Mar 4, 2002
At the end of January, there was an explosion in a military arsenal in the center of Lagos. A flood of shells, rockets and projectiles of all kinds went off in this port city of 10 million inhabitants. The neighborhood surrounding the arsenal was set ablaze, leaving thousands homeless. Officially, more than 600 bodies were recovered from the scene.
Most of the victims died trying to escape to the other side of the canals which cross this part of the city. Some were victims of the panic. Many others were trapped in the industrial sludge which fills the canals.
The authorities have never seen fit to construct bridges across these canals, nor to drain them of this waste, which is often toxic. Nor have the authorities ever gone after the polluters, which for the most part are large western petroleum companies that have transformed many regions of the country into industrial dump sites. The Nigerian authorities have been more preoccupied with obtaining their cuts of the riches pillaged in natural resources by British Petroleum or Elf, than they are concerned about the health and the well-being of the population.
Caught between pillage by the western companies on the one side and the rape of the Nigerian bourgeoisie on the other, the only thing the poor population has ever seen from the petroleum in their country is the nauseating and even deadly, sludge in the canals of Lagos.
The catastrophe of January 27 made clear the role of the army in Nigerian society. The commander of the garrison in Lagos appeared on television immediately following the first explosion, not to explain what happened or what emergency measures should be taken, but rather to assure the population that a military coup had not taken place. This is quite symbolic.
During the last 41 years, since Nigeria became independent from Great Britain, this former colony has lived through 29 years of dictatorship, six military coups and the most deadly civil war ever known in Africa, that of Biafra. The current president, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a former general who ruled the country under a military dictatorship from 1976 to 1979. Today his government may be called “civilian.”
But there’s little difference. The military still runs the show. The Ikeja barracks, where the explosion occurred, demonstrates this. Not only is it a military barrack located in the heart of the largest population concentration of the country, but it is also a kind of city within a city. It has its own infrastructure, family housing facilities, school system from kindergarten through high school and even its own stores and entertainment center. To be in the military in Nigeria, and especially in Lagos, is considered a real privilege for all soldiers. Even more so, for the ranking officers who in addition benefit from a share in the corruption. Everything is set up so that there is little contact between the ordinary soldiers and the poor population of the city – one day or another, these soldiers will be ordered to shoot them down defending the common interests of the privileged castes and of the big western trusts.
Paradoxically this time, the barracks of Ikeja protected the population. Its enormous sized meant that the fire which broke out was largely confined without spreading too far into the surrounding poor neighborhoods.
But this explosion is nonetheless a warning to the poor population of Lagos. All these explosives stored in the middle of the city by the Abasanjo regime – this “democracy” supported by Washington, London and Paris – were destined for use against the poor population.