How Nnewi fire exposes underbelly of Nigeria’s industrial centres

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    A scene from the inferno
    A scene from the inferno

    As the December 24, 2015 fire incident in the premises of a subsidiary of Chicason Group of Companies in Nnewi, Anambra State continues to attract condolences, Festus Akanbi, in this report, insists that the fire disaster, which underscores the vulnerability of Nnewi and other industrial communities in Nigeria is a sad reminder of the failure of government to make adequate provision for such emergency

    In terms of the resolve of the various tiers of government to restructure their revenue generation strategies, Nigeria has never been this desperate.  These days, it is common to be confronted with various plans of the federal and state governments to encourage citizens, both individual and corporate, to pay taxes. This is apart from negotiation to make others hitherto not captured in the tax net to see reasons why they would have to assist the government generate revenues needed badly at this period.

    The financial ingenuity is not unconnected with the dip in revenues accruable at the federal level as a result of the continued slide in crude oil prices. Financial experts therefore predicted that at the state level, going further, the focus will not be centred on how to encourage local entrepreneurs to fund government through tax payment but on how to help such private initiatives operate in an environment devoid of avoidable disasters. On its part, adequate measures would be put in place to secure such businesses in terms of adequate infrastructure especially in major cities and towns where these industries are sited.

    Unfortunately, while the private sector operators, who are expected to provide the revenue cushion in this period of uncertainty have no choice but to fall in line by ensuring prompt payment of their taxes and levies to all the tiers of government, government has not been able to reciprocate this gesture over time in terms of adequate provision of infrastructure, a development which economic watchers said was capable of stifling local initiatives.

    Avoidable Disasters

    The reality is that when the private sector fails to remit its tax to government coffers, the latter will not be able to deliver on its promises to the people and this may fuel crisis. However, when government fails to invest in adequate infrastructure what happens is that industries and other private investments become vulnerable to disasters most of which are unavoidable. That was the scenario that played out in Nnewi, the industrial and commercial capital of Anambra State, which was on Christmas eve thrown into confusion and mourning when an LPG gas plant operated by Inter Corp Oil Ltd, a subsidiary of Chicason Group, exploded.

    Unfortunately, most of the reactions of government officials at the scene of the accident have not sufficiently touched on some of the factors, which made such a disaster inevitable. However, the fire accident has continued to dominate discussions not only because of the sheer enormity of the human and financial resources wasted in the inferno but largely because of the significance of such disaster in Nnewi, an internationally-acclaimed industrial headquarters of the South-east people of Nigeria.

    About Nnewi

    Nnewi is the second largest city in Anambra State in southeastern Nigeria. Nnewi as a metropolitan city encompasses four local government areas, Nnewi North, Nnewi South, Ekwusigo and Ihiala Local Government; Nnewi North is commonly referred to as Nnewi central, and comprises four autonomous quarters: Otolo, Uruagu, Umudim, and Nnewichi. Nnewi North also includes Ichi, an autonomous neighbouring town.

    It is important to note that the first indigenous car manufacturing plant in Nigeria is located in the city, while the first wholly made-in-Nigeria motorcycle, the ‘NASENI M1’ was manufactured in Nnewi.

    As of 2006, Nnewi had an estimated population of 391,227 according to the Nigerian census. The city spans over 1,076.9 square miles (2,789 km2) in Anambra State. Nnewi Metropolitan Area and its satellite towns are home to nearly 2.5 million residents as of 2005. Dimensionally, Nnewi has an edge over all other units, being recognised by the 1953 census figures as the largest inland town of all others in the Eastern states of Nigeria. Chicason Group of Companies was incorporated as business in Nigeria in 1978 but as group in 1987 and its officials said the company had been conducting its business in a very responsible and law-abiding manner.

    Apart from Chicason Group of Companies, Nnewi has other vibrant business empires and this include, the famous Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company Ltd, Ibeto Group of Companies and Coscharis Group among others.

    The Fire

    Chicason Group is a conglomerate, which comprises 13 vibrant member companies, manufacturing, mining and trading. It is a leading name in Nigeria lubricants industry, plastic bottle production, vegetable oil, real estate, fertilizer production, medicated soap and logistics. The company has about 2800 staff in Nnewi directly and about 500 indirectly.

    Analysts believed that the fire incident of December 24, last year would have been contained had all the tiers of government put in place adequate infrastructure in an industrial city like Nnewi.

    As reporters toured the scene of the accident, and in spite of the devastation of the fire incident, one could not but come to the conclusion that the business was run on what could have met industrial standards anywhere in the world. Little wonder regulators approved the facility!

    Industrial analysts explained that fire is just one of many industrial accidents that confront businesses daily, which underscores the need for government to do its own part by providing the necessary infrastructure.

    This position brings to mind the question on how did government agencies respond to this particular fire incident?  Questions were asked as to whether some of the lives lost could have been saved were the state fire services and other emergency response organisations on hand to contain the fire?  According to analysts, the fire incident in the premises of Chicason Group has raised further questions on the safety of other businesses that operate in the same vicinity in the face of similar happenstance.

    It was easy for the Deputy Director, Anambra State Fire Service, Mr. Innocent Mbonu, to reel out the list of what an organisation like Chicason must put in place to forestall fire disasters. These, according to him, included fire extinguishers, water sprinklers etc. But experts, who will rather put the blame on the doorstep of the government, argued that that kind of fire occasioned by gas explosion could only be checked by government fire service that is equipped to fight such industrial fire.

    According to them, it is obvious that the Anambra Fire service came for inspection before the company took off.  This position was corroborated by a source that disclosed that the fire Service certified them okay after training them on fire safety and seeing their equipment.

    A Fire Service in Need of Urgent Bailout

    The source disclosed that the problem is that Fire Service in Nigeria especially in Anambra does not have adequate manpower and equipment to fight fire.

    THISDAY check showed that in spite of the strategic importance of Nnewi town which hosts a number of frontline industries, the industrial town has only a sub fire station, which is not functioning at all.

    Eyewitnesses said that the fire fighters that came to battle the fire came all the way from the headquarters in Awka, which is two-hour drive to the fire incident. According to the fire officer, their men got to the place one hour, 40 minutes after the fire call, by then, six people; majorly onlookers had lost their lives.

    A visit to Anambra Fire Station HQ at Akwa town near Government House will show the poor state of the fire station.

    Mbonu disclosed that the Anambra State Fire Service has only 83 personnel to service the state’s population.  Although the state’s fire service headquarters has a beautiful office, but investigations showed that the services lack the needed equipment.

    Further enquiries showed that a miserable N10 per month, and N120 per year, is the hazard allowance paid to fire fighters. It was gathered that the allowance has not been reviewed since 1972.  This is the standard practice in Nigeria and THISDAY gathered that most states are still being paid the same but Kebbi State recently reviewed theirs to 40 per cent of basic salary.

    A source disclosed that the situation is so bad that today, if a three-story building catches fire in Anambra State, the landlord of the house would be helpless as the state does not have Turn Table Fire Fighter Vehicle needed in fighting high rise buildings.

    On the fire incident on the premises of Chicason, it was gathered that response to that fire incident came from the state fire service headquarters in Awka, Government House Awka, Amaobia and Okpoko.   Professionally, in response to fire incidents, five personnel are supposed to be in each vehicle but investigations showed that due to lack of staff, three usually go out in a vehicle.

    Nothing has changed

    According to the deputy director, if the incident should occur again the same or if not more loses will be recorded unless government equips fire stations in Nigeria.

    He said he had been making demand for more staff and equipment for years now without success.

    Another top official who pleaded anonymity revealed that on the day of the incident, the fire fighters got to venue with only a tanker of water which was inadequate. They had to retreat to look for water for about one hour before they came back again to tackle the fire.

    However, the chief fire officer, said they only retreated because they had calls of another fire incident at two other towns, Adazi and Okpoko. He said he had to send some of the men to those places to arrest the fire in those places.

    Investigations  showed that the Anambra State Fire Headquarters had only one phone line 08039335551, which some staff said was usually not reliable due to battery-related issues, saying it is better to rely on the state emergency line –  112.

    Commiserating with the people of Nnewi and Chicason Group of Companies over the fire incident,  Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, described the ugly incident as a major setback to the economic development of Nnewi and the entire South East.

    Senator Ekweremadu, who was on a sympathy visit to the Chairman of Chicason Group, Dr. A. C. Okafor, at the company’s office in Nnewi also toured the scene of the incident where he expressed sadness over the fire disaster, especially for lives lost to the inferno.

    “For me, this is also a major setback for the business development, not only in Nnewi but the South East and the nation in general. But our major concern is the families of those who lost their loved ones. I would like to use this opportunity to condole them and to pray that God grant the souls of the deceased peaceful repose.”

    Observers said that it is hoped that by the time politicians and government functionaries are done with the rituals of commiserations and condolence visits, appropriate government agencies will be honest enough to put in place adequate measures to insulate business and private investments from disasters. (Thisday)

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