A very Nigerian tragedy

Last Thursday on a busy Lagos highway bridge, a petroleum tanker laden with fuel crashed and exploded, igniting over 30,000 litres of petrol. The resulting inferno consumed over 50 cars almost instantly, as dozens of passengers fled in terror. It’s a miracle that the death toll has been reported as just nine victims, but many more people have suffered traumatic burns or have been declared missing.

As I combed through various media reports on the accident, the narrative that unfolded appeared to be uniquely Nigerian – a combination of factors that can only be created in an environment such as this. Now, don’t get me wrong – accidents happen and can occur anywhere in the world. However, some are ‘accidents waiting to happen’, due to the way some societies operate. For example, multiple-shooting incidents are much more likely to happen in the United States, by virtue of the fact that they have enough guns for every man, woman and child.

In Nigeria’s case, it’s a mixture of reckless driving, a lack of strictly enforced safety regulations and a raft of societal factors emanating from poverty, indiscipline and sheer desperation. Eyewitness reports suggest that the tanker was speeding, switching from lane to lane and the driver was waving at other motorists to stay clear of his truck. When it was time to stop, his brakes were not adequate and a sideman jumped down and tried to stop the vehicle with a block of wood. As the tanker climbed an obstacle, it swayed to one side and overturned, spilling combustible fuel that soon burst into flames.

Any Nigerian driver is used to seeing large trailers bullying other vehicles and, at night, traveling with almost no lights. The tankers look homemade sometimes and poorly maintained. Apparently, most of them have safety certificates that have expired. Like most aspects of Nigerian life, there are plenty of regulations but they are irregularly enforced and easily flouted with a well-judged bribe. Just this week, I observed construction workers near my home without a single hard hat, pair of gloves, boots or any other safety equipment between them – and that’s the norm.

The aftermath of the accident was equally unique to this part of the world. With no security cordon around the accident site, scrap vultures descended on the scene, grabbing any bits of metal that weren’t too hot to touch – even as burnt corpses were still being extracted from destroyed vehicles. Almost as quick were the ‘area boys’, demanding payment from the scrap collectors for the right to scavenge on their turf.

As the tragedy transferred to the nearest hospitals, the ‘Nigerian factor’ was unfolding in ways that outsiders could never imagine. Relatives of victims with horrific burns were making their way to local pharmacies, armed with lists of medication, bandages and other treatments, because they were not willing to pay what they considered to be extortionate prices from the nurses at the hospital. Even nurses need a side-hustle in this brutal environment and it seems that emergencies are good for business.

So many other stories emerging from this tragic accident hinge on the struggle of families trying to survive in a harsh economy. Some of the destroyed vehicles were bought with borrowed funds or someone’s life savings and were being used to make money ferrying passengers on their daily commute. Others were a source of pride for workers who had just managed to own their first car. In one case, a roadside mechanic was trying to figure out how he was going to replace his client’s vehicle, now burnt beyond recognition.

Coming less than a week after at least 135 villagers were slaughtered in Plateau state in the north of the country, these are tough times for Nigeria. Again, these killings are part of a wider trend, borne out of uniquely Nigerian issues that have been allowed to fester and proliferate. Tribalism, religious intolerance and general insecurity in large parts of the country have been on the rise for years, with no sign of a coordinated strategy from the authorities to tackle the issues. The incidents are now so frequent that indifference from the media and general population is creeping in.

There are no easy answers to the issues facing Nigeria but it is obvious that by ignoring the early warning signs, they are allowed to develop unchecked. The absence of safety regulations in many industries and on the roads has its own consequences. The fact that it’s almost certain that the tanker driver never had formal driving instruction, nor was required to pass a rigorous driving test, speaks for itself.

Unless the small problems are prevented or handled early, and Nigerians get used to a more tightly regulated society, we can look forward to more tragedies manifesting in the not too distant future. Misfortune can strike at any time, however it would be foolhardy to continue down a path that guarantees it.

19 thoughts on “A very Nigerian tragedy

  1. Hi Mike,

    You couldn’t have put it more succinctly, except we start making the rules count the count of tragedies and massacres will only go up more so because we have evolved the unique ability to benefit from this organized disorder.
    The ice gripping our heart is gradually numbing out the warmth of humanity one ebb at a time because as long as our family members aren’t involved we are fine but alas we are all one family, all 190 million of us.
    Enough said, we can only keep making the difference Mike, even if it’s one stroke of the pen at a time like you are.

    Best regards.


    1. Thanks Bunmi. Nigerians are becoming desensitised to tragedy because of how the government and media respond, as well as the overwhelming volume of serious issues. With no purposeful leadership, this can only get worse. I’m just doing my bit to highlight the underlying causes of what appear to be random incidents and hoping that people will take action eventually.


    2. Hi Michael,

      The title captures well the story.

      However, I hope that many of us who are positively angry about these events make a deliberate decision to not allow things continue this way.

      We are a well endowed people. We can definitely do better!
      I propose that all people of integrity, wherever they find themselves, begin to lead from where they are.
      If we all decide to do the little things well all the time where we are, I believe, collectively, we can make a great impact.

      Best wishes,


      1. Hi Godwin, you are so right. Moral leadership is needed everywhere, while people are looking for it to come from the top. “Do what you can, with what you have, wherever you are.”


      2. I’m with you on this…change begins with us. Let’s make the little difference where and when we can wherever we find ourselves.


  2. I took interest of reading your articles of late and you’ve been amazing in your write up. this particular one is epic, and many thanks for pointing out the real cause of such pathetic inferno. keep the candle burning Mr Williams


    1. Thanks Udeme. We tend to see what’s on the surface and the Nigerian media does very little in-depth analysis, so no one looks at the causes of such tragedies as being systemic. Years ago they reduced crime in New York City by having zero tolerance to seemingly minor issues like littering, illegal dumping and broken windows.


  3. Add to the mess the security men at the nearby Omole estate – they allegedly closed the gates to the estate and wouldn’t let in people trying to escape the fire and smoke. Their reason? They didn’t want thieves to take advantage of the chaos.
    Unfortunately, similar incidents will happen over and over. Nothing will be done by govt officials to prevent such incidences. Trucks with failing brakes will still ply the roads and road safety officials will take a bribe and look the other way.
    I wish we could carry out some sort of citizen’s arrest. If I see a truck on the road that does not look road worthy, can I somehow pull it over and seize the keys? But will other road users back me up? All sorts of thoughts.


    1. You may be risking life and limb to take such action, such is the nature of the society. Would other citizens back you up or would they side with the truck driver? The fact that we have to ponder such a question speaks for itself. However, do find a way to make an impact. Perhaps you could start an online petition to begin rigorous safety checks on all trucks carrying hazardous materials and responsible driving skills to be taught to those in charge of them.


  4. What a comprehensive coverage, highlighting the daily goings-on in Nigeria. Man, your command of the English language is flawless! You could literally write for the Atlantic, Time, the New Yorker, etc., any day without batting an eye! Mad talent! I look forward to reading more articles from you!


    1. Unfortunately, this means that we do nothing to prevent it happening again. What’s even worse is that not even the official statistics are reliable. We have a death toll that doesn’t explain a number of people missing at the scene. Try to resist becoming desensitised.


  5. As much as this saddens everyone those affected directly or indirectly I must say that we all have ourselves to blame. This drivers work for someone, a company an organization right? We have the likes of road safety,VIO etc who are more concerned with providing ‘express drivers license’ and road worthiness papers for a vechile that should be in a museum.

    The point I’m trying to make here is that the change we want starts with each and everyone of us. Our president in a recent speech said we need prayers…well it’s always very easy to blame the devil but I’ll like to differ by saying apart from pray let’s not just make laws but enforce the law and anyone found wanting should be dealt with accordingly.


    1. Prayers are not required to do the right thing. The president should let the church or mosque lead the prayers and he should lead the country. The minister of transport is missing in action and should be leading the investigation and the reforms needed in the sector. I go crazy when I see these huge vehicles driving crazy or without lights at night. Everyone thinks I’m being dramatic and says, “This is Nigeria – you should be used to it by now.” Should chaos become normal?


  6. How very very sad. Surely much of the changes and enforcement that are necessary belong squarely in the court of the leaders. Too depressing….


  7. So well said brother.

    This sore has festered so long that it became cancerous. It didn’t end there though, it has led to immunosuppression which opens the host to opportunistic infections.

    The point is that when big things are left undone, all manner of smaller inadequacies will abound.

    The “intelligents” in Nigeria consistently watch from the sidelines and the peak of their passion and commitment are vociferous social media posts. Ultimately, Nigeria will be forced to change or implode.

    Until most of us are led by the best of us, the misery shall be on all of us…


    1. My brother, let’s hope for change before it’s too late. I’m still amazed at how little people are prepared to do to save their own country. Perhaps a few genuine candidates will succeed at the next election and begin to turn the tide slowly.


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