organize youths for nonviolent
protests and political action, but so far has enjoyed limited success
in preventing attacks on passing tankers. And on April 25, Ogoni
youths engaged in an hours-long gun battle with Nigerian police
in Port Harcourt as they attempted to disrupt operations at the
city's refinery. Media accounts say the youths were protesting the
lack of wealth distribution in the Delta. The Associated Press reports
that three protesters were wounded during the clash.
The 14-day fire in Jesse Town fixed the valve leak: The entire
mechanism was melted away and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation
eventually turned off the flow from the Warri refinery. After the
victims' ashes were shoveled into wheelbarrows and buried in a mass
grave--and after tons of dirt was placed atop the scorched earth--a
new valve was built. This one is guarded by three bored police officers,
who lounge shirtless in a thatched-roof hut and spend their days
cleaning their assault rifles and drinking palm wine.
The damage to the survivors wasn't so easy to erase. After the
fire, private vehicles transported some victims to the nearest medical
facility, a small hospital in Sapele about 20 miles away. That's
where Edward Akpodonor was taken, but he says the care from the
overwhelmed staff was so substandard as to be nonexistent. He eventually
left, reasoning he could administer to his wounds better on his
Christiana Akpode never went to the hospital, and no doctor ever
came to Jesse Town. Her legs, which suffered crippling third-degree
burns, were wrapped in bedsheets and doused with water. To this
day, that's the extent of the treatment she has received.
A procession of male chiefs leads the way over the plank that
spans the community sewer and through a narrow alley between mud
huts. On the right is a doorway covered with a billowing green sheet.
Alfred Dmamogho leans his head inside and orders Christiana outdoors
to meet with visiting reporters. Beneath the sheet, a disfigured
Christiana can barely walk, her legs permanently forged into a
kneeling position, and she hobbles the two feet outside with great
difficulty and in obvious pain, making her way to a small porch
to sit. Her legs are hard to look at: From the toes to the shin,
the skin is shiny and stretched tightly, threatening to crack. She
scratches this section incessantly. From the shin to the knee, her
legs are little more than red and purple scabs bleeding white pus.
Christiana's days are spent warding away flies from the open wounds.
Her arms, upper chest and neck are also burned. The only thing untouched
is her face, which, despite the constant grimace of pain, reflects
her natural 27-year-old beauty. She only has one question on her
mind: "Are you here to cure me?"
It's difficult to imagine that anyone can cure her at this point.
Her legs are obviously infected beyond repair--and without amputation,
she doesn't seem likely to survive.
When the answer from the strangers is an uncomfortable "no," she
makes the difficult journey back to where the flies are easier to
control, dragging her young son, who was 3 months old when the fire
ravaged his mother, behind her.
"Then you should kill me," she says, before disappearing behind
Greg Campbell is a freelance reporter living in Colorado.
He's currently working on a book about diamonds and their impact
on the civil war in Sierra Leone.