Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
For the people of Benue State still trying to recover from the loss of property worth billions of naira that was incurred in a market fire incident recently, there could have been no worse way of ending an old month and starting a new one as about 80 lives were lost within a space of days, between Sunday, June 30 and Monday, July 1, 2019.
While more than 50 lives were lost in the petrol tanker which took place on July 1, in Ahumbe community in Gwer East Local Government Area of the state, 25 were killed a day earlier in Okokolo in Aguta Local Government Area of the state by gunmen said to be from a neighbouring community of Abugbe in the same local council area.
Eyewitness accounts of the raging fuel tanker fire
Talking about the fuel tanker explosion that happened on Monday, July 1, taking with it over 50 lives in its raging inferno, the emotional scar of that day is likely to remain for a long time in the minds of many families.
In fact, the explosion that rocked the village affected over 150 people, including locals and travelers on the Makurdi-Aliade-Otukpo highway. Many who died in the accident were burnt beyond recognition while several others who were injured sustained high degrees of burns and later died in hospitals.
According to eyewitnesses, the fully loaded petroleum tanker belonging to TOTAL petroleum company had had a tyre burst after it suddenly ran into a pot hole while on top speed. The sheer impact made its driver to lose control and the fuel tanker fell on its side on the road, spilling its content while blocking a major portion of the highway.
Many of the villagers, unaware that death was hanging in the air like the Sword of Damocles, rushed to the scene with various sizes of jerry cans and other containers and started scooping fuel spilling out from the fallen tanker. Others busied themselves trying to control traffic while ensuring that the tanker did not cause any havoc.
All vehicular movements on both sides of the highway were suspended as the tanker continued to spill its content. In the meantime, some of them continued to make frantic efforts to reach the state Fire Service and other security agencies to ensure safety on that route. However, it was at this point that an 18-seater bus coming from the Aliade axis and said to be heading towards Abuja arrived the scene and all efforts made by both the villagers and other commuters to stop him failed.
“We warned the driver not to go but he said he could maneuver his way through the small space remaining on the road,” one of the eyewitnesses named Pius recalled. “He was in the middle of the spilt petroleum content when suddenly the exhaust of his vehicle scratched the road and sparked fire. The next thing we heard was a loud explosion from the vehicle and there was fire everywhere. Not long after, a second explosion louder than the first one came from the tanker.
“There was fire everywhere and you could see people running with fire all over their bodies and crying for help. Many of us ran as fast as our legs could carry us into the bushes and from where I was, I watched as in a horror movie how human beings were being roasted to death.” Soon the exploding fire spread rapidly within the area and gutted some houses. It was in that process that some of the victims who managed to escape were badly burnt, in some cases with the entire body skin peeling off completely and revealing delicate inner blood vessels as if they were just barbecued.
Ahua Samuel, a married man and a farmer with four kids happened to be one of the victims. He recalled what happened: “On that fateful day, we were in our village where we saw a tanker fell down and we ran there to rescue the people that were involved in the accident. But before we got there, we discovered that one bus was rushing to pass and immediately the driver was struggling to pass, the ‘silencer’ of the bus brushed the fuel that spilled on the tarred road and the tanker exploded.
“We were waiting for what would happen next when the Fire Service people arrived to quench the fire. Some of us stood as spectators to watch them put off the fire. But immediately they put on their equipment, the last segment of the tanker just exploded and all of us that were watching got burnt. Some of us were lucky to be alive while other victims could not survive the burns. So that is how it happened. Many of us that were there got burnt, including the passengers involved in the accident. While some of us were lucky to be alive, others were not so lucky. I saw many dead bodies everywhere. In fact, I thought I was dead too until I found myself in the hospital.”
A relative of one of the victims, Godwin Ayange, told our correspondent that his 18-year-old brother, Paul, was returning home from school at about 2 pm when the fire caught up with him by the roadside. His words: “My younger brother, SS2 student of Mbabo Community School in Ahumbe was on his way home after closing from school at 2 pm. He was passing the roadside where some people were scooping fuel from a fallen tanker. Then suddenly, a passenger bus that was trying to manoeuvre its way had its exhaust scratch the road and that sparked the fire which gutted many people including my brother.”
Another relative, Rev. Fr. Joseph Aku, in charge of St Augustine Catholic Church, Nenger, said his cousin, Solomon Kar, was also a victim of the tanker fire. He said: “When I was told that my cousin was involved in the tragedy, I immediately asked my people to bring him to Makurdi for better attention since the case was critical,” he recounted. “So he was transferred to BSUTH (Benue State University Teaching Hospital). The doctors have told me in confidence that his case could not be managed successfully here that he has to be transferred to Enugu. He is a town service driver who was conveying passengers to Alaide before the incident occurred. I’m told his passengers may have all died.”
Also speaking, another victim’s relative, Joseph Thso, said his senior brother’s son died that morning at BSUTH from injuries sustained in the explosion. “My nephew was a 22-year-old Okada rider. He was going to the village when he met his death. His corpse has been taken to Ikpayongo mortuary.”
FRSC’s account of the incident
Sector Commander of Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) in Benue State, Baba Aliyu, reports that 35 dead bodies were recovered from the scene. Aliyu who spoke to newsmen in Makurdi on Tuesday, July 2, 2019, said 101 people who sustained various degrees of injuries were taken to eight hospitals in Makurdi, the state capital and Aliade, the Gwer East Local government headquarters.
While noting that death toll may continue to rise due to degree of burns suffered by victims, the FRSC boss disclosed that two officials of State Fire Service as well as two social media reporters who were taking pictures of the incident and one National Youth Corps member from Ondo State were among the injured.
He listed the hospitals where the fire victims were currently receiving treatment. They include Federal Medical Centre (FMC), Nigeria Air Force Hospital, Bishop Murray Hospital as well as BSUTH, all in Makurdi, the state capital. He disclosed that other victims were moved to St. Vincent Hospital, Hosanna Clinic, General Hospital and Justin Dispensary all in Aliade. He confirmed that when the tanker fell on its side it did not explode until a commercial vehicle with some passengers attempted to maneuver its way and had its exhaust spark off fire in the process.
“He (the bus driver) ignored warning and that led to the explosion. The vehicle was coming from Oju to Makurdi. The driver and one passenger from the commercial vehicle escaped. As at 3 to 4 am today (Tuesday) we were still looking for hospitals to take the victims to due to lack of space because all the hospitals are already filled up.” The Chief Medical Director of BSUTH, Prof. Terlumum Swende said that out of 10 victims brought to the hospital one died early hours of Tuesday. Swende who decried the enormity of the accident stated further that the least victims of the tanker explosion that was brought to the hospital had 75 degree burns. Also, Medical Director of FMC Makurdi, Dr. Peters Inunduh disclosed that three among the 14 victims that were brought to his hospital were in critical condition but were responding to treatment at the Intensive Care Unit.
State government responds in cash and kind
Reacting, the state governor, Samuel Ortom expressed sadness over the loss of many lives in the petrol tanker fire. In a statement signed by his Chief Press Secretary, Terver Akase, he described the incident as quite painful and devastating. While consoling families of those who lost their lives in the inferno, Ortom prayed God to grant them eternal rest even as he assured survivors of the fire of his government’s assistance with regard to payment of their medical bills.
He made good his promise when Benue State Deputy Governor, Engineer Benson Abounu, on Wednesday, visited the scene of fire accident to convey Governor Ortom’s message and to condole with the people over the tragic accident that is said to have claimed about 50 lives. Abounu who visited eight hospitals, four in Aliade and four in Makurdi where the victims are receiving treatment to sympathise with them, made cash deposits with the various hospital managements for their treatment. The Deputy Governor who was received by the grieving community said only God can heal the wound in their hearts, and expressed the deepest condolences of the government and people of the state to the immediate families and the entire Ahumbe community on the tragic loss of lives and destruction of homes. He stated that there were still 96 other victims of the accident in various conditions at different medical facilities in Alaide and Makurdi.
“The degree of burns is very alarming,” he said. “We have a case of 90 degree burn struggling for life at the BSUTH. Sadly, it cuts across all ages, there is a nine-year-old in Alaide hospital and another 11-year-old at FMC, Makurdi. We have unfortunately experienced more mortality between yesterday and today (Tuesday and Wednesday), bringing the total death toll to 48 as I speak now. Over 90 are still receiving treatment but they are in good hands in all the hospitals. There were a good number of people who were burnt beyond recognition that even for their relations to pointedly say this is my relation has become very difficult.
“We have decided that for people in this group, we are going to give them mass burial somewhere in Gwer Local Government, near Ahumbe, where the explosion took place. But any family that is able to recognize their loved ones can take them away and give them a befitting burial.”
He announced that the government would bear the cost of their treatment as well as the cost of burial of those that lost their lives. Lamenting the many potholes on the Makurdi-Aliade-Otukpo road, he called on the federal government to speed up the rehabilitation of the road, which it seems to have stopped work on, for some time.
On Wednesday, the state government organized a mass burial for victims burnt beyond recognition while families who could identify their relations’ corpses were allowed to take them away. It was a moment of grief as they were committed to mother earth. Thirty corpses in all were laid to rest in the mass grave. But as the burial was going on, news came in that 12 more victims have died, five at the General Hospital, Aliade, four at the local government clinic and three in Makurdi.
The recent tragedy that hit Benue State had started four days earlier in Agatu Local Government Area of Benue State, which was in the news when suspected Fulani herdsmen invaded the local government about four years ago and killed scores of people in a blood-chilling massacre. But this time around death came on a similar massive scale, not from herdsmen but from men said to come from one of the two warring communities in the local government area.
And, when it was all over, there was blood, sorrow and tears. Indeed, it was a moment of grief, pain and anguish for the people of Okokolo in the Local Government Area after gunmen allegedly from a neighbouring community of Abugbe in the same council attacked the village and killed 25 people.
Although the Benue State Police Command through its Public Relations Officer (PPRO), DSP Catherine Anene, initially talked about only 10 people killed, later investigation showed that the death toll in the attack far outweighed that figure.
The attackers who stormed the community allegedly with some mercenaries were said to have set over 60 houses ablaze during the Sunday morning invasion. According to eyewitnesses, the invaders had stormed the village that fateful day while the unsuspecting villagers were in their various churches to worship God.
Eyewitness accounts of the Sunday tragedy
At about 10am, sounds of gunshots began to rend the air and frightened, people began to run in various directions to go and hide. But many of them could not make it as the heavily armed attackers who were said to be riding on motorcycles went after them and killed them in droves. An eyewitness who simply gave his name as James disclosed that the gunmen rode on their bikes and pursued villagers who were trying to escape and killed them. “By the time the dust settled, dead bodies littered everywhere in the village and smoke billowed from every corner from the wreckage of some of the burnt houses,” he said. “There was weeping and crying everywhere all around Okokolo that day. If you will remember, Okokolo was one of the communities in Agatu that were attacked in 2015 by Fulani invaders. Many of the houses that were burnt down then were yet to be rebuilt before this current incident.”
Joe Smart Eigege, son of one of the dead victims, Danladi Akpalawu, took to his Facebook page to mourn the sudden death of his father. “I can’t believe that you are gone this early, Daddy,” he wrote. “So, the conversation we had a few days ago was our last? So, the prayers you were praying for me was your last for me, Daddy? Why do you have to die and leave us now that we seriously need you the most, Daddy? The children need you. My heart is seriously bleeding. May your gentle soul continue to rest in the Lord till we meet to part no more. But the wicked will never go unpunished and those community who killed you will never have peace till their tenth generation.”
Asked the reason for the Sunday morning massacre, John Ikwulono, another native said there was an existing misunderstanding between the two communities over a fish pond but doubted if that was serious enough matter to warrant the magnitude of attack and wanton killing of his people. “The fish pond matter has been in court for over two years now. Aside that, I am not aware if there is any other issue between us and our neighbours that would make them take up arms against us in this manner.”
State government imposes curfew, vows to arrest perpetrators
Reacting over the incident, Benue State government described as senseless, shameful and unacceptable the Sunday attack. In a move aimed at averting the spread of violence resulting from the Sunday attack, the Benue State Security Council same day imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew starting from 6 pm to 6 am during which there was restriction of movement on the Obagaji-Akwu-Okokolo-Abugbe road and other areas in the crisis zone.
Speaking after the three-hour meeting held at Obagaji, Benue State deputy governor, Engineer Benson Abounu, who stood in for the governor, Samuel Ortom, directed security agencies to apprehend all those involved in the killings. The Security Council expressed disappointment with the failure of the Agatu people to resolve their internal disagreements peacefully and warned that government would no longer tolerate such brazen act of criminality.
The council directed the people of Akwu to produce a patent medicine dealer from Ologba, who lives in their area and who has not been seen since that Sunday as well as the body of an Okokolo youth leader said to have been killed at Akwu.
Earlier, the deputy governor had led members of the State Security Council, accompanied by several eminent Agatu sons, among them Benue State PDP chairman, Sir John Ngbede and former member, House of Representatives, Solomon Agidani, to Okokolo and Akwu to assess the situation on the ground and to condole the families of those killed.
Others included member of the Benue State House of Assembly, Godwin Abu Edoh, immediate past House of Assembly member, Audu Sule, former Special Adviser to the Governor on Project Monitoring and Evaluation, Alhaji Isa Usman, and the Caretaker Chairman, Agatu Local Government, Hon Usman Alilu. During the on-the-spot assessment tour, the deputy governor was also conducted round the various graves where many of the deceased had been buried immediately after the unfortunate incident. He appealed to the people of Abugbe, Okokolo, Akwu and the entire Agatu people to help the Police and other security agents fish out perpetrators of the heinous deed. “This crisis issue shall not be put into the hands of traditional rulers and communities again,” he vowed. “We shall handle it with the security men for better results since youths no longer listen to traditional rulers and elders any more. You youths of Agatu are the cause of crisis in Agatu and we shall deal with you.”
Updates on the attacks and attackers
Earlier in his remark, the caretaker chairman of Agatu Local Government Area, Usman Alilu narrated the briefs he got over the attack, adding that names of the perpetrators have been submitted to him for onward transmission to security agencies for immediate arrest.
The man who was almost in tears over the barbaric killings questioned how people could attack and kill fellow humans on a Sunday during worship without having any regard for God. He told the deputy governor that before the barbaric incident, he was already making arrangements for the state government to come and commission projects in Agatu after few weeks of their inauguration but not this kind of visit.
Also speaking, a community leader and chairman, Elite Forum Okokolo, Peter Entonu said he narrowly escaped death that day adding that the attackers came when they were in their various places of worships. He accused Akwu people of accommodating the attackers who carried out the attacks which he described as unprovoked. He wondered why the attack should come a day after they signed peace agreement with Abugbe community. Names of casualties presented by the community leader were about 25 in number.