Uche Usim and Joy Mackson, Abuja
Ekrixiphobia, the fear of explosions, has enveloped Abuja residents, as countless Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) (cooking gas) retail outlets continued to spring up in residential areas almost on daily basis.
Their fear is even heightened by the reported cases of incessant gas explosions in various parts of the country with accompanying human and infrastructural fatalities.
Today, LPG retailers and grocers/petty traders compete for space in various neighbourhoods. From Kubwa to Life Camp; Lokogoma to Apo and satellite towns in Abuja, the fear of a possible catastrophe from roadside cooking gas vendors is robbing residents of sleep.
Unfortunately, as their worries rise, so are the determination of cooking gas dealers, trading in the invincible, highly inflammable commodity, to survive. The scorching economy has not helped matters as desperate entrepreneurs venture into the business without recourse to mandatory safety recommendations of the Directorate of Petroleum Resources (DPR).
A typical gas dealer starter pack contains a canopy, two or three industrial cylinders, a 10-litre bucket of sand (fire extinguisher), a scale, empty cylinders for sale and hoses; all tucked in between two or more residential buildings.
Daily Sun discovered that some roadside gas retailers are operating illegally; as they are neither licensed by the DPR nor schooled in safety/hazard management procedures.
Worse still, their makeshift shops are not equipped with the requisite fire retardants/extinguishers, customers’ instructions on conduct when buying gas, no smoking signs, among others. Despite the high risk level of the business, many of the retail gas entrepreneurs are totally ignorant of the possible catastrophe they are exposed to.
Collins Ade, an accounting graduate, told Daily Sun why he ventured into the retail gas business: “There was nothing legitimate I didn’t do to secure a job, including fasting and praying for 40 days every year. I even taught in a private school but the pay was horrifyingly low and irregular. I had to leave.
“Eventually, I got my siblings to loan me N150,000 to start this business in Kubwa and things have been okay. There’s reasonable profit in it. At least, I can feed myself. I am no more a liability.”
Is he aware of the risk factors involved in his inflammable commodity: “Yes, I am. That is why I have the bucket of sand as my extinguisher. This is an open space so the risk of any catastrophic explosion is almost zero.”
For Sam John, it has been a running battle with the Task Force team from DPR who clamp down on roadside gas dealers: “They come here every now and then saying I don’t have standard operating procedures, but I told them it’s not true. I now have a big fire extinguisher. There is a no smoking sign here too.”
Another gas dealer in Life Camp area of Abuja who craved anonymity, said: “I am selling gas because I have searched for work and there’s no work to do. This is how I can help myself and Nigeria. If you look at the situation of the country, one can be done with school, but have no job to do.
“The best thing to do is to help yourself. When you help yourself, you’re helping Nigeria. If you depend on someone and the person caters for a lot of other people, you will see that it will be hard for the person to care for you.”
He also admitted that the National Environmental Standards and Regulation Enforcement Agency (NESREA) has been trying to stop them but the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) has intervened on their behalf several times.
The gas seller, however, pleaded with the government to seize from disturbing them from doing their business so that they can help themselves and their families.
When asked why he wasn’t doing his business in a filling station as he should, he said: “I have not upgraded to that level. Filling stations charge us for space which I can’t afford for now”.
For the residents, the fear of gas dealers is the beginning of wisdom. Recounting her fears, a housewife in Dutse area of Abuja, Zainab Yusuf, said: “Anytime I go to refill my 12.5kg gas cylinder, I don’t get close to them at all. In fact, I beckon on the dealer to come to my car and pick up the empty cylinder and I will move meters away.
“Anything can happen. It is a hose that transfers the gas from their cylinder to mine. You will see it moving like water but it is actually gas. I fear it. Any spark can be disastrous.”
On why she does not patronise certified major gas dealers in filling stations: “It is very far from my house and the gas often finishes with your food on the burner. So, I just go to the one located a few steps from my apartment. It is risky but since they are here, it is difficult to resist the temptation of not patronising them, especially if the need is quite urgent.”
Another resident, Bob Mark, living beside a gas dealer is like living on a knife’s edge. “Whenever I walk past the gas dealer near my house, I say the Lord’s prayer. And when I am gone, I also cover my house with the blood of Jesus that I should meet the house the way I left it because this issue of gas explosion is almost a daily occurrence. So scary! I know the boys must hustle but it must be safe hustle. The whole thing is worrisome.”
A source at DPR who did not want his name mentioned told Daily Sun that the task force team on safety compliance will soon begin to patrol the FCT to arrest those operating illegally and in breach of safety protocols.
“This is dry season where fire outbreaks are incessant. Things burn easily. The earth is dry and it is windy and these support combustion. The safety of lives and property is paramount to us,” he said.
In 2019, the Federal Government mooted a policy that outlawed sale of cooking gas by the roadside vendors and transferred full ownership of the cylinders from consumers to only marketers licensed by DPR.
The move was to address safety concerns and deepen the penetration of LPG. The DPR also warned retail gas outlets against cylinder to cylinder gas refilling and decanting because of the associated risks.
The DPR noted that the warning became necessary to prevent fire disasters as well as protect lives and property of the people.
According to DPR regulations, LPG cylinder to cylinder re-bottling, refilling and decanting is prohibited. Rather, it recommends the sale of a full gas cylinder, either through cylinder exchange or a new one.