By Tonye Princewill
DESPITE the fiery death, in recent years, of more than a thousand Nigerians, many of our people still refuse to obey a simple rule of survival: Keep away from unconstrained and unsecured petrol.
In open air conditions, where its vapour mixes with atmospheric oxygen, “petrol”–also known as ”gasoline”–is highly unstable, volatile and easily ignited. This makes it an extremely dangerous substance, except when properly secured and handled by trained individuals.
I deeply regret the loss of life at Ula Okogbe, in Ahoada West Local Government Area of Rivers State and, before that, other communities around the country, where hydrocarbon fuel escaping from petrol tankers and pipelines have erupted in flame, with disastrous consequences.
My sense of remorse is deepened, by the fact that these types of fire incidents are largely the result of aberrant behaviour. Such behaviour arises from a combination of avarice, ignorance and indiscipline on the part of affected individuals, compounded, as it were, by poor socialisation.
“Socialisation”, as I’m using the term, refers to the training and conditioning of individuals to behave in accordance with established norms—patterns of behaviour that is normal and acceptable in the society to which they belong.
This training and conditioning is a collective responsibility. It is achieved through the actions of various social and cultural institutions such as the family, the schools, churches and mosques, theatre, music, film, poetry, etc.
I will pick up on this theme again shortly. But before going further, I wish to dissociate myself from that school of thought—well-intended though its adherents are—which tends to shift all the blame for the fate of individuals to “society”.
I believe that mature persons, who are mentally healthy, must assume responsibility for their own actions and be held accountable for them. This, in fact, is an operative principle in jurisprudence. You cannot commit a crime and evade punishment because of your social background.
The reason is human intelligence. Every normal human being has—or is presumed to have—the ability to think and reason, especially when it comes to behavioural norms.
Social factors may determine how good we are at certain types of problem solving. But most behavioural decisions involve judgements that are so basic, so fundamental to group survival, that they are amenable to sound reasoning by individuals with minimal socialisation.
How much social conditioning must one have, for example, to be able to use fire in a way that is helpful instead of harmful. Not much. A person need only get his or her hand burned once or watch a neighbour’s grass hut go up in flames, to develop some awareness about the proper use of fire.
Likewise, I do not buy entirely, the often heard explanation that “poverty” is the underlying cause of successive petrol catastrophes. This is especially true in cases where villagers are incinerated while trying to fill their containers at ruptured pipelines.
Not every pipeline fire has the same cause. But in most instances, the people who tap into petrol flow-lines are experts, with technical training. They are illicit businessmen. In many instances, they leave the pipe flowing for villagers, in order to keep them quiet. It’s when the villagers rush to the gushing stream of petrol, to take their own, that catastrophe strikes. Let me stress, that not all villagers are poor.
In the community of Jesse, in Delta State, for instance, where hundreds of people were burned, the person who is believed to have triggered the conflagration was using a motorcycle. The petrol reportedly exploded when he ignorantly kicked off his machine—unaware that a single exhaust spark can ignite hydrocarbon fumes.
When, and if, a thorough investigation of the Ula Okogbe incident is carried out, the explanation might well turn out to be similar. It is very doubtful, that all of the people who were trying to take petrol from the over turned tanker were actually poor.
The argument can be made, of course, that if the affected communities were economically prosperous, people would not have been seeking free petrol. I won’t deny this. But it’s speculative. It’s logical but untested.
What is not in the least speculative, is that most Nigerians (rich or poor) would stay very clear of a ruptured pipeline or wrecked tanker if they (a) understood the nature of hydrocarbons and (b) had sufficient self-control to resist the urge to take what does not belong to them.
This is where socialisation becomes important. The institutions responsible for instilling in the public appreciation of petrol’s highly unstable behaviour and hazardous nature have, so far, proved ineffectual. The onus devolves largely on our educational system and the communication media.
Parents must also shoulder their share of the blame. How many have cultivated in their children, sufficient discipline to restrain them from rushing to take free petrol? In fact, a large percentage of those killed are themselves parents. In Port Harcourt a few months back I put up a billboard that said: Free food dey run belle, work for your money. That message rings true, especially here. Suffice to say, it was not one of my very popular ones.
Finally, I’m aware that not everyone involved, in such mishaps, are culpable. Quite a number simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—hapless victims of circumstances beyond their control.
I sympathise with all the affected families, irrespective of the circumstances leading to their bereavement. This piece is a tribute to them and a reminder that we all need to preach this message to avoid a rerun.