The flames roared 20 metres above the Niger delta swamp for 48 hours; 6,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the creeks and waterways around the village of Bodo and several people died. But although the Nigerian army and navy were stationed just 100 metres from the site of the massive explosion, no one knows – or will say – what really happened to Nigeria’s most important oil pipeline around 2am on 19 June.
It could have been an accident. The Trans Niger pipeline, which transports around 150,000 barrels a day of crude oil from wells across the Niger delta through the creeks and impoverished villages of Ogoniland and Ogu-Bolo to the giant oil terminal at Bonney, is rusting, nearly 50 years old and known to spring leaks. But it is also one of the most sabotaged pipelines in the world with local communities accused by Shell of making over 20 attempts to tap oil from it in the last year.
Company contractors had been repairing one section of the pipeline when the explosion happened but the official investigation team believes that the accident followed a botched attempt to steal tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil. Even as one group of engineers was removing illegal taps on the line, another group is thought to have been installing equipment to allow huge amounts of oil to be siphoned straight into large barges where it would be taken out to sea to waiting tankers bound for Europe and the US.