ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) – At least 100 people may have died in an explosion at an illegal oil refinery in southeastern Nigeria, a local oil official said Sunday as the search intensified for bodies at the scene and for two people suspected of being involved in the explosion.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari called in a statement the explosion a “disaster and a national disaster.”
The blast Friday night at the facility in Ohaji-Egbema’s local government area of Imo State was triggered by a fire in two fuel storage areas where more than 100 people were working, state officials told the Associated Press.
Dozens of workers were trapped in the blast, while many others tried to escape the fire by running into wooded areas.
Those killed in the disaster are estimated to be within the “100 range,” said Goodluck Opiah, the Imo commissioner for petroleum resources. “Many of them ran into the bush with the burns, and they died there.”
Buhari has instructed the nation’s security forces “to intensify the crackdown” on such facilities, which are operated illegally in many parts of southern Nigeria, a spokesman said in a statement.
Although Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of crude oil, the country’s oil production capacity has for many years been limited by a chronic challenge of oil storage and operation of illegal refineries.
Nigeria lost at least $ 3 billion worth of crude oil due to theft between January 2021 and February 2022, where shady business operators often avoided regulators by setting up refineries in remote areas like the one that exploded in Imo, the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission ( NUPRC)) said in March.
“There are no arrests yet, but the two culprits are on the run and police are now looking for them,” Declan Emelumba, Imo State Commissioner, said for information. Officials did not reveal the identities of the suspects.
A mass funeral is being planned for those killed in the blast, many of whom were “burned beyond recognition,” Emelumba said. Environmental authorities have begun disinfecting the area.
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.
Running illegal refineries is not as popular in the Imo state as it is in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, where militants have gained notoriety for blowing up oil pipelines and kidnapping workers from oil companies.
As many as 30 illegal oil refineries were crushed in the Niger Delta region in just two weeks, Nigeria’s Ministry of Defense said earlier this month when it announced a task force to curb the theft of crude oil.
In the wake of the explosion in the state of Imo, the Nigerian oil ministry told the AP that there is “a renewed action” to tackle illegal activities in the oil sector.
The government and the military are stepping up action “to minimize crime along oil production lines,” said Horace Egua, a senior oil ministry official.
But many of the culprits are not deterred, including in the Imo state, one of the few places producing oil in the southeastern part of Nigeria. The problem of illegal refineries “has never been so bad” and remains “difficult to end,” said Opiah, Imo’s petroleum commissioner.
“It’s like asking why kidnapping or armed robbery has not stopped,” he said. “Even with this incident, not many people will be deterred. I’m sure more illegal refineries will show up elsewhere.”