Hundreds of Nigerians in the commercial capital of Lagos were killed yesterday after fuel from a broken oil pipeline exploded, burning many people alive and leaving bodies scattered over the streets.
The blast, the latest in a string of similar incidents that in the past decade have killed nearly 2,000 Nigerians desperate for a share of the country's vast oil riches, took place in the densely populated Abule Egba area of Lagos.
Witnesses said a section of pipeline had been punctured shortly after midnight, and that hundreds of people carrying jerry cans began scooping oil from puddles forming beneath the line. When it ruptured and the pools set alight, few had a chance to escape; last night the death toll remained unclear but at least 260 - and possibly as many as 500 - people were killed. Local hospitals were reported to be full of casualties. Several houses were destroyed in the blast, as well as a mosque and a church.
Rescue workers arriving at the scene were kept back by flames as smoke billowed over the area. Piles of burnt corpses fused together, the majority burnt beyond recognition, littered the roads. "We can only recognise them through the skulls, the bodies are scattered over the ground," Ige Oladimeji, a senior official for the Nigerian Red Cross, told reporters.
While details of what had caused the explosion remained hazy, it was clear that the disaster was, as Joel Orgundere, a lawyer living nearby, said, "a preventable tragedy", the like of which Nigeria has seen many times before. "It was poverty, ignorance and greed" that caused the accident," he told the Associated Press. Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer, usually pumping 2.5 million barrels of crude per day, and is America's fifth largest supplier. Much of the crude is drilled from the oil-rich southern Delta region. A vast network of pipelines then transports it across a country almost four times the size of the UK.
Despite Nigeria's considerable oil revenue, consecutive governments have been accused of corruption and have done little to ensure profits reach the country's 120 million inhabitants, as the largely subsistence agriculture sector has struggled to keep up with population growth.
With many of the pipelines passing through the country's poorest regions, some struggle to resist temptation and tap into the lines. The results are all too often tragic. Last May, at least 150 people were killed in a pipeline explosion at Atlas Creek, a poor suburb of Lagos. In 1998, another explosion killed more than 1,000 people in the southern Delta region.
Following the Atlas Creek disaster, the Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, said that he had ordered a through investigation and increased protection for other pipelines. But after previous similar incidents, local officials have been accused of turning a blind eye to leaking pipes.