Uganda: Fuel Tanker Deaths: Was it greed, poverty or both?
In a country where road carnage is common, deaths in traffic or other accidents is no big news unless many lives are lost. A Ugandan editor is likely to ignore or give less prominence to an accident story where the number of the dead is not in double digits, unless the victims are foreign nationals.
It is an indication of how we, as a society, value life or perhaps accurately, do not. After all, if you survive being shot on the streets by unaccountable security operatives subduing an opposition protest, a hoodlum is likely to cruelly hit you dead with an iron bar; and or, a lack of medicines, diagnostic equipment and health workers mean many patients especially at public hospitals die when they should not.
Because nearly 98 per cent of Ugandans are religious, death is simply explained as God’s call.
That way, no one takes personal or official responsibility — and not much is subjected to scrutiny in ways to improve behaviour or work ethic because the Bible says no one knows the time they will die and how.
Some relatives of, and witnesses to, victims of the Namungoona accident yesterday employed this familiar biblical narrative to explain the fate of at least 33 people who burned to death, most of them caught in a fireball from an exploding fuel tanker from which they congregated to siphon fuel.
That petrol is highly inflammable is common knowledge, and the country has a disturbing history of gasoline-related disasters. At least 204 people perished in incidents involving fuel tankers between 2001 and 2007, according to police records.
And the tales about the fatal journeys strike a semblance: A fuel truck overturns or crashes, residents quickly gather to harvest the free fuel and fire of unknown cause sparks a blast, killing as many.
In the relative quiet of the night, residents of Namungoona, a Kampala suburb, are familiar with the croaks of frogs in Lubigi marshland and occasional trumpets from engines of vehicles firing on the Northern Bypass.
On Saturday night, it was a macabre storyline. Three witnesses spoke of a fuel tanker taking a halt on the Northern Bypass, close to the Namungoona round-about.
It was twilight and some motorcycle riders soon discovered that they could tap fuel from the tanker undisturbed, according to James Muyingo, himself a boda man at the nearby Lubigi Northern Bypass Stage.
Seven of his colleagues, he said, died in the inferno. “The boda boda were coming with jerry cans to take fuel; others used empty mineral water bottles, helmets and polythene bags,” he said. All seemed fine.
Some residents, among them a pregnant woman vending foodstuff by the roadside, joined with basins, saucepans and whatever utensil to scoop fuel. It was a bonanza.
Then a driver of a speeding Noah vehicle heading out of the city hit the stationary fuel tanker in the rear, breaking one of the fuel tank valves. As a result, the petrol began gushing.
This, according to Ms Nalule, better known by the pet name Mama Isaac, whose house is roughly 150 metres from the accident scene, excited the motorcyclists. Many more joined. They honked the motorbike horns and some rode with the bike stands screeching and sparking on the bitumen surface, something remotely believed to have likely caused the fire.
Then within 20 minutes or so, something ruinous happened: A horrendous blast followed by a fireball in a thick plume of smoke and a cacophony of distress calls by screaming adults, some fleeing with blazing clothes.