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Nigeria Pipeline May Have Ruptured During Theft

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

But first, two days after a fuel pipeline explosion in Nigeria, health workers continued to bury charred corpses. Up to 200 people were reported killed in Friday's blast. Police suspect the inferno outside Nigeria's commercial capital was caused by illegal attempts to pump gasoline out of the pipeline. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from Lagos that such tragedies have become familiar to Nigerians.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

The breeze blows the stench of death off the narrow unpopulated island surrounded by water, nestling between the Lagos Lagoon and the open sea. Nigerian municipal grave-diggers wearing protective masks carry containers full of chemicals. They spray the bloated, decomposing body of yet another victim of Friday's pipeline explosion near Ilado.

The charred corpse of an unidentified man washed up on the shore, trapped in a spindly-legged mangrove swamp. Fataye Lawile(ph) is helping to dig his grave.

Mr. FATAYE LAWILE: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: We are moved to pity seeing bodies floating on the water. It makes me heartsick, it's a tragedy, said Lawile, adding at the bottom of all of this is poverty, grinding poverty. These people are goaded into illegally tapping fuel because it's their only way out of poverty.

And Nigerians are asking whether poverty or pillaging was responsible for the red fireball that filled the night sky and the dark column of smoke that followed it. It's not the first time that people have literally been blown to bits in Nigeria as a fuel pipeline exploded, leaving bones and body parts strewn far and wide. Abola Oshowdiglover(ph), the Assistant Commissioner of Police for the Ilado area, was on the island with dozen of police officers inspecting the scorched and blackened sand and charred pipes.

Mr. ABOLA OSHOWDIGLOVER (Assistant Commissioner of Police, Ilado): Those who came there to do that in the middle of the night, leave their bed to come and start vandalizing pipelines (unintelligible). So my advice is for them is to stay off such areas. Anybody crossing all the way from the land to here is not temptation at all, it's greed.

HANSEN: Since 1998 an estimated 2,000 people have been killed in similar blasts here in Nigeria. From the oil producing Niger Delta in the south, a maze of crude oil and refined fuel pipelines snakes its way across the territory of Africa's top petroleum exporter. Much of the network, belonging to the government owned Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, and foreign oil companies, is exposed and above ground. The pipelines are easily accessible. Chief Oilawalikoya(ph), who's been helping to bury the dead, says the state run firm is partly to blame.

Chief OILAWALIKOYA: If the people of this area had been given employment, let's be honest with ourselves, the pipelines passes along several islands, but NNPC has never deemed it sensible to even give employment to people from this area. We don't have lights, we don't have piped-in water and you expect that things like this wouldn't happen.

We all agree it's wrong, wrong to do whatever led this fire, wrong for them have been at the pipeline, whatever. But the truth of it remains NNPC. So part of the blame goes to them.

HANSEN: Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has ordered a thorough investigation into the explosion. He also warned Nigerians to stop trifling with danger and their lives for the sake of quick money which comes from selling illicit fuel on the black market.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Lagos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.