ABUJA, Nigeria — At least 100 people may have died in a refinery explosion in southeast Nigeria, an official said Sunday as the search intensified for bodies at the site and for two people suspected of being involved in the blast.
According to state officials, the explosion at Ohaji-Egbema in Imo’s local government was caused by a fire at fuel storage facilities where over 100 workers were working.
Dozens upon dozens of workers died in the blast, and many others tried to flee into nearby wooded areas.
Those who died in the disaster are estimated to be within “the range of 100,” said Goodluck Opiah, the Imo commissioner for petroleum resources. “A lot of them ran into the bush with the burns and they died there.”
Although Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of crude oil, for many years its oil production capacity has been limited by a chronic challenge of oil storage and the operation of illegal refineries.
Between January 2021 and Feb 2022 Nigeria suffered a loss of at least $3B in crude oil due to theft. Shady business owners often avoid regulators by setting-up refineries in remote locations such as that which exploded in Imo.
“There are no arrests yet but the two culprits are on the run with the police now looking for them,” said Declan Emelumba, the Imo State commissioner for information. Officials didn’t reveal identities of suspects.
A mass burial is being planned for those killed in the explosion, many of who “were burnt beyond recognition,” said Emelumba. The area has been sprayed with fumigators by environmental officials.
Such disasters are a regular occurrence in Africa’s most populous country, where poverty and unemployment – at 33% according to the latest government estimates – have forced millions of young people into criminal activities.
Imo is less popular than the Niger Delta region with its oil-rich Niger Delta. Illegal oil refineries are more common in Imo.
As many as 30 illegal oil refineries were busted in the Niger Delta region in just two weeks, Nigeria’s Defense Department said earlier this month when it announced a task force to curb crude oil theft.
In the aftermath of the explosion in Imo state, the Nigerian ministry of petroleum told The AP there is “a renewed action” to tackle illegal activities in the oil sector.
The government and the military are stepping up actions “to minimize the criminalities along the oil production lines,” said Horatius Egua, a senior official at the petroleum ministry.
But many of the culprits are not deterred including in Imo state, one of the few places producing oil in Nigeria’s southeast. The problem of illegal refineries “has never been this bad” and remains “difficult to end,” said Opiah, the Imo petroleum commissioner.
“It is like asking why kidnapping or armed robbery has not stopped,” he said. “Even with this incident, not many people will be deterred. I am sure more illegal refineries will be cropping up in other places.”
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