Nigeria: Red Cross on Lagos radio to warn of unexploded shells

By Patrick Bawa and Tope Akinwande in Lagos
Listeners in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos have been hearing a new jingle on their radios recently. It reminds them of the terrible events of this January when a military armoury blew up and more than a thousand people were killed, but it may also protect them from the unexploded shells that, according to police, still lie "all over" the city.

Five weeks after the armoury disaster, the Nigerian Red Cross Society has bought eighty radio slots on two popular stations and a special jingle is being played several times a day in prime time. The tragic events of January 27, 2002 are still fresh in our memories, it says. We are concerned that unexploded ordnance is still lying around in your neighbourhood. Don't touch any strange objects as they might maim or kill you. Report the presence of any strange objects to the nearest police station.

Red Cross volunteers have also been putting up warning posters in Lagos, concentrating particularly on the communities next to the Ikeja Military Cantonment where the explosions occurred.

Worried parents are especially enthusiastic. "The Red Cross campaign has come at the right time," says Deji Ajao, a resident of Palmgrove, about ten kilometres from ground zero, as the site of the blast has become known. "As a father of two young boys who love playing football with any object they find in the streets, I have been very concerned since the police announced that unexploded bombs were scattered all over Lagos. I make sure they listen to the Red Cross jingle every day and even have two posters up in their rooms. Now they have become each other's watchdog."

Abiodun Orebiyi, secretary general of the Nigerian Red Cross, explained the thinking behind the campaign: "We learned from the police bomb disposal unit that they had recovered 1350 unexploded ordnance and that more were still scattered all over Lagos. Having assisted victims of the explosions through tracing and relief, we felt we could reduce casualties by warning the public, especially children, of the danger of touching or playing with unidentified objects."

The Nigerian Red Cross awareness campaign is being carried out in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development

"We thought we had seen it all with the Red Cross, but they have pulled another masterstroke," says Gerald Agana, the headmaster of a nursery and primary school in Ikeja. "My pupils now recite the jingle as they would their nursery rhymes."

A team of American and British bomb disposal experts is in Nigeria to help with the collection and disposal of unexploded shells.

Last month, a mass funeral was held for 120 unidentified victims of the munitions depot disaster in Lagos. Their coffins, draped in the Nigerian flag, were placed in rows at a site on the Oke-Afa canal, in which many of the victims drowned after a stampede to escape the explosions.