Nigeria is regarded as a developing nation. Relatively speaking it can be viewed as a village when likened to developing nations in terms of sophistication. Way back in 2002 bombs and bombing were rare finds in Nigeria. That was when a building housing an armory including bombs exploded to rock the entire Lagos State and indeed Nigerians.
Today, Nigeria as part of the global village is growing in leaps and bounds. Bomb scare is no longer a strange find. It is detonated at will everywhere by evil minded people. The use of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) by the religious extremist group, Boko Haram, has almost turned Nigeria in another Pakistan. The deliberate action of the perpetrators clearly indicates their lack of respect for human lives.
The Ikeja bomb explosion of January 27, 2002 is unarguably one single catastrophe with the highest number of casualties in the history of Nigeria. The impact and lessons from the incident is mouthful.
According to a reported account, on the afternoon of 27 January, a fire broke out in a street market being held next to the base, which was also home to the families of soldiers. At around 18:00 the fire apparently spread to the base’s main munitions store, causing an enormous explosion. This blast killed many of the base staff and their families and immediately destroyed several nearby streets, flying debris starting numerous fires further afield.
Tremors from the explosion also collapsed many buildings in the area, trapping people in the ruins and starting new fires from damaged cooking appliances. These tremors were so powerful that windows shattered 15 km away and the blast could be felt more than 50 km inland.
Also thrown up by the blast were thousands of as yet unexploded military munitions, which fell in a rain of exploding shells, grenades and bullets casting further destruction across most of the northern section of the city. Thousands of people from Ikeja and neighbouring districts, seeing explosions and fires breaking out, fled their houses in an attempt to leave the affected areas.
As the streets became more and more crowded, explosions amid the fleeing crowds from shells falling from the initial explosion created panic. A stampede developed as panicking people fled in all directions, trampling those who fell underfoot. Reports also described people jumping from burning high-rise buildings and being killed in desperate attempts to cross the busy Ikeja dual carriageway
In central Lagos there is a large canal, which runs from north to south parallel to the Isolo-Oshodi expressway through the centre of the city. It borders a banana plantation, which many refugees thought might be safe from the falling shells and spreading fires. However, the canal separated the plantation from the city and was covered by water hyacinths and thus invisible in the darkness.
As the crowd surged towards the plantation, hundreds of panicking people fell into the water. Those on the bottom were crushed by yet more people falling into the waterway, and in the struggling confusion, at least 600 people were killed, many of them children. Many of these bodies drifted down the canal, some being found as far as ten kilometers from the explosion.
The affected areas of the city burned through most of the night, with explosions continuing to boil out of the wrecked armoury until the afternoon of 28 January. The emergency services were woefully inadequate to deal with the devastation, as there were not enough fire crews or water points available to cope with the fire, which consequently consumed large parts of the city’s northern suburbs.
City hospitals were also utterly overwhelmed, many injured going for hours without any medical attention even if they did manage to reach an undamaged medical facility. The military, too, having suffered the loss of many of its Lagos-based personnel in the initial explosion, was not in a position to assume control of the city and did not appear in large numbers until late on 28 January.
At the end it was actually difficult to determine the exact death toll but the records of the Nigerian Red Cross Society indicated that over 1000 bodies were recovered and many persons declared missing were never found. Further, over 5000 were injured and about 12,000 were rendered homeless.
When President Obasanjo arrived the scene next day he demanded explanation from the military who tried to make up excuses that got Nigerians infuriated. The Red Cross Society were on hand to do their job and had their hands full. There was so much relief materials served victims and efforts were made to re-unite over 2000 families forcibly separated by the incident.
The revelation from the explosion showed that the military authorities were negligent in the management of the armoury. The popular question that played on the lips of Nigerians was why locate an armoury very close to residential areas of the state. Even as we reminisce on the incident and sympathize with the numerous victims we must not fail to remind that some government policies are still not protecting the citizens.
In some cities, some residents live under very high tension cables while some have electric cables cross over their buildings. Again, fuel stations are co-habiting with residents of some areas even when we are familiar with consequences of any untoward situation.
Nineteen years may appear so long a time but the memory still lingers for many of the victims who were impacted by the incident. While we have dusted it behind and moved on we must continue to demonstrate that lessons were actually learned to avoid a repeat.