Burning pipeline fire sign of Nigeria's woes

As a gasoline pipeline burns unchecked, flames light the woes confronting oil-rich Nigeria

IJE ODODO, Nigeria (AP) -- The gasoline pipeline burns unstopped near a village close to Nigeria's sprawling megacity of Lagos, shooting flames into the air as leaking fuel muddies the ground. All around it, the ground is littered with plastic jerry-cans, used by those who hacked into the line to steal the fuel within.

The pipeline explosion here in Ije Ododo shows the ongoing problems oil-rich Nigeria faces. While the nation's politicians and businessmen have long profited from the country's production of roughly 2 million barrels of oil a day, many Nigerians remain desperately poor and take dangerous risks to try and earn a living.

Meanwhile, nothing ever seems to change, locals say.

"That sort of thing always happens every year," resident Samuel Otor said with a shrug.

This pipeline explosion happened Monday in Ije Ododo, in a swampy mangrove forest in the western fringe of the sprawling city of Lagos. Officials say the explosion happened when locals tapped into the pipeline to steal the refined gasoline moving through it. A spark from the scavengers likely set the line ablaze. It's unclear how many people were injured by the initial blast.

On Thursday, the flames still burned as fire-fighters sprayed water around the site, trying to stop the fire from spreading. The ground turned to a foul-smelling mud, with puddles of fuel and dirt looking red.

The line belonged to the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. It is the second-such pipeline rupture in the recent months around Lagos. In September, the company said suspected thieves shot dead three of its workers in southeast Ogun state after rupturing a gasoline pipeline to steal fuel. Another pipeline rupture in Nigeria's southeastern Abia state killed about 20 people.

Pipeline ruptures remain common in Nigeria, where militants and criminals routinely tap into lines to steal crude oil and refined gasoline. Fires can easily and accidentally be sparked by those attempting to gather the fuel.

While the government criticizes theft from the lines, it often remains the only quick way to make money in a nation where most earn the equivalent of a $1 day. The International Energy Agency recently estimated that widespread thefts of crude oil in Nigeria cost the country $7 billion a year.

Despite efforts to crack down on oil and gasoline thieves, locally called bunkerers, the practice continues unstopped, just like the flames in this small village.