Haulage of petroleum products with tankers by road remains the predominant mode of moving the products across Nigeria. Every year 458,075 trucks move 1.46 billion litres of petroleum products to filling stations across the country, according to data from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
But this practice continues to endanger the lives and property of Nigerians as oil tanker accidents have become a frequent occurrence, heightening calls for new, innovative ways to move the highly inflammable cargo.
“We have urgent needs to exploit the transport, logistic and haulage opportunities in the modern rail system, inland waterways and pipeline transport,” former Vice President Atiku Abubakar said in a statement following a tanker explosion in Onitsha, Anambra State, last week.
The fuel tanker inferno that engulfed the highly populated Ochanja market in Onitsha consumed at least three persons, including a mother and child, and a trader. Parts of Ochanja market stalls, about 13 houses, including three four-storey buildings, about 15 vehicles, and goods estimated at over N500 million were also burnt.
“Nigerian roads carry more than 80 percent of freight and persons. This has put more burden on the roads than they can carry,” said Ode Ojewu, a Nigerian professor of economics and a former chief executive officer of the National Planning Commission.
“Besides, the trucks used in conveying these petroleum products are often poorly maintained. Rail is the best way to transport petroleum products,” Odewu said.
The Onitsha tanker fire incident is not a one-off. Every month, there is a reported incident of tanker accident, and chances are many go unnoticed, implying the tally could be much higher than estimated. Apart from loss of lives, scores of vehicles, buildings, businesses and other valuables are lost within the immediate vicinity of such incidents.
According to Nigeria’s Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), 282 truck crashes were recorded in 2016, 270 in 2017, and 196 as of October 2018. Estimating the cost of the 196 crashes of 2018, Boboye Oyeyemi, FRSC corps marshal, said the economic value was “about N9.8 billion loss, involving the cost of other vehicles, lives, damage to the environment and to the roads”.
In one instance in Anambra State in February 2019, a petrol tanker exploded at Amawbia Roundabout and petrol flowed through drainages till it got to a suya spot where the victims, oblivious of what was happening and well-detached from the actual scene, met their death. Media reports indicated the state’s police command confirmed seven persons dead in the incident.
Earlier on January 12, many were reported to have died in a Cross River petrol tanker blast, with an eyewitness claiming to have seen up to 20 bodies being taken from the scene, while another publication put the toll at 60.
On April 18, the police in Oyo confirmed two persons dead in a petrol tanker explosion at Sawmill/Onipepeye area of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. The tanker, which was reportedly trying to avoid collision with a car, ended up having an accident, but the fire outbreak that followed was, according to eyewitness accounts, due to those who were trying to scoop fuel. Its worsening was attributed to failure of the fire service to arrive the scene early enough.
Also in July, 60 lives were lost, including two officials of the Benue State Fire Service, when a petrol-laden tanker fell and exploded at Ahumbe village on the Otukpo/Makurdi Road.
Samuel Gbadegbo, a professor and dean of the School of Transportation, Lagos State University, summed up the three major causes of recurring tanker accidents thus: the roads are not good, the pipelines are underutilised particularly because of vandalism, and tanker drivers are abusing substances that impair their judgment.
“We have a lot of pipeline networks but they are not being used because they are being vandalised,” said Gbadebo.
This, according to him, is a resource that could have been transferring petroleum products “in a jiffy without all these tankers rolling over the place”. But “all the investment in doing pipelines all over, they’ve gone to waste because the minute you pump one gallon of petrol into the pipeline, the vandals are waiting”.
Regarding the roads which he said “are evil”, Gbadebo said, “We don’t even have potholes now, we have ‘drumholes’. We have roads that are just not tanker- or trailer-worthy almost throughout the country.”
Nigeria is the world’s sixth largest exporter of crude oil, but the country imports virtually all its petroleum products because its refineries are not working due to years of mismanagement. The Lagos port remains the main entry for the fuel that serves Nigeria’s almost 200 million people. Analysts say it is a disaster always waiting to happen in a country where fuel distribution is in the hands of often reckless oil tanker drivers and city planning fails to catch up with urban population growth.
Last year, there was the widely reported Otedola Bridge fire accident in Lagos, where a tanker fully loaded with 33,000 litres of petrol fell, leaked and exploded. The explosion on that busy stretch of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway is said to have claimed 12 lives, and at least 54 vehicles burnt.
Clement Isong, chief executive officer (executive secretary), Major Oil Marketers Association of Nigeria (MOMAN), told BusinessDay that following the Otedola Bridge incident, measures were put in place to have both short- and long-term goals. In the short term, there is a programme called the Safe to Load under which driver behaviour is critical. This comprises driver training and health checks too. Drunkenness and recklessness are also checked under this programme. The state of the equipment is examined: tyres, fire extinguishers and others.
The long-term objectives include a renewal of Nigerian Road Tankers Fleet.
“There are modern road tankers. Some of the fleets in Nigeria are well over 30 years old. It is like using a 406 Peugeot of the 1960s and expecting to get top service similar to a modern Peugeot car,” Isong said.
Even after the tragic incident of 2018 on the Otedola Bridge, there have been other near-mishaps on the same axis, involving tankers conveying petroleum products. One of such was on September 20, 2019, involving a diesel tanker that fell off. On October 10, a tanker carrying 33,000 litres of fuel driving towards Berger had an accident resulting in fuel spillage on the road. Four victims were said to have sustained injuries due to the accident, according to Lagos State Emergency Management Agency.
On October 12, 2019, another tanker, reportedly of 45,000-litre capacity, fell at the Otedola Bridge. The situation was managed by the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency to avoid explosion, although causing a major traffic.
According to Isong, modern tankers have satellite tracking, anti-rollover in case a tanker falls. They also have anti-skid, anti-theft and anti-spill technologies. They are already in use in parts of Africa, and introducing them in Nigeria will help to curb the menace of recurring accidents.
CALEB OJEWALE & STEPHEN ONYEKWELU