January 16, 2024, explosives went off in a neighbourhood in Ibadan; this is about how it tore down lives, homes and shook our hearts.
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Around 7:44 p.m. Distance from Ground Zero: 13 km
I wake up at the sound of something tripping in the dark. I’d fallen asleep while watching a movie, my reward for a productive day at work. The sound was a loud thud that tore through the silence of the evening,¹instantly triggering memories of my neighbour’s recent robbery. I’d received a call that midnight, my shrill iPhone ringtone separating me from the arms of my babe. My neighbour was in disbelief: “I saw him escape through the kitchen.” “How did I leave the kitchen door open?” “My phones…”
I sit up; there is a lump in my throat. My palms are sweaty, and my mind conjures the image of the intruder in my home.
I call out my housemate’s name, but there is no answer. I stand up, my legs crippled with fear, walk to my front door and push it open. It is clear, quiet.
My housemate appears from the next room. I can see his darting eyes in the dark. “Did you hear that,” he asks. I tell him there’s been someone in the house. It’s the only way I can explain the sound I heard earlier: the jarring sound of the window, the burst of air, and the deafening silence that followed.
We stand outside the apartment, hoping to see a trail that confirms my suspicion. Nothing but the cold harmattan breeze slaps our bare chests. I have a new theory: it must have been the breeze. I forgot how cold it has been.
Twelve kilometres from my room, on a closed road in Bodija, two old men, gripped by the icy hands of fear, lock themselves in an embrace. An Okada rider is thrown off his motorcycle. A car alarm rings out; several car alarms ring out. This is not a typical dusty Harmattan night.
There’s been an explosion.
The two old men break apart when the explosion and the roar of crumbling buildings subside. In the dark, foggy night, with their bodies buried in dust, the men ask each other if they’re okay. They ask each other before they even worry about their own selves.
These men – night guards for Bodija Estate Baptist Church – didn’t know it at the time, but they’ve just survived an accident that will remain with them forever.
My phone rings as soon as I step back into my room. It’s a friend who never calls.
“Are you okay,” she asks.
“I’m fine. Why’d you ask?”
“I heard there was an explosion in Ibadan. Are you okay…?”
Her voice trails off. A tight knot forms in my stomach. The thought of an insurgency fills my mind. It’s a –
“Did you hear anything at your side?”
“Oh no, no,” I respond.
I drop the call and check WhatsApp; another friend, Anthonia, has a video up. She’s on a bike hurrying home in a haze of smoke. I can’t see her face, but she’s talking about an explosion only a few kilometres from her shop at Sango.
“Me, I dey run go house,” I hear the fear in her voice.
Anthonia is panicking; everyone is panicking. A former classmate says it’s the insurgency his pastor predicted at the start of the year. A co-worker thinks it's a kidnapping attempt gone wrong.
I switch apps; X is raging with memes.
The people on X are in their element. “Ibadan” sits at the top of the trends table, but every tweet with that word is either a question or a meme that plays on the word “bang.” It’s a party of panic on one side and influencers farming for engagement on the other.
I switch back to WhatsApp, but my phone rings before I find any news. It’s my mother. Her angry voice fills my left ear, asking if I’m home; she’s heard about the explosion.
“Do you know what they say it is?”
“Má jáde o, má jáde o,” she warns me to stay indoors.
The call ends.
Back on X, panic continues to spread from timeline to timeline. Some conspiracy theorists say it’s the start of an insurgency in the West. Some say a filling station blew up. The proximity to a gas station at Bodija, they say, and the presence of a large shopping mall — Ace Mall — must have amplified the explosion.
“It can’t be a bomb,” I tell myself as I push out images of insurgents marching through Ibadan from my mind. Ibadan has been mostly peaceful since I started visiting when I was six. I am comforted that the state governor, Seyi Makinde, has always taken security seriously. He was instrumental in founding Amotekun, a regional security outfit in all South Western states.
As the fear continues to spread, so does the sense of loss.
The time is 9:40 p.m., two hours since the loud thud in my Akobo apartment, two hours since two old men clung on to each other for life, two hours since hundreds of residents of Bodija watched their homes collapse, and two hours since two people breathed their last in a haze of smoke and panic.
Two hours in, and the jokes and memes have remained.
By morning, the facts have become clearer: the official story is that there’s been an explosion at the Dejo Oyelese axis of Bodija, and several buildings have crumbled to the ground. Seyi Makinde shares more details through his official X account: he estimates that around 230 properties were directly affected: torn roofs, fallen fences, broken windows, and, in extreme cases, total collapse.
The losses extend beyond the material; two people have died, and another 77 were injured.
Two days later, on the 18th of January, the state government updates the casualty figure: three more victims have died, and this brings the fatalities to a total of 5.
Nigeria is a hubbub of calamity. Sandwiched between a crippling economy, it cloaks itself in robes of humour. We turn difficult situations into Atellan farces, make faces at our predicaments, and share memes about them.
Perhaps we are in a comedy of errors, and we are the players.
“The ‘bang’ happened when I tried withdrawing money from my empty bank account at the ATM,” a tweet says. Others turn the situation into an opportunity to try pick-up lines: “The gas explosion in Ibadan made me remember how my love for you exploded, and I wasn’t able to control it. Anyways, you don’t have to respond, say hi to your mama fa me!”
Sango, 11 a.m. (Two days after the explosion)
Distance from Ground Zero: 1.2 km
Sango is a commercial centre in the city of Ibadan. Busy, loud, and impatient, an abandoned railway track dating back to 1896 runs through the illustrious town, extending into Bodija, a calmer and serene part of the city.
I stand by the shop of my friend, Anthonia, and I take some pictures of the busy town. It hums and screeches: nothing out of the ordinary. The picture I just took reveals the stark contrast from two days ago.
Two days ago, this town was in smoke. The shops were locked. Antsy legs filled the streets. The explosion had rocked their ears and shook their hearts so violently that Sango had become a ghost town.
I reach a shop where the impact has cracked a window. The shop owner is a woman in her early 30s; she greets me in Yoruba. Her hand extends towards mine; I take it and ask about the explosion.
“Everybody sáré,” she says about that night she fled on an Okada.
“Ìgbà tí mo dé láarọ̀, mo wá notice pé glass mi ti fọ́.”
“It’s just a crack,” she explains about her broken glass, “but it could have been worse.”
The first time I visited Bodija, I was sure I’d rent an apartment there after university. Bodija was a town that thrived on quietude. The tarred roads and upscale houses were a needed contrast in a city famous for its brown roofs and seventy-year-old buildings.
Bodija wasn’t cut off from the rest of Ibadan. Everywhere in the city connected to Bodija, its huge food market brought traders from all over the state, and its restaurants – particularly Amala Sky – brought visitors from all over the country.
As I’m getting closer to Ground Zero – Google Maps says I am 3.7 kilometres away – the atmosphere changes.
When I visited Ace Mall with friends for the first time three years ago, it was packed with an enthusiastic crowd. The gaming area was buzzing: shouts of “goal!” and defeat rented the air in intervals. The restaurants had queues that spilt out of their doors. Within its grand walls, bathed in the soft glow of its humming lights, a scene unfolded before my eyes: a picturesque background for the lens of an Instagram picture. The scene naturally captured the attention of people, who then took turns taking pictures.
Today, the mall has suffered a massive stroke; only one-half of its body hangs for life. Its roof has fallen on one side of the building. The once-bright lights, which sat right beside the large “Ace Mall” banner, are dead, and most of the outlets are closed. It’s a funeral of what once was, its Instagram-coloured walls almost like a distant memory. I see a large polythene bag plastered across one patch of the building, a bandage for its broken part. It’s a mirror of the dystopian blast from two nights ago.
I drive further down the road, and I catch a glimpse of a broken window. It is a Domino’s, operating despite its broken windows and shattered roof. The loss is minimal, lives are preserved, and business continues.
After some difficulty with Google Maps, I arrive at a small, secluded estate. The area is deserted, save for a few cars packed on the side of the road.
I walk until I reach an affected building. Its stone walls are a sharp contrast to the heap of rubble only a few inches away, which used to be buildings. The windows and doors are broken, and several parts of the roof have fallen out, but the building stands; the Stone Technical College still stands.
Straight ahead behind an estate gate sits Ground Zero, a small crater that’s the primary site of the explosion. Armed soldiers are now guarding the rickety gate to the estate, ordered to let no one in. I approach one of the soldiers.
“I am reporting for –
He pays me no attention. I try again.
“I just need to see the scale and I will be out before you know it.”
“ID Card?” he asks.
I tell him I’m not carrying any, but would gladly provide any other proof he needs. He debates my offer for a few seconds, and then pushes open the gate. A group of sympathisers squeeze in as I walk into the estate.
My heart breaks.
A man sits in front of his destroyed home, his eyes boring into space. His face sits on his hands, almost as if they no longer have the strength to continue. As I walk by, his gaze lingers on me as if he is protecting the last fragile pieces of his ruined home. Across him is another fallen house – its gate the only sign that it ever existed. Two nights earlier, this house was a one-storey family home, its windows adorned with curtains, its walls bright with colour. Laughter and the smell of burning food rented the air.
But with dawn came a new reality; the once sturdy walls of the house now bear scars of the explosion. The laughter and sense of homeliness are replaced by an eerie silence interjected by the roar of an excavator.
The debris of ruin extends deeper into the estate. Two cars are squeezed into each other as if they have just come from the junkyard.
Ground Zero is nothing but a crater surrounded by a heap of stones, drawing the attention of sympathisers, large excavation trucks, and uniformed care workers nestling under a canopy a few feet away from the destruction.
It’s a rubble of broken appliances, meshed wires, clothes, and furniture items. In it lies the proof of life that used to be here. People used to live here. At 7:40 pm two nights ago, life bustled here; by 7:45 pm, it was rubble.
The atmosphere carries the stench of an old rag. A dusty haze hangs in the air. Dirt has taken over the land, its stench wafting through the hot afternoon.
Some of the ruins hold the former home of Timilehin Oseni; his camera, lights, and other equipment are buried beneath the rubble. His family house is deserted, its walls torn down by the explosion's impact.
The loss here isn’t a crack in the window. It is a tear in the fabric of life that holds the Oseni family together. But Timilehin is optimistic. We’ll build a home again, he tells me.
But things are different for Fatoba John’s aunt.
Her home was the last thread of sanity. Thirty years ago, she and her now-deceased husband moved into a 6-bedroom Duplex at Dejo Oyelese Street. This massive house soon became a home for a family of five. Within those walls, she raised her three curious and wide-eyed teenagers whose hunger for independence preceded everything else. Eventually, this curiosity fueled their decision to fly far away from the familiar net of a family home. Shortly after the death of their father, these children moved to different parts of the world, leaving their mother with a large, empty nest.
The loneliness tore at her heart. But she took refuge in the memories smeared across every room. Every tread on the stairs. The pictures on the wall. The familiar arrangement of the sofas in the living room. Sometimes, John tells me, she sits in the living room for hours, staring straight ahead at her television, her mind no doubt filled with the memories of her family in this house.
When the explosion occurred in Dejo Oyelese on the 16th of January, she was deeply asleep. The impact cracked down the roof, instantly jolting the old woman to reality. Unable to make sense of the falling debris and wood, she screamed for help, but her voice got buried in the wave of calamity.
She woke up in a hospital ward with a slight injury to her arm. Her pillow was soaked around the outline of her head, a consequence of the hot teaching hospital. A small crowd of family was gathered around her. She knew what was coming; their faces were cast in gloom, the weight of regret heavy in their eyes.
The destruction of her family home in the explosion was akin to losing a part of herself. It wasn’t death; it was a loss perhaps greater. It was the loss of the only thing to live for, and isn’t that dying in itself?
John’s aunt refused to speak and had to be taken in for counselling.
Five days have passed since the unfortunate explosion in the city. The Oyo State Government has completed its excavation exercises, and the Emergency Operations Centre has given the victims all the care it can offer. The official report puts the death toll at five, with over 100 injured and around 250 houses affected.
The Oyo State Government promises a thorough investigation, but here’s the word on the street, according to someone who lived on it: a certain man everyone called Mali illegally stored dynamite in his rented home. On the day of the explosion, his wife and kids left the estate minutes before the blast. But in a recently published Leadership piece, Mali – real name, Alhaji Sawane Youssouf – denies any connection to the event. He claims he is a registered miner with an Oyo state licence.
However, a certain Muideen Olalekan Olagunju, a former Oyo House of Assembly member, disagrees with Youssouf’s claim. While the Malian miner has a licence to operate legally in the state, Muideen believes this has never stopped him from engaging in illegal mining activities. The next accusation is more damning: Youssouf and a group of miners have formed a secret company which exclusively operates in illegal mining.
These accusations solidify an earlier narrative, but it goes one step further to echo a warning into the ears of the state’s government: the possibility of hidden explosives in rented apartments loom large over us.
The thought of another explosion turns my stomach.
After walking through the ruins on my visit, two days after the explosion, I stand at the estate gate, my hands clinging to its bars. Night has fallen, and the rubble looks like a sleeping monster. Behind me, a group of Christians hum a hymn. It is a candle service for the departed souls. I let go of the bars, turn around, and join the wake.
The candles burn at the gate of Ground Zero. A community of believers pray for souls they never met. Several miles away, at the University College Hospital, a group of undergraduate students queue to donate blood to the victims. Earlier, this same group of believers handed out food packages to government workers at the site. It is love. A sense of loss that unites. A sense of community.
Ground Zero is an unneeded tragedy of errors, its rage tearing through a close-knit community in Bodija and its impact reverberating through the entire city of Ibadan. But it is also a tragedy that has tested the boundaries of our communalism as residents of Ibadan.
A test, nothing more.
I drive back home, humming a hymn: it is well, it is well with my soul.
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Fu’ad here. As always, it took a village to put this together.
When the explosion happened that night, I was on X like everyone else, trying to understand what was happening. I also texted someone on WhatsApp: I needed a writer willing to go to ground zero. Someone who was feeling it on the ground in a way that none of the Internet could. Everything picked up from there.
I found David, the author of this story, through another writer (the writer was too terrified to be around blood or gore).
I ran it by Vistanium’s Staff Room – the editorial Whatsapp group – to see if they thought it was a good idea. Ope thought it was, and everyone else agreed. I took the lead on editing.
Then David got started. By the time he sent in his first draft, he hated it. We took multiple stabs at it, but it eventually came together when we tried a new editing approach.
I’d heard somewhere that as part of the editing process many years ago, some New Yorker editors would sit the writer down and rip apart a story, word by word, line by line. In this case, we spent at least five hours with David reading his words aloud to taste them, negotiating every word and sentence. Many darlings were killed, but some stubborn ones remain. Ruka thinks we did good.
For art direction, Mariam was critical in shaping the direction and mood, designing the cover, while Precious made his Vistanium debut designing all the illustrations within the story.
Most importantly, the hours were paid for by Vistanium Members, who continue to make chasing stories like this possible. They will always matter to me.
P.S: This story is part of a broader experiment at Vistanium. I’m learning that I can’t write all the stories I want to see. Now, I’m beginning to explore a world where Vistanium has writers across Nigeria. I wonder what it’d take to get them to consistently craft stories about their world for you. I’m telling Vistanium’s members all about it here.