Nigeria's army rejects plans to relocate weapons dump from Lagos disaster site
Wednesday, January 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
LAGOS, Nigeria _ Facing growing public anger, Nigeria's defense ministry promised to move an army weapons dump out of a crowded Lagos neighborhood where more than 600 people were killed in a series of huge explosions and the resulting panic.
Yet army spokesman Col. Felix Chukwumah said Wednesday he was ``not aware'' of any plans to relocate the base. He said a decision would likely be taken after a lengthy military investigation.
The Sunday night explosions at the base in the heavily populated northern suburb of Ikeja propelled shells and other debris for miles around.
In comments broadcast by Nigerian radio and television stations Wednesday, Defense Minister Yakubu Danjuma said the Ikeja weapons dump had been built decades ago when few people lived in the area.
Since then, the base had been ``swallowed up by the metropolis and it has become an inappropriate location,'' Danjuma was quoted as saying by Lagos' ThisDay newspaper.
``We will relocate,'' the defense minister added.
Danjuma said the military had begun a private inquiry, although Lagos state governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu and other politicians have accused the army of negligence and called for a public investigation into the disaster.
``We need to improve on the image of the armed forces,'' Tinubu said Tuesday.
Sadness turned to rage against the military as distraught families searched for missing loved ones.
Many blamed the military for storing weapons, including rockets and heavy artillery shells, in the neighborhood.
Many Nigerians remain distrustful of the military following 15 years of corrupt and sometimes brutal dictatorship that ended with 1999 elections.
President Olusegun Obasanjo on Tuesday declared a day of national mourning. Hundreds died from the time the blasts began Sunday evening until they ended the next morning. Many of the dead were women and children who drowned after plunging accidentally into the Oke Afa canal while fleeing during the night. Flags were flown at half staff across Lagos, the commercial capital.
Some Nigerian media outlets estimated between 700 and 2,000 people were killed, although the reports could not be independently confirmed.
Some residents complained that lives could have been saved if authorities had built more bridges over a five-mile section of the canal where there is only one crossing.
Chukwumah said the explosions began when a fire spread to the depot, which is surrounded by crowded slums and working-class neighborhoods. The blasts propelled shrapnel and shock waves for miles, shattering windows six miles away at the international airport.
The army has acknowledged the storage facility at Ikeja was old and in need of revamping. A spokesman said he did not know how the fire started, but a police officer on Sunday it began at a nearby gas station.
State and military officials were quick to assure Nigerians that the fire was accidental and not a sign of military unrest. Rumors of coups had circulated for more than an hour after the blasts began.
Pope John Paul II sent a condolence message to Nigerian bishops, assuring his ``closeness in prayer'' for victims of the tragedy and for the rescue workers.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told Obasanjo that the United Nations was ready to provide any assistance it can.