SELF-inflicted disasters are taking a hefty toll on lives and livelihoods in Nigeria. In this respect, two separate infernos recently wreaked havoc at petrol filling stations in the Ogba and Obalende neighbourhoods in Lagos. The conflagrations pulverised the filling stations as well as nearby businesses and houses. One tragic death was recorded. The frequency of these infernos at petrol filling stations is worrying, indicating strongly that the authorities concerned are not taking adequate proactive measures to curb these preventable calamities.
These tragedies have nothing to do with any superstitious belief or prophetic accuracy as some people claimed; they are due mainly to the way we live. Negligence on the part of (state) town planning authorities, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and its subsidiary, the Department of Petroleum Resources, is to blame. Combined, these establishments recklessly approve applications and grant licences to operate petrol filling stations or gas refilling depots. Evidently, they failed in their oversight functions: the station in Ogba, for instance, which bears the NNPC imprint, is sited in a densely populated residential and business environment. The issue seems a no-brainer, yet some people misinterpret the annual calamities.
After a series of horrible fire disasters at petrol stations in the past, it is objectionable that regulatory authorities approved construction of a station in that location. The indiscretion obviously facilitated the destruction of 30 vehicles at the car mart and the houses proximate to it. This is regrettable. The physical planning department in Lagos State and the DPR know that petroleum products are highly hazardous. For this reason, petrol and gas filling stations are distinctly established where there is enough distance between them and human/business activities.
Strikingly, media reports said it took more than four hours for the combined firefighting teams of Lagos State, the NNPC, the Federal Fire Service and LASEMA to put out the flames. This is intolerable. It substantiates the appalling attitude that defines the official response to disaster management, whether fire incidents, automobile accidents or criminal activities.
Just as the Ogba area was recovering from the damage exacted by the mid-afternoon fire at the NNPC petrol filling station there, another horrendous fire blazed through an Oando station five days later in Obalende. The details are gruesome, with some similarity in the precursors to the incidents.
In the Obalende fire, a faulty fuel truck reportedly lost control close to the station. In the process, fully loaded with 45,000 litres of petrol, it rammed into the station, igniting a massive inferno. Sadly, it took a life. A fire-fighter with the Lagos State Fire Service suffered major burns, one of the 16 persons injured in the incident.
Ordinarily, it is the responsibility of tanker owners — particularly those lifting these dangerous substances — to keep their vehicles in safe conditions. When they fail in this, the enforcement of safety standards rests on the police and transport regulators. Their failure is conspicuous in the regularity of tragedies.
In contrast, through stringent enforcement of rules, the Ministry of Ecology in France noted in 2018 that the country witnessed only six petrol and 13 LPG filling station fire incidents between 1958 and 2017. The lesson from the United Kingdom is that through the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations Act 2002, the onus is on operators of petrol and gas filling stations to adhere to safety rules.
Nigerians should always demand the best global practices from government authorities instead of being hoodwinked by religious merchants. The reality is that the regulators of transport are weak bystanders. Irresponsibly, they permit faulty tankers with worn out tyres and shattered lamps to move on the highways, constituting traffic bottlenecks and disasters waiting to happen. By spilling diesel or fuel on tarred roads, they damage them and constitute environmental nuisance. Though conveying highly inflammable products, they park carelessly on the highways with no consideration for other road users.
The average Nigerian, therefore, is living at the mercy of these messengers of death. All too well, the public remembers the notorious incidents near and around the Otedola Bridge on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. Repeated incidents on that treacherous slope, including the ones in 2012, 2017 and 2019, have sent many to their premature death. In Onitsha, two ghastly tanker fire incidents in October 2019 gutted about 40 homes and hundreds of shops. In Lafia, the Nasarawa State capital, a September 2018 petrol tanker fire incinerated 35 persons, injuring about 100 others.
Coincidentally, a petrol filling station directly opposite the NNPC headquarters in Abuja went up in flames in December 2013 while the tanker was discharging its contents into the underground tank. This also allegedly happened with the latest incident in Ogba. The DPR should have taken notice of this operational lapse and worked out preventive measures.
At other times, cooking gas filling stations sited amid shops and residential areas explode, leading to fire disasters. The recent incidents at gas stations in Magodo, Abule-Ado, FESTAC (Lagos) and Kaduna, in which several lives were lost, are sad reminders of a governance system steeped in mediocrity.
Financially, the cost is monumental. In 2013, the Ministry of Interior noted that Nigeria was losing N50 billion annually to fire incidents. There is nothing concrete on the ground to show that these incidents are about to abate.
Now is the time to act. As a matter of urgency, the Lagos State town planning agency and the DPR should carry out an intense physical scrutiny of all the petrol filling stations, covering all of Lagos. Without sentiments, the two agencies should close down all stations that are too close to homes and schools. They should be compelled to relocate to safer places. Henceforth, new stations should not be approved in residential areas.
The DPR needs to establish a tested corps of inspectors tasked with ascertaining the fitness of the equipment being used by these stations. Inspectors should pay unscheduled oversight visits to the stations. All trucks should pass tough mechanical tests before they load products and the traffic regulators and road safety officers should stamp out the indiscriminate parking on highways by these trucks.