SONARA Explosion: What really happened? 0

The government of Cameroon has been going through a rough patch over the last three years. Southern Cameroonians in their majority had had enough of the government’s injustice and in 2016, they felt it was time to let the world know about their sorry plight.

Since then the country has been caught in a military conflict which, if not well managed, could result in the splitting of the country. Peaceful protests by the country’s English-speaking minority were met with the government’s violent reaction and the situation has declined to the point where it has become a cause for concern for the international community.

Thousands have lost their lives in a conflict many consider as unnecessary and the orgy of killing has continued unchecked. Government forces have been accused by rights groups of committing the worst forms of atrocities and the international community is talking of dragging some of those responsible for the organized killings to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

The country’s allies are all jumping ship and allying with the U.S.A which urges that a robust action on the part of the international community is necessary to restrain the government’s killing machine. Hundreds of villages have been burnt down by government forces, with many old and helpless losing their lives in the fires.

The images are at best gruesome and the world holds that while silence could be golden, in Cameroon’s case, silence will certainly not produce the results and peace the world needs in that part of the continent. That is why the U.S.A is mounting enormous pressure on the crumbling government to put an end to the killings and embrace the inclusive dialogue that the international community is calling for.    

The conflict has spiraled out of control and the country’s government has taken a blow to the liver. State-owned corporations in the regions have been shut down due to the fighting and thousands have been rendered jobless. The Yaounde government, noted for its reckless spending, has seen its revenue streams drying up due to the disruption caused by the brave Southern Cameroonian fighters.

The Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC) and PAMOL, once the  government’s “great geese”, have stopped laying the golden eggs that the Yaounde government has been feasting on.

The loss of these revenue streams has put the government on a diet. Its spending ability has declined in three years. Corporate and income taxes have diminished and there is fear that civil servants might soon go without salaries. This fear has been hanging over the country like the Sword of Damocles for some time now.  

If that fear was a few days ago imaginary, it is today real. Just when the government thought it was successfully putting a handle on the chaos that is playing out in the two English-speaking regions, a massive explosion decided to turn off one of its major revenue streams.

The country’s lone oil refinery (SONARA) located in the Southwest port city of Limbe went up in flames on Friday, May 31, 2019, leaving the beleaguered government totally helpless and desperate.  It is heartbreaking to see such a massive investment go up in smoke.

But for many Southern Cameroonians who want total independence from the Yaounde government that has treated them like second-class citizens, the massive explosion that brought the refinery down like a pack of cards is great music to their ears.

 They claim they have never benefited from the oil that is located in their own part of the country, adding that the devastation is a severe blow that will weaken the government both psychologically and financially.

The explosion has hit the government like a ton of bricks. The scale of the destruction is staggering and experts hold that it will require more than USD 300 million to get things together in SONARA.

The atmospheric distillation unit has simply been blown away and that is where the business of refining oil starts. Overwhelmed by the devastation, the government has simply ordered that the refinery be closed and production suspended indefinitely.

They hope that with the government still reeling from the disappointment, it is now time to step up attacks on soldiers and make the regions ungovernable. The beleaguered and desperate government has lost most of its international allies due to its penchant for violence and this has pushed it further down the bottom of the abyss of desperation.

What could have caused the SONARA Explosion?

Ever since SONARA came apart like a pack of cards, there have been many explanations for the disaster that will haunt the government for a long time. On the same day the explosion occurred, Southern Cameroonian separatists immediately claimed responsibility.

For over two years, they have been targeting the oil refinery, holding that it has been providing the government with the revenue it needs to run its affairs or even purchase weapons to kill innocent Southern Cameroonians. But the separatists are yet to explain how they pulled off such a feat.  

Due to lack of evidence, many people have dismissed their claim as a bluff, arguing that they lack the means to deliver such a blow to a government that has the military and financial resources to protect such a massive investment.

But some experts argue that while separatists might not have the military capacity to send the country’s refinery into a tailspin, it could as well use inside sources to increase the government’s economic and financial woes. 

They point to the scale of the destruction, arguing that if it was just an electrical failure as government agents have been swift to explain, SONARA systems could have simply switched off to protect the refinery.

They add that modern technology provides for such possibilities and if that explanation can be given credence, then SONARA has not upgraded its systems to world-class standards.

SONARA has been calling this incident a case of “force majeure” and like the Yaounde government, it has carefully avoided making mention of sabotage. But its explanation is still questionable and many are asking more questions, especially as another fire broke out at the refinery on Monday, June 3, 2019.

To gain a better understanding of the situation, the Cameroon Concord News Group’s investigative journalist, Kingsley Betek, travelled to Limbe to have first-hand information on what actually happened on Friday, May 31 in Limbe.

He has used the opportunity to speak with a skilled and experienced SONARA engineer who explained that the refinery had been going through a lot of power outages in recent times.

The engineer who elected anonymity said that each time there was power failure in the facility, they had to reboot the entire system and each outage implied that there could be some gas leakage.

With many of such outages in recent times, it is obvious that there might have been a gas built-up which had resulted in Friday’s explosion.

The engineer stressed that SONARA was on its knees, adding that if foreign companies did not intervene, it would take more than three years for the refinery to be up and running again. He advised that if Americans were to be brought in, the refinery could be rebuilt in a year, as they are noted for their hard work and effectiveness.

He explained that though the government had built two other facilities in recent times, the atmospheric distillation unit remained a key component of the refinery and now that it had gone up in smoke, there could not be any real production at the facility.

He regretted that the cost of rebuilding the refinery might discourage the Yaounde government, adding that government officials had floated the idea of building a refinery in Kribi, but they project was blocked by the World Bank which insisted that the Limbe refinery had more than enough capacity to serve Cameroon and neighboring countries.

What Next?

The beleaguered government is in total confusion. It is at its wit’s end. It is completely overwhelmed. It is cash-strapped and its poor standing at the international level makes it hard for it to raise the resources necessary for the reconstruction of the burnt facility.

Our inside source said that government officials had been talking about Cameroon’s sovereignty for too long and that the current sticky situation was indeed a true test of the country’s sovereignty.

Money is tight. The country has lost its allies abroad. The country’s president has made many enemies around the world. Corruption, which has become the country’s hallmark, makes it hard for the government to be credible abroad.

It has spent the last few days scratching its head. The country’s Prime Minister, Dion Ngute, has been holding emergency meetings to figure out ways of mobilizing resources in order to rebuild SONARA that has always stood the government in good stead. It has always primed the pump each time the economy gets caught in a downward spiral.

The Yaounde “crime syndicate” is simply overwhelmed. As the government continues to find a solution, many families are already lost in thoughts. SONARA has gone down, taking with it thousands of direct and indirect jobs.

 The mourning period has begun for many families. The Yaounde government has no employment insurance for people who lose their jobs. For many workers of this oil refinery, their fate is worse than death. Limbe, the bustling Southern Cameroons port city, is gradually losing its shine. Life will never be the same again.

If Southern Cameroonian separatists blew up the refinery, then they have sent the government into a long tailspin that might see it crash sooner rather than later, especially as fuel and fuel products will soon witness a spike in prices. Prices at the pump will be sliding up as reserves get pushed into the country’s distribution channels.

The days ahead are only going to get bleaker. Cameroonians might just start thinking of smuggling fuel from Nigeria to make up for the shortages that will soon become a reality in the country. But Nigerian fuel, popularly known in Cameroon as “federal”, spells danger for many people.

Its importation is usually done using crude means. In the 1980s when it was popular, it left a trail of death and destruction, as the illegal importers were not equipped to handle such business. Cameroon is in for tough times and if care is not taken, many citizens of the country will be sent to an early grave because of the massive explosion that has put SONARA out of business, at least for the next two years.

The investigations are ongoing and Cameroon Concord News Group has been trying to get in touch with the SONARA General Manager. Our calls to him have not yet been returned, but our journalists on the ground will continue to dig further in order to get to the bottom of things so as to bring out the truth about this disaster that has created a nightmare for Cameroon and its citizens.

By Soter Tarh Agbaw-Ebai at the Global Headquarters in the UK, with contributions from Kingsley Betek in Limbe