Home » OPINION » The Great Port Harcourt Fire As A Nigerian Template
Rotimi Amaechi

Rotimi Amaechi, Rivers State Governor

By Eben Dokubo

I came of age overnight, bursting into the threshold of puberty during the Nigerian Civil war of 1967 -70, and like my contemporaries, almost missed the serenity, innocence, foibles, and nuances of childhood. Over the years, I have tried to delete from my memory, with only partial success, scenes of carnage, brutality, bestiality, and savagery. In addition to coping with pimples, homework, house chores and never-sufficient playtime, I had to contend with gory scenes of plasma, spilled guts, brains, blood, and broken bones tearing through flesh. Some residue of these images subsists in my mental gallery. One of the most enduring scenarios is what I call The Great Port Harcourt Fire which occurred at the peak of hostilities. Unlike the Great London Fire and the Great Chicago Fire which razed entire cities, The Great Port Harcourt Fire was confined to a tiny sector of the city, but the casualty was enormous.

Eager to breakdown the Biafran resistance, the Nigerian Military High Command decided to deploy its ace, which in this case was superior air power. Port Harcourt was a strategic rebel stronghold and the oil installations were (as they are today) vulnerable targets. Russian built MIG Fighter Planes swooped down on Port Harcourt and within minutes, a conflagration, the type never before seen in this part of the world erupted. Nigerian premier refinery at Alesa Eleme was hit. So also was one storage tank of refined petroleum products at the Reclamation Road axis in the periphery of Old Port Harcourt Township. The ensuing fire at the refinery could not be extinguished until several months after Port Harcourt was liberated. Even then, it took the expertise and experience of Red Adair, the world renowned Texas-based fire fighting folk hero to finally bring it under control and left to burnout over time. The refinery was not in a fully built up area, hence government had the luxury of time to address the fire.

Although the tank farms along Reclamation Road were not in a fully built up area, there were sparse structures and facilities within a two kilometer radius of the epicenter of the inferno. The Yatch Club, Nigerian Tobacco Company factory, Nigerian Port Authority quarters, Railway quarters, Stella Maris College were in the outer precincts of this area which was earmarked for volatile and hazardous materials like LPG filling plants.

The fervor with which the Biafrans prosecuted the war bordered on mass hysteria, powered by an efficient propaganda machine, driven by Radio Biafra. Public enlightenment messages were so persuasive that citizens believed that they could perform any feat to crush the invaders. Reality was far-fetched, and so when the clarion call to march down to the tank farms and extinguish the fire bellowed from the radio, men, women and children armed with buckets marched in droves to answer the call to duty.

Just as the crowd approached the scene, other tanks laden with petrol exploded simultaneously with cataclysmic consequences. Depending on their distance from the reservoirs, some people were roasted outright. Others received severe burns and lost all their skin instantly. Yet others had items of clothing glued to their bodies. Many were drawn to the fire involuntarily, the way lanterns and open flames magnet insects. In other words, people did not have to be at the scene of the fire to be adversely affected. The sight of burn victims being evacuated in wooden push carts (known as trucks in Nigeria) pops up in my memory every once in a while. Recently, those horrific supressed memories were resurrected by two laudable projects of the Rotimi Amaechi administration, the Rivers State Monorail and the high quality reconstruction of Azikiwe Road in Port Harcourt.

One of the defining features of the Port Harcourt skyline used to be tank farms at one end of the Quays adjacent to Abonnema Wharf and Kidney Island. Those large cylindrical storage tanks belonged to BOP (Bulk Oil Plants Limited) the largest exporter of palm oil from the Port Harcourt Wharf. These storage tanks posed no danger whatsoever as their content was neither highly inflammable nor volatile. They co-existed with a busy highway, separated only by moribund railway tracks and a green verge less than thirty meters wide. To the consternation of environment-savvy, safety-conscious, and disaster- averse citizens, these harmless tanks have in recent times, given way to a collection of tank farms of refined petroleum products. A conservative estimate is that up to one hundred tankers each carrying 33000 liters of petroleum products are serviced by these depots everyday. The effect of the depots being ignited by human error, willful sabotage, or accident of nature is not just a nightmare but avoidable Armageddon. It calls for urgent decisive action.

A conflagration arising from a possible explosion will devastate not only Abonnema Wharf with its hordes of slum dwellers, but also the Government House, State Secretariat Complex, Braithwaite Memorial Hospital, Central Bank and Mile One, all of which are within scorching distance of the tinder box. The heat emanating from such fire will be too much to bear in these areas and people will have to be evacuated. The dilapidated Headquarters of the Rivers State Fire Service with its rag tag fleet is located less than five minutes from these deadly depots and thus compromised by being within scorching range. If as we are told, the gas flares from the oil fields of the Niger Delta are visible from outer space, then, this one will be seen from the entire universe.

The government is faced with three options. Firstly is to relocate Nigeria’s only Mass Transit System, the Rivers State Monorail which lies within the roasting zone of the reservoirs. Secondly, is to close the reconstructed Aziwike Road to the general public and turn it into a suitable parking lot for the tankers awaiting loading, and thirdly is to dismantle and relocate the obnoxious harbingers of death masquerading as tank farms. This is even more imperative as the Rivers State Fire Service has neither the know-how, nor the expertise to deal with large scale petroleum fires. All the hospitals in Port Harcourt put together are ill equipped and ill prepared to handle such casualties. Mindful of the financial implications of dislodging the depots, all those in both the Civil Service and regulatory agencies who may have out of sheer incompetence or graft, facilitated the approval and erection of these time bombs must face appropriate sanction. Their suitability for holding public trust must be ascertained and their motives questioned. In any society where accountability reigns supreme, heads would roll.

On a more somber note, this appears straight from the sad Nigerian template hence rather than export palm oil, we are importing refined petroleum products. In the feeble attempt to battle that Great Port Harcourt Fire over four decades ago, citizens trooped to the ill-fated site, carrying buckets of water they fetched from public taps. For the past three decades, the taps in Port Harcourt have been dry and municipal supply of potable water remains a mirage, countless studies, budgets, tenders, and contracts notwithstanding. As a confirmation of the signs of the times, the Reclamation Road axis is now a fully built-up area with houses built within thirty meters of the storage tanks and LPG refilling plants. Undoubtedly, corrupt public officials have lined their pockets from satanic payoffs from land grabbers and stranded shelter seeking families.

The clarion call this time is for Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi and all relevant agencies, notably Rivers State Ministries responsible for Urban Development, Environment, Lands, Works, Housing, and Health to avert the imminent catastrophe. The Greater Port Harcourt Master Plan must take centre stage as a key to guaranteeing our future. Similarly, the Federal Ministries responsible for Petroleum, Environment, Health, Works, and the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) shall not be held blameless if this avoidable carnage occurs.

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