Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, in a statement, called the explosion a “catastrophe and a national disaster.”
The explosion Friday night at the facility in Ohaji-Egbema local government area in Imo state was triggered by a fire at two fuel storage areas where more than 100 people worked, state officials told The Associated Press.
Dozens of workers were caught up in the explosion while many others attempted to escape the blaze by running into wooded areas.
Those who died in the disaster are estimated to be within “the range of 100,” said Goodluck Opiah, the Imo commissioner for petroleum resources. “A lot of them ran into the bush with the burns and they died there.”
Buhari has directed the nation’s security forces “to intensify the clampdown” on such facilities being operated illegally in many parts of southern Nigeria, a spokesperson said in a statement.
Although Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of crude oil, for many years its oil production capacity has been limited by a chronic challenge of oil storage and the operation of illegal refineries.
Nigeria lost at least $3 billion worth of crude oil to theft between January 2021 and February 2022, with shady business operators often avoiding regulators by setting up refineries in remote areas such as the one that exploded in Imo, the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC) said in March.
“There are no arrests yet but the two culprits are on the run with the police now looking for them,” said Declan Emelumba, the Imo State commissioner for information. Officials did not reveal the identities of the suspects.
A mass burial is being planned for those killed in the explosion, many of who “were burnt beyond recognition,” said Emelumba. Environmental officials have started to fumigate the area.
Such disasters are a regular occurrence in Africa’s most populous country, where poverty and unemployment – at 33% according to the latest government estimates – have forced millions of young people into criminal activities.
Operating illegal refineries is not as popular in Imo state as it is in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, where militants have gained notoriety for blowing up oil pipelines and kidnapping workers from petroleum companies.
As many as 30 illegal oil refineries were busted in the Niger Delta region in just two weeks, Nigeria’s Defense Department said earlier this month when it announced a task force to curb crude oil theft.
In the aftermath of the explosion in Imo state, the Nigerian ministry of petroleum told The AP there is “a renewed action” to tackle illegal activities in the oil sector.
The government and the military are stepping up actions “to minimize the criminalities along the oil production lines,” said Horatius Egua, a senior official at the petroleum ministry.
But many of the culprits are not deterred including in Imo state, one of the few places producing oil in Nigeria’s southeast. The problem of illegal refineries “has never been this bad” and remains “difficult to end,” said Opiah, the Imo petroleum commissioner.
“It is like asking why kidnapping or armed robbery has not stopped,” he said. “Even with this incident, not many people will be deterred. I am sure more illegal refineries will be cropping up in other places.”