When a Right-of-Way Becomes No Man’s Land

There are a lot of things that happen in Nigeria, that if this were the proverbial saner climes, we would be debating whether to commit people to a sanatorium or a penitentiary. Or, if we wanted to spice things up a bit, we would haggle over how many neck-ward strokes with a USB cord would suffice. But before you accuse me of brutal intent, can we explain why anyone is building a petrol station above a high-pressure gas pipeline when suicide is still illegal in Nigeria?

In a recent discussion with some work colleagues about disregard for the land (Right-of-Way) below which our gas pipelines are buried, I could not wrap my head around cases across the country where people have convinced themselves that gas pipelines are innocuous angels that can do no evil. The worst cases cited were those where government agencies were active participants in contempt for laws and regulations and any expectations that sensible humans would try to protect their own lives.

We start with a location somewhere in Edo State where a new road was constructed above a gas pipeline. If like me, you thought the road merely crossed the pipelines (allowable by guidelines), then you were very mistaken. For hundreds of metres, this road was laid over a pipeline, and it took the road caving in and damaging the pipeline for people in the community to realise their lives were about to be retrieved for bad behaviour. At the end, the pipeline owner took the high road and paid for the construction of another road segment to divert traffic from the offending road. Nothing was said about the government that orchestrated the illegal road.

Then we move to Rivers State where some persons ignored repeated warnings and gradually accumulated buildings on a gas pipeline right-of-way. When the pipeline owner finally got the necessary judicial reliefs and proceeded with bulldozers to tear down the buildings, the state governor showed up and asked the operator to first pay compensation to the building owners before any demolition. Again, a question is asked whether those buildings got approval from the government to build on land that was clearly marked as containing a gas pipeline.

Our next stop is near Abia State where a market exists on a gas pipeline. When I was shown a picture of the place, there was an unsmiling trader brandishing her goods below a warning sign that reads: “Danger. High Pressure Gas Pipeline. No Erection of Building. No Excavation of Land. No Bush Burning”. Ironically, the signboard has the famous skull with two crossed bones on it, but maybe the Local Government officials responsible for supervising markets feel the sign is merely artistic sophistry.

As if this was not enough, I was then shown a picture of yet another location where a church constructed their fence to incorporate a section of a pipeline’s right-of-way, including the warning signboard. I wonder if someone had decided that building on a gas pipeline was a sure-fire way to avoid fire ever occurring in their building; something like a vaccine involving live microorganisms. Up until this point, my annoyance was still under control, but at the sight of a petrol station built above a gas pipeline, I lost it.

On second thought, why am I even shocked that we have Nigerians willing to risk their lives, and regulatory entities willing to let them live on the edge? This is a country where people formulate markets on rail lines and quickly move their goods once a train’s horn is sounded. After the recent gas pipeline explosion at Abule Egba in Lagos, much of the public commentary was on the state of the pipeline itself, but few asked why that route had become densely populated, or why at the very least, the minimum 25 metres right-of-way straddling the pipeline was neither respected by Nigerians nor enforced by the government. Of course, the pipeline’s owner has responsibility to keep the pipeline well maintained, but the right-of-way was designed to (among other things) reduce the risk to people.

We have built an entire society on the philosophy of cutting corners, but I fear that some of those corners are literally going to tear into our asses from the ground. Someday, in obedience to Murphy’s Law, one over-motivated digger would burst a gas pipeline, or one aged pipeline would rupture while someone is frying akara above, and we would have another national disaster. When that happens, we would start screaming that compensation should be paid for the lost lives and properties, but if we are true to ourselves, we would remember that fateful day when the thought to encroach into a pipeline’s territory first entered our minds. That would have been a good time to say to the lord of death, “Not today!”

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