Vintage: 1998 Jesse pipeline explosion in Nigeria killed 1 082
On 18 October 1998, a pipeline explosion occurred in the community of Jesse, 290 kilometres southeast of Lagos, Nigeria. The cause of the blast has been debated. The Nigerian government stated the explosion took place after scavengers intentionally ruptured the pipeline with their tools and ignited the blaze; however, others have stated the pipeline ruptured due to a lack of maintenance and neglect with a cigarette igniting the fire. With 1 082 deaths attributed to the blast, the 1998 Jesse explosion has the distinction of being the most deadly pipeline explosion to have occurred in Nigeria. Many victims were farmers and villagers sleeping in their homes when the fire began. Vandals also were among the dead, including children. Their bodies had been found still clutching plastic cups, funnels and cans intended to collect fuel from the pipeline. Witnesses said they heard a load roar and saw the oily flames spread quickly. The explosion took place after a helicopter was dispatched to disperse the people assembled at the pipeline. The exact cause of the explosion remains unknown and the resulting fire burned for nearly a week. Commander Walter Feghabo, military governor of Delta State, said more than 120 fire fighters were still trying late on Sunday to contain the flames in Jesse and the nearby villages of Mossogar and Oghara. Feghabo ordered a mass burial for the charred bodies. “'I feel terrible,” Emmanuel Akhihiero, a government petroleum official, said in a telephone interview. “I cannot believe what I have seen. Corpses, corpses.”
Located in the Niger Delta, the ruptured pipeline was owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and served as a link between an oil refinery in the southeastern town of Warri, 340 kilometres southeast of Lagos and Kaduna, 610 kilometres north of Warri. After igniting on 18 October 1998, the fire burned until a fire fighting company from the United States was able to extinguish the blaze on 23 October 1998 with a nitrogen-rich foam. During a visit on 19 October 1998, Nigerian President Abdulsalami Abubakar promised to provide the necessary support to give aid in addition to develop solutions to prevent these types of tragedies from occurring again.
Weeks after the explosion, the death toll continued to rise as many of those with injuries died while in hospitals, while others fled care as a result of fearing arrest by the Nigerian Government on suspicion of igniting the blaze. Due to the intensity of the blaze, many victims were too badly burned to be identified and as a result over 300 bodies were buried in mass graves.
Award-winning journalist, Eromo Egbejule has explored the 1998 ‘Jesse Pipeline’ explosion in his directorial debut, ‘Jesse: The Funeral That Never Ended’. News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the documentary film, which chronicled the 18 October 1998 explosion, premiered at the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) on Wednesday, 13 November 2019.
‘Jesse: The Funeral That Never Ended’, the rehashing of that tragic story as it happened, was produced by Arit Okpo, the host of CNN African Voices Changemakers. Speaking on the movie, Egbejule said,
“The documentary is the resurrection of an impeccably tragic story of a people who were hemmed in all sides by what should have been a blessing for them. “With all the stories coming from the Niger Delta, it was important for us to tell this one lest they stay forgotten and become drops in the ocean.”
NAN reports that the film captures the crucial moments before and after the pipeline exploded, through the eyewitness accounts of survivors of the long-lasting inferno. Also, accounts of relatives of the dead, first responders at the scene and community leaders made the cut. It was narrated by Singto Saro-Wiwa, whose father, the playwright and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was hanged in November 1995 by the Gen Sani Abacha regime for his fervent criticism of the region’s exploitation.
The film also includes interviews with Nnimmo Bassey and the late Oronto Douglas, two contemporaries of Saro-Wiwa. It threads the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta, the evolution of its people into collateral damage to continue the conversation on the region’s bittersweet relationship with crude oil. According to Okpo, the story of Jesse is the story of the Niger-Delta; a people for whom a gift has become a tragedy. She said, “It is a story of lives changed forever and of scars that exist long after the rest of the world has moved on.”
Sources: Associated Press, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, Daylight Nigeria,