Many people have forgotten, but parents, relatives of victims of the Ikeja Cantonment Bomb blasts can never forget the trauma, pains and anguish that greeted them when they lost loved ones. It was January 27, 2002 when the quiet and serene ambience was rudely shattered, with heavy detonations from the military armoury in Ikeja. Bombs were flying everywhere, there was pandemonium, residents of Ikeja, Oshodi, Isolo and Ejigbo ran helter and skelter to flee the unknown, but over 1,000 met their waterloo.
The tragedy was likened to the popular Biblical passage in Jeremiah 31:15 which said “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.”
The Lagos State Government which used to mark January 27 of every year in remembrance of the victims has been silenced ever since. The day has long been forgotten but today, Sunday, January 27, 2019 makes it 17 years since the tragedy occurred.
Flashback: Lagos armoury explosion was the accidental detonation of a large stock of military high explosives at a storage facility in the city of Lagos, Nigeria, on 27 January 2002. The fires created by the debris from this explosion burnt down a large section of Northern Lagos, and created a panic that spread to other areas. As people fled the flames, many stumbled into a concealed Ejigbo canal and drowned.
The explosion and its aftermath were believed to have killed at least 1,100 people and displaced over 20,000, with many thousands injured or homeless. The government of Nigeria launched an inquiry, which blamed the Nigerian Army for failing to properly maintain the base, or to decommission it when instructed to do so in 2001.
The Ikeja military cantonment was a large military cantonment and storage area in the city of Lagos, situated north of the city centre near the districts of Isolo and Onigbongo. In January 2002, the base was being used to store a large quantity of “high calibre bombs”, as well as other sundry explosives. On the afternoon of 27 January, a fire broke out in a street market being held next to the base, which was also home to the families of soldiers. At around 6:00pm, the fire apparently spread to the base’s main munitions store, causing an enormous explosion. This blast killed many of the base staff and their families and immediately destroyed several nearby streets, flying debris starting numerous fires further afield. Tremors from the explosion also collapsed many buildings in the area, trapping people in the ruins and starting new fires from damaged cooking appliances. These tremors were so powerful that windows shattered 15km away and the blast could be felt more than 50km inland.
Also thrown up by the blast were thousands of as yet unexploded military munitions, which fell in a rain of exploding shells, grenades and bullets casting further destruction across most of the northern section of the city. Thousands of people from Ikeja and neighbouring districts, seeing explosions and fires breaking out, fled their houses in an attempt to leave the affected areas. As the streets became more and more crowded, explosions amid the fleeing crowds from shells falling from the initial explosion created panic. A stampede developed as panicking people fled in all directions, trampling those who fell underfoot. Reports also described people jumping from burning high-rise buildings and being killed in desperate attempts to cross the busy Ikeja dual carriageway.
In Central Lagos there is a large canal, which runs from north to south parallel to the Isolo-Oshodi expressway through the centre of the city. It bordered a banana plantation, which many refugees thought might be safe from the falling shells and spreading fires. However, the canal separated the plantation from the city and was covered by water hyacinth and thus invisible in the darkness. As the crowd surged towards the plantation, hundreds of panicking people fell into the water. Those on the bottom were crushed by yet more people falling into the waterway, and in the struggling confusion, at least 600 people were killed, many of them children. Many of these bodies drifted down the canal, some being found as far as ten kilometers from the explosion.
The affected areas of the city burned through most of the night, with explosions continuing to boil out of the wrecked armoury until the afternoon of 28 January. The emergency services were woefully inadequate to deal with the devastation, as there were not enough fire crews or water points available to cope with the fire, which consequently consumed large parts of the city’s northern suburbs. City hospitals were also utterly overwhelmed, many injured going for hours without any medical attention even if they did manage to reach an undamaged medical facility. The military, too, having suffered the loss of many of its Lagos-based personnel in the initial explosion, was not in a position to assume control of the city and did not appear in large numbers until late on 28 January.
By the evening of 28 January, most of the fires were under control and people began returning to the city and attempting to find loved ones lost in the stampede. Many of the dead were children, separated from their families in the confusion and subsequently crushed in the crowds that filled the streets and canal. On top of the dead from the canal, several hundred of people had died in the city itself: killed by falling munitions, trampled by the crowds, or trapped in the fires.
The final death toll is hard to compute, although the Red Cross claims that at least 1,000 bodies were recovered and a number of people were reported missing and never found. In addition to the dead, at least 5,000 people were injured in the disaster and over 12,000 left homeless, with entire districts of the city gutted. About 20,000 people had fled the city on the night of the explosion, and the survivors gradually returned over the course of the next week.
The then Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo arrived in Ikeja on 28 January along with most senior city and national politicians, and he publicly demanded answers from the military as to why such a huge ammunition dump was kept in such a poorly maintained and public location. It later emerged that a small explosion had occurred at the base the previous year, following which the army was advised by city officials to remove or modernise the armoury, but took no action.