By Olasukanmi Akoni
It was double tragedy for the staff and management of Second Company Nigeria Ltd, a flourishing gas cooking retail company, on January 15, as they lost not only billions of naira in property valuation but also a driver, Saheed, after their company was gutted by fire. The driver died after he was stuck in the tanker that caught fire within their premises. Second Nigeria Ltd started in 2005 as a cooking gas retail company, selling Liquefied Petroleum Gas, LPG, to the public. The company was doing well until the worst happened that fateful day and brought uncertainty to its dreams. But the firm did not give up. It tried to move on and put the sad event behind it. It put the machinery to re-open in motion. Officials of Lagos State government relevant to cooking gas operations actually gave Second Company Nigeria Ltd the nod to re-open after putting all the necessities and safety measures in place. However, the twist to the story is the claim that some government officials appear to be sabotaging the bid to return to business.
How it all started
The unfortunate incident was said to have started at 6:15 am after the Managing Director of the company, Dr. Basil Ogbuanu, said he was alerted by a security guard that one of its tankers had burst open and was leaking.
Ogbuanu narrated, “I received a call from one of our security guards around 6:15am on that fateful day. The guard told me that one of our tankers was leaking and I went straight to the company. When I got there, I immediately activated our water system in order to control the leakage. After sometime, we discovered that the leakage was too much and we needed to stop it manually before it resulted in another problem. So, I quickly notified the fire service about the incident and they rushed to the company. When they showed up in our office, the fire had not started yet, so we needed them to pour water on the tank so we would have access to the tanker and shut it down automatically since it was leaking from the valve.
“After the fire service showed up, they demanded that our workers leave so they could take over, but the worst happened. The fire started from inside the plant and consumed virtually all we had there. This led to a seal off by the Lagos State Safety Commission. In the course of the incident, we lost one of our drivers, Saheed, who was trapped inside the tanker and sustained fire injuries. He was rescued by the officials and was immediately rushed to the Lagos State emergency unit and later referred to a private hospital in Oshodi where he passed on.
Billions down the drain
“The fire incident was heavy for us as we lost billions of goods and costly equipment. After what happened, we did our best to re-open the facility but all our efforts were brought to nought by the Lagos State Safety Commission, The body set up a panel that involved the staff and external consultants, people who are well known in the safety industry, to consider our appeal to re-open the company after the disastrous event. After investigation, the panel submitted its report which took about a month to look at. The Safety Commission then issued a conditional re-opening statement spelling out what we needed to do. The conditions stated that we should upgrade our safety facilities which we did. After that, we wrote to them and they came for inspection and went back to write officially that they were satisfied with the safety measures we had put in place in the plant. They also gave us the permission to open the plant for business.
“Shockingly, three days later, officials of the Physical Planning Department, through the Enforcement Agents, that is Lagos Building Control Agency (LASBCA), came and locked up the plant they had asked us to reopen, stating that the state government was reviewing oil related businesses and that when they finished, they will get back to us. Since that time, all the efforts we made to re-open the plant or find out what we did or did not do have been in vain. Surprisingly, all other companies involved in the same business like ours, in and around our vicinity and all over the state, are still in operation. We are, therefore, wondering if our company is the only one whose operation is being reviewed. We are not against government policy aimed at sanitizing or streamlining the industry but, when our company seems to have been singled out for review, it gives cause for concern. We have no fewer than 70 car slots in the area and they are all in operation. Furthermore, I cannot tell you how much this has affected the psychology of our staff and the business. It is a very bad situation for us because that is where we get what we use to take care of our families. The closure of this plant has affected our staff and their families to the extent that most of them have withdrawn their children from school. We have been out of business for eight months now and it is painful especially when we know that there is no justifiable reason for the closure of the plant.
“We diligently did what the authorities concerned told us to do and we are ready to do more. We even requested for audience with the Commissioner in-charge but our request was rejected. We have not committed any crime and even before the fire started, we had invited the fire service and they can testify to that. We suspect that there is a vested interest in the matter but we cannot pinpoint where it is coming from. When the Lagos State Building Control came and locked up our plant, they wrote a letter telling us to go to Physical Planning and get a permit to enable us function and we went and they gave us an assessment of about N2million and we paid and the same Physical Planning issued us a receipt. The reason they collected our money, issued us a receipt and still refused to reopen our company is what I don’t understand. There is a document to that effect. When we tried to get succour from the Commissioner for Physical Planning, they refused, wrote back to say it was not possible.
Need for Governor Ambode to intervene
“My fear is that somebody wants to close down my business, a conspiracy is going on that I cannot really identify. I know that something is happening and I’m sure that governor Ambode can intervene. So, I’m calling on him to please use his position, as the father of all, to intervene in our plight. The management and staff are suffering because we have nothing else to live on.
“The greatest tragedy is when the Safety Commission gave us a letter to re-open the company, we requested for loan to rebuild the burnt plant, believing that in less than a month, we would be able to repay. We collected N20million. Now, the bank is aafter us and the place is still closed down. I am using this opportunity to call on Governor Ambode to graciously reopen our business since all the efforts we made through the Physical Planning have failed.”
Reacting, the General Manager, LASBCA, Lekan Shodeinde, said the gas company had not been granted approval to reopen the premises after the explosion.
Shodeinde stated that though the company management had applied for re-opening but could not be granted presently.
He said: “After the incident, the management applied that the place be reopened. We have received the approval but to get the place reopened, different agencies must visit the premises to ensure that everything conforms to the standards set by the state government.
“Even before the explosion, it was discovered that the management didn’t have approval from the Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development to operate the gas plant. The company is not the only case the state government is currently treating; there are other similar cases we are treating.”