By Vincent Kalu, Chioma Igbokwe, and Christine Onwuachumba
Grief is the word. It hangs over four communities, two weeks after petroleum pipeline fire roasted over 30 vandals to death. The communities, Konu, Elepete, Abule Oba and Magbon, are in Ikorodu West Local Council Development Area of Lagos State. They share neighbourhood with Arepo in Ogun State. Fear is the other word – fear that authorities could visit the sins of their young men’s misdeeds on them, and fear that, if they open their mouth too wide, the cult of the young vandals would visit them with great wrath. So, the people are now victims of a peculiar conspiracy. But the most haunting spectre is the scores of young widows and their teaming fatherless children – conditions made possible by frequent violent deaths of the communities’ young men in successive pipeline fires.
Even as you read this, dry human bones litter the adjoining creeks where the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) pipeline runs through. This is the pipeline that the people vandalize repeatedly. However, even the evidence of this has not proved enough deterrent to this suicidal undertaking. According to some of the indigenes, the pipeline is held as a national cake from which they must take their own share, notwithstanding the attendant deaths that have trailed each adventure.
Saturday Sun investigations revealed that the vandals would sneak out at night in their canoes loaded with several 50-litre empty kegs to scoop fuel from the vandalized point of the pipeline. After their operation, about 200 kegs of petrol would be tied together and ferried to the shore in an outboard canoe-engine. A backup canoe with heavily armed men would provide security. Often, police and other security personnel that are detailed to guard and protect the pipeline take them on. Most of the time, however, they overpower these security men because of the superiority of their firepower and the mastery of the terrain.
Sometime last August, they killed NNPC personnel who had come to repair a ruptured pipe in the same creek. The decomposing bodies of the NNPC staff – Engr. O .A .U Agbaku, Ernest Obiora and Ikechukwu Ekeleme were later discovered by Special Task Force on Anti-Pipeline Vandalism. Meanwhile, the local security man the NNPC employed (Taye alias Deadman) was cut in pieces by vandals.
The last act, two weeks ago, may have become one act too many and too much. Now, attention has been drawn to the communities and tension has set in. Last week, the Ogun State governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun visited the infamous area with strong words for the NNPC, nay, the Federal Government and it is learnt that the latter and its coercive agencies have decided to act. But that is not the immediate worry of residents of the communities. They are worried over the serial deaths of their young men and at the same time apprehensive about the danger these vandals have constituted to their existence. Their elders and women lament that the petrol pipeline that should have attracted government attention and development to their area, has turned out to be a curse.
When Saturday Sun visited Abule Oba within the week, a resident pointed to those he said were vandals. They were sitting furtively, according to our escort, waiting for any intruder. Any strange face, we were told, arouses their curiosity and their reaction could be disastrous. Some elders, who spoke to us, pleaded that government should come to their aid to avoid the extinction of their future generation. One in Konu (name withheld) lamented that the reign of vandals in the once peaceful village was terrible. He said: “I am scared to even to talk to you, I beg, my name should not be mentioned because I live in this area. The Ijaw boys have taken over the area and they operate with impunity. As soon as security operatives get wind of their activities, they would disappear in the creeks and hide. They can swim very well, that is why you hardly hear of the main vandals being arrested. It’s their career. The pipeline has turned to curse to the neighbouring communities. You are talking about Boko Haram, these vandals are also terrorist and should be stopped.”
Another elder, who craved anonymity, said there is an urgent need to cleanse the land because the area is notorious for burying the dead. “There must be a demon responsible for all these because no one would tell me that this is the only area that NNPC pipeline passes through. Our youths no longer want to learn any trade; they are relocating to the area in their numbers. Mostly, these Ijaw boys that can swim better than fishes are the gang leaders. If the police can be strong and bold enough to raid most of the houses in Imagbon, they would be shocked at the number of arms and ammunition they would recover. Nobody should blame the members of the community for not helping with information because it is risky. They have informants among the security forces who disclose their sources of information to them. We leave in terror here in Imagbon; nobody wants to be associated with them.”
While the elders plead that their sons need to be stopped from committing suicide, the women lament that the number of widows in the community is on the increase. A mother of four, Iya Akande, whose husband died in 2009 lamented that her late husband was not a vandal when they got married. “He was a bricklayer and I was a petty trader. We were okay with whatever God provided us on a daily basis before we relocated to Konu village. Suddenly, he stopped going to work and told me that God had shown him a better way of making money. I was happy, although I got to know the risk. I begged him to stop for the sake of our children and he insisted that he wanted to provide a better life for our children. All was well until the pipeline fire incident that happened and he died,” she recalled.
Another woman, whose husband is in prison, Mrs. Chinwendu Okoro, said her husband was arrested and jailed in 2009. “My husband was a carpenter before he was lured by his friends to join them in selling petrol. It is so common among the youths in Imagbon, so am not surprised that it happened that way. I don’t blame him because it was not easy to train five children with carpentry work. I thank God that he was able to build three rooms for us before he was arrested,” she said.
Another widow, Mrs. Aderemi Adebanjo, said she lost her husband in a similar incident that happened in 2009. “It is no longer news; it is difficult to get a good husband in these areas because almost all of them are vandals. I lost my first husband when there was a fire outbreak in 2009 and recently my second husband was arrested shortly after those NNPC people were murdered and buried. The only solution is for NNPC to change the location of this pipeline to the mountains or ocean where it cannot be reached. Today, I’m left with six children from two marriages. Which man would love to inherit them, I have no choice but to send them out as house maids and traders for fear that they may follow their father’s footsteps.”
Mrs. Adeleke recalled that her husband died in the August 2012 fire incident “but we cannot cry out or tell the world our pains because we will be arrested. It is unfortunate but government should try and seal off that place because it is more like a magnet because, despite the number of people that die, it keeps attracting more people. Most women in these areas are widows because of this NNPC pipeline. I pray that they would remove it completely because it has sent a lot of young men to untimely grave,” she pleaded.
Saturday Sun investigation reveals that the security arrangement put in place by the NNPC is dwarfed by the coercive sophistication of these vandals. Ogun State governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, also said so much when he went for on-the-spot assessment of the last fire disaster that consumed the over 30 pipeline vandals at Arepo village. The governor indicted the NNPC for not doing enough to protect the pipeline and accused its officials of aiding and abetting the vandals. “Indeed, I have to say it here and I’m saying it with all sense of responsibility that NNPC, by its inaction, is aiding and abetting the vandals.” Particularly, he referred to NNPC’s inability to provide needed modern day security gadgets to effectively police the facilities and added: “That is why I said NNPC, with their inaction, are part of this problem. I want to believe that they are the people aiding and abetting these vandals.”