The News (Lagos)

Nigeria: After the Lagos Bomb Explosion

Victims of the Lagos bomb explosion face difficult times in the barracks The scene was the Corporal Below Quarters (CBQ) of the Ikeja Military Cantonment. A forlorn crowd gathered round a bleeding and groaning young man who had suffered a deep cut on his head. The sympathisers tried out their skills in first aid administration and struggled to stem the bleeding. The young man had been hit by a big stone which rolled off the roof of the two - storey block during the day's stormy rain.

The block is one of those ravaged by the bomb explosions that rocked Lagos last January. Like most buildings in the cantonment and its environs, its roof was wrecked, the doors and windows shattered and the walls cracked.

Following the departure in April of the foreign bomb disposal experts who had conducted months of bomb recovery and disposal exercises round the cantonment and its environs, destroying 3,066 pieces of unexploded bombs at the cantonment and disposing 36,821 other explosives at an off-site location, the barracks was once again considered relatively safe for human habitation. And so, the soldiers and their families whose blocks were not completely destroyed and most of whom had been in refugee camps across Lagos since January started returning in droves.

Compelled by the need to take their destiny in their own hands, the returnees momentarily became emergency building 'contractors' as they began, at their own expense, the repairs of apartments they once lived in.

Some of those who lived at the last floors of the storey buildings climbed up to the roof and tied the roofing sheets together. They later heaped heavy stones on top of the roof to prevent it from being blown off by the wind. But the storm of that day was more than some of the stones could bear and it was one of them which rolled off its position that injured the young man. But even at this, there is no doubt that the Ikeja Cantonment has dumped the ghost town status it acquired after the 27 January bomb explosion. Since the past two months, the cantonment has come alive again. The mammy market has reopened for business, the green jacket okada men are back to their beats and more families are returning to base. The carpenters are reaping bountifully as they are being hired to mend broken doors and leaky roofs and replace broken louvres with plywoods or remnants of broken doors.

Those who cannot afford the services of these carpenters are facing the challenges themselves, covering up their windows with rags, condemned cartons and posters.

The cantonment may, however, never be the same again.

TheNEWS observed that more than half of the residential and office accommodation areas are still in ruins. So also are the four secondary schools and four primary schools, some of which have been flattened. The magazine also observed that most of the newly built (CBQ) blocks at the Oshodi end of the cantonment still bear the brunts of the explosion. The few blocks that are inhabited have cracks on their walls and therefore stand the risk of collapse. A soldier who does not want to be named explained that the residents were frustrated into embracing these dangerous abodes because they had no alternative. "The government does not care about us. We have been suffering since January. We have led an unorganized life since the blasts so our best bet is to return here and re-organise our lives,", the soldier explained. And calling God into the matter, he added, "May God not allow the buildings to fall on us." TheNEWS gathered that the army has been making some efforts to resettle the victims of the explosion. To make room for the refugees, two military formations in the cantonment and their personnels have been relocated. The 19 battalion which occupied a large area in the barracks has been moved to Okitipupa in Ondo State while the Army Headquarters Garrison has relocated to Lokoja, Kogi State. Already, a new unit, 195 battalion, is said to have been formed with personnel drawn from soldiers living in the cantonment, some of whom had just returned from the United Nation's Peace Keeping Mission in Sierra Leone.

This new unit will soon be moved to Aghenebode. Also, an accommodation committee to oversee the resettlement of affected soldiers being headed by one Major Yekinni is said to have been formed by the 9 brigade.

All these are being done to decongest the cantonment and make room for some of the refugees. And the exercise has yielded some fruits. For instance, all those camped at the Abalti Barracks in Surulere have been absorbed into the space left behind by men of the 19 battalion. Also, most of those camped at the Armed Forces Resettlement Centre, Oshodi and the NYSC Orientation Camp at Ipaja have been resettled into vacant blocks yielded by the decongestion exercise.

There are however some others who are yet to benefit from the resettlement exercise and it is some in this group that are fixing up themselves in dilapidated structures. TheNEWS learnt that there is a general feeling of frustration among the affected soldiers.

Morale is now said to be low among them as they grumble silently that the Army has not been fair to them. The soldiers are bitter that they are yet to be compensated, five months after the incident. "I have been allocated a new residence, but my house is now as plain as a football field. I lost all I had to the blast and now I have nothing. What will an empty house do for me?", one soldier lamented.

Anonymous letters of complaints are said to be assaulting the Army authorities and the media regularly. For instance, in a recent edition of a foreign magazine, a letter from an aggrieved soldier complains that while the Nigerian Army spent fortunes feeding and accommodating foreign bomb experts, their Nigerian counterparts who also did substantial part of the job were made to sleep on bare ground in makeshift tents. "If anybody dare send me to town to control riot or keep the peace either here at home or abroad, what I will do is to loot. I have lost so much and the Army does not care," one of the soldiers said.

Lethal sentiments like these are perhaps what led the GOC of the 81 division of the Army to address some of the aggrieved soldiers on 21 June. At the briefing which held at the 19 battalion parade ground, Brigadier Gen. Abdul Tanko appealed to the soldiers to be patient as their welfare is being considered and warned them against granting press interviews.

Brigadier Gen. Emdin, Commander of the 9 Brigade, who spoke earlier, warned the soldiers that any of them who put up "area boys" conduct will meet his match in him (Emdin) who is an "area father". "It is for the sake of area boys that God created "area fathers", Emdin is quoted to have said.

Few days after the mishap in January, the affected soldiers were promised prompt compensation. Three sets of forms were issued the soldiers into which they enumerated their losses. One set originated from the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Unit of the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, another from the Army Headquarters while the third was said to have originated from the Lagos State government.

But six months after completing the forms, the soldiers are yet to be paid any compensation. Their hopes were again raised in April when names of "genuine" victims were posted on notice boards at the Lagos State Secretariat, Alausa where the soldiers are being issued identity cards certifying them "as true victims of the Ikeja bomb blast". The soldiers are now hoping that they would soon be given restitution.

But the victims may be building castles in the air.

Indications emerged in April that government is confused about its responsibility to the bomb explosions victims of the incident may not be compensated after all. Chief Ufot Ekaette, Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Chairman, Presidential Committee on the Lagos Explosion Disaster Relief Fund was reported to have declared that while relief assistance will be distributed to victims, there will be no formal compensation. According to Ekaette, the government will liaise with the National Insurance Commission of Nigeria to ensure that companies and individuals affected by the bomb explosions and who are fully insured get compensated by the insurance companies. Observers interprate this to mean that those not insured including the soldiers will get no more than relief assistance now being distributed by the committee.

And, the Director, Army Public Relations, Col. Emeka Owuanoegbu, told journalists last month that a substantial part of the money allocated to the army by the committee is being spent on the relocation of the soldiers at Lokoja, Okitipupa and Aghenebode.

Sources say government's seeming helplessness in the payment of compensation and renovation of physical structure is due mainly to two reasons. For one, contrary to government's expectation, conservative estimates say the damage to physical structures by the bomb explosions exceeds N7 billion. Government, TheNEWS learnt, has just realised that it cannot repair the damaged structures with the money it got from donations alone. The Presidential Committee, as at April, is said to have received donations totalling N540.7 million, which pales into insignificance when compared to the amount needed for the rebuilding and renovation of damaged buildings. Government is now in a dilemma as to how to source for this huge amount of money.

Another factor that has handicapped the government is the exaggerated claims that it is now being inundated with. The magazine learnt that most of the victims have overestimated their losses. Soldiers, especially, are said to have sent in outrageous catalogues of damages, claiming to have lost what they actually have never possessed. A ridiculous story was told of a soldier who before the explosions had just a black and white television, a 6-battery tape recorder and two six-springs bed as his major belongings. Now, sources say he is claiming a 20-inches colour television, two deep freezers, 2000 watts compact disc player, two standing fans, two ceiling fans, one air conditioner and a settee from government.

Government is now in a daze as to how to establish who is a genuine victim and who is not. And, even if a genuine victim is identified, how does it establish the exact loss he has suffered? Government, TheNEWS learnt, is also confused as to where to get the money, believed to run into billions of naira to pay compensation to those who lost loved ones and property to the bomb blast.

Yet, that is a cross that government must quickly bear. Anything less may cause more damage to the polity. Already, the non-payment of compensation to affected soldiers may have started affecting work ethics and morale in the barracks. Officers are said to be gradually losing control of their subordinates.

Each time the soldiers are called to order, sources say they make cynical references to the losses they suffered and the army's seeming insensitivity to their plight. Civilian victims of the blast are also looking up to government for compensation.

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