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Onitsha fire incident, govt and people responses


By Okechukwu Onuegbu
Although Wednesday 16th October, 2019 had come and gone, its effect on residents and travellers at Onitsha north and Onitsha south LGAs in Anambra state may not be forgotten in a hurry. It was the date hell was literally let loose as a tanker fully loaded with Premium Motor Spirit (petrol) had a break failure on the ever busy Onitsha-Asaba expressway close to Toronto Hospital, Onitsha.

An eye witness, Mr Uchenna Onukwo, had reported that “We heard the conductor of the tanker shouting 'no break!' while the vehicle was moving down. Everyone took to his heels. But on climbing the bump that is after the overhead crossing, the head of the tanker was detached from the back that is containing the fuel and it felled into the gutter by right and caught fire.”

The incident which occurred at about 12.0pm forced the tanker to detach its head which subsequently felled into a gutter while the body rammed onto the flyover spilling its contents. Lives, houses, businesses, properties and multibillion naira goods were raised to dust by the inferno.

One Mrs Ifeoma Nwoye, a pregnant woman and her little child of about 2-year-old were among those consumed by the fire. The expectant mother and child, who hailed from Urum, Awka north LGA of Anambra were swept off by the huge ball of fire. It spread to neighbouring Ochanja Market through gutters from the expressway down to Zik Avenue and Amobi street set more shops and plazas ablaze up till on Friday.

“The fire raged for hours without the presence of firemen while traders tried unsuccessfully to douse the raging fire by throwing packets of sachet water on it. One other elderly man said to be a wealthy trader was trapped inside one of the shopping plazas along Zik Avenue as his charred remains were seen dangling on the iron protector on the passage.

“The United Bank of Africa (UBA) at the Ochanja Round About was slightly torched as some people were seen battling the fire. Some of them clambered to the roof with buckets of water to fight off the fire. A Sienna vehicle bearing an APGA inscription was set on fire by an angry mob who sang anti Obiano song saying Anambra has no infrastructure,” said another eye witness, Mr Victor Ononye.

Even the coming of Delta State Fire Service men could not douse the raging fire. But a report from Public Relations Officer, Anambra state police command, Mr Haruna Muhammed, claimed that the police patrol teams cordoned off the area to prevent hoodlums from taking advantage of the fire to loot while effort was ongoing to put off the fire. 

Muhammed, while stressing that the case was under investigation to ascertain circumstances surrounding the incident, said the Commissioner of Police, CP John B. Abang visited the scene for on the spot assessment and appealed  to the residents to remain calm. 


The fire incident sparked off anger from all people. This was probably because it was not first time same place and location or locations had been gutted by fire. The late Highlife music icon, Prince Osita Osadebe in one of his albums (Oku eme alu) ‘Fire outbreak Wreaked havoc' released in 90’s detailed how fire gutted the same Ochanja market many years back. 

A similar petrol tanker fire incident also occurred on Sunday 31st May 2015 within the same upper Iweka axis during which it roasted about 69 persons as well as attracted a visit by the Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo. On February 15, 2017, another petrol tanker crashed into a Filling Station at DMGS Roundabout, Onitsha at around 7pm spilling its contents into the station and the adjourning streets and roads within the vicinity, leading to loss of lives, goods, offices and residential apartments.

Another tanker laden with diesel also crashed into the Abuja Park of the same Upper Iweka axis last year leading to death of travelers even as vehicles were damaged even though the liquid contents did not catch fire. 

Perhaps this entail why angry mob cashed in on the recent fire incident to express their anger to some government officials they spotted along Ezeiweka Road while inspecting the damages done by the inferno some hours later. Source claimed that the mob gave them a hot chase, prompting the officials to scamper into their vehicles and fled. Even some of the Journalists who tried to take shots of the fire scene were scrutinized and queried by the angry mob who never wanted to see a state government owned media house.

“A fire truck which came at the late hour was given a hot chase and the driver fled. The situation became more tensed up when a huge mob armed with sticks, cudgels, bottles and other dangerous weapons ran haywire in nearby roads and streets, damaging vehicles, tricycles and trucks, shouting, "no more government, no more government, no more taxes, no more taxes," Ononye added.  

Thus, Engr. Martins Agbili, the Anambra state Fire Chief/Fire Director, while welcoming governor Willie Obiano at the state fire service headquarters in Awka after the incident, explained that they could not arrive the scene on time because of ‘a little failure.’

Agbili reportedly noted that the closest fire fighters who would have made it to the scene was the Onitsha main market unit but they were unfortunately fighting fire elsewhere, adding that when they eventually got to the scene, people chased them out.

Reaction galore

The South East zonal Chairman, Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Comrade Aloysius Attah, said the best response expected from the state government on the issue was for it to fix the various failed portion of roads at the axis. 

The CLO also urged the governor to equip the Anambra State Fire Service with modern equipment and adequate manpower, alleging that they were poorly catered for with little or no staff and facilities.
“The Fire stations operate with few refurbished vehicles while they don’t have water supply to the extent that they go to commercial borehole to buy water in cases of emergency. With an outdated equipment and lack of personnel, the few remaining members of staff are demoralized with no insurance,” said CLO.

The position of International Society for Civil Liberties & Rule of Law was not different from that. In a statement signed by Emeka Umeagbalasi, Chair of the Board and others, the group said “the Government of Anambra State must own up and take full responsibility. The sympathies’ expressed by the State Government and other political office holders including Senators and House of Rep members from the State as well as the Federal Government of Nigeria are nothing short of ‘tears running down from the eyes of the crocodile.

“It saddens our heart that democratic governance in the State has been reduced from ‘service to humanity and society’ to “service to the clique’’; a sort of ‘organized cartel in a democratic setting’. Truth be told, the Upper-Iweka/Ochanja Market inferno is easily quenchable had the present Government of Anambra lived up to its governance responsibilities particularly in the areas of functionality of Government service machineries, early warning and emergency rapid responses.” 

But a socio-political organization, Igbo National Council (INC), rather called on Governor  Willie Obiano to quickly resign as governor or get impeached by the state House of Assembly accusing him of arbitrary negligence and gross ineptitude.

INC in a press statement signed by its President, Chilos Godsent and the Publicity Secretary, Victor Bienie Emenike said, “Investigation revealed that the inferno was, as a result of bad spots at upper-Iweka along Onitsha – Owerri road which caused a petrol tanker carrying fuel (PMS) to fall, resulting to outburst of fire that destroyed the entire livelihood of over two hundred thousand Nigerians. We call on the Anambra State House of Assembly to commence an impeachment process against Gov. Willie Obiano if he fails to voluntarily resign before October 23rd, 2019.” 

Government response

Anambra state governor, Chief Willie Obiano directed owners of properties affected by the tragic accident, including shop owners, to report at the Conference Room of the Secretary to the State Government on Monday, October 21, 2019, to see how the State Government can assist them.

The governor in a release signed by the Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, C. Don Adinuba added that a panel would be set up immediately to determine the cause of the accident, why the firemen could not put out the fire and how the condition of the victims can be ameliorated.

It claimed the governor opened a bank account to assist the fire victims through the Anambra State Security Trust Fund and entreating all to give generously to that purpose. It also assured that the governor has initiated a move to grant the State Fire Service autonomy or free it from the sate Ministry of public utilities.

The federal government

The federal government had in a condolence message signed by Garuba Shehu, said President Muhammadu Buhari was touched by the sight of charred remains of an innocent mother and her child burnt by the inferno.

He further called for urgent action on the part of those concerned to stem the frequent fatal disasters on public roads through safety precautions and routine maintenance, often taken for granted by vehicle owners. 

 The President on Friday urged the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to access the extent of damage caused by the fire, adding that the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) would provide food items and other relief materials to the victims. 

The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Hajia Sadiya Umar-Farouq, who conveyed the message during her visit to Ochanja market, added that the federal government would never allow  the victims of the natural disaster to suffer.

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