Saturday 23rd October, Nigerians woke up to the news of an attack on a Custodial centre, (as prisons are now dignified) at Abolongo area of the ancient town of Oyo, in Oyo State, southwest of the country. The attack was a major demystification of a place that ought to enjoy unlimited security surveillance.
Indeed, the Abolongo incident was one jail break too many. The heavily armed attackers, arrived for their mission in the death of the night. After overwhelming the guards on duty, they applied dynamite to bring down the prison walls and force out its inhabitants. Some 837 people that made up its content were instantly unfurled on society. Not one of them was a convict. All of the escaped detainees were awaiting trials. Sadly, a soldier and an Amotekun officer died, in the attack that left many people fatally wounded, including Shukurat Omoba, a female Amotekun volunteer.
A statement by Olanrewaju Anjorin spokesperson of Oyo State Command of the Custodial Service clarified that the sections holding the convicts and female inmates were untouched. He disclosed that 262 of the escapees have been recaptured and brought back to custody, while a whopping 575 were still at large. He assured that those on the run, would be brought to Justice.
For a country battling hydra headed security challenges including banditry, kidnapping, insurgency and secessionist agitations, the spate of jailbreaks in Nigeria is alarming. Within a period of six months, from April to October this year, the most populous African country has witnessed no less than three major prison attacks. This is without prejudice to the over 2,000 inmates set free by suspected hoodlums at different facilities across the country, during the #EndSARS protests of October last year.
On Sunday, 12th September a jailbreak occured at the Custodial Centre in Kabba, Kogi State, Northcentral. It also occured at night. Out of a total population of 294 inmates, about 240 were set free. The left over simply either refused to escape that night or had voluntarily returned to custody, as at the time census was taken in the morning.
Regrettably, some lives were lost in the attack. While the State government admitted two persons died, other sources put the casualty figure at five, made up mainly of members of the security forces. About 120 of the jailbreakers, including one who was rearrested while vandalising electricity installation in the town, were eventually brought back to captivity. In spite of its belief that the attack was politicatically motivated, it has hung a big question mark on Kogi government’s claim that the state is the safest in Nigeria.
What may be described as mother of all jailbreaks occured in Owerri, the Imo State capital on Easter Monday, 5th April. In the wee hours of that day, unknown gunmen shooting sporadically in a convoy, drove into the Custodial centre and set free 1,844 inmates. Their attempt to seize the armoury however was resisted.
About a month after the incident, the centre was still unable to account for more than 1,200 of the fugitives. In all cases, hundreds of the outlaws are probably back into living the type of life styles that sent them into confrontation with the law, putting society at higher risk of crime.
Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, Minister of Interior, part of whose duty is the supervision of the Nigeria Correctional Service, NCoS, on a visit to Oyo, updated that only 392 felons are at large. He said 446 out of 907 escapees have been recaptured, while 69 never left the facility. He vowed to rein in all the escapees, dead or alive. He urged Nigerians to help the government in achieving this and promised that never again will the service be overwhelmed by attackers.
Aregbesola warned that “it is a criminal offence, punishable by a jail term, to offer any assistance whatsoever, not even giving a cup of water, to any inmate that escaped from lawful custody. You cannot help them in any way, absolutely, by way of cash, food, clothing, medical care, employment, road direction and any form of help, other than to encourage them to turn themselves in, and report their sighting to law enforcement.”
In moments of national disasters, the Nigerian government from Federal, States and Local have never been short on rhetorics. The challenge on Aregbesola, whose record in public service is thus far enviable, is to work the talk. The ministry and other arms of government must must synergize to bring about far reaching reforms.
– The heart of the reforms must be the rejuvenation of the entire Justice system in Nigeria. Justice delayed as they say, is Justice denied. People affected in most jailbreaks are usually those classified as Awaiting Trial. For instance, every of the 837 who escaped in the Oyo jail break belonged to this category. Ditto the Owerri jailbreak. Similarly most escapees in Kabba were waiting for trial. A law breaker must be made to face the music, speedily. It is morally reprehensible that a suspect may stay in custody waiting for trial, for a period that far exceed the term prescribed for his punishment, in the event of a conviction! Certainly, stakeholders need to think out of the box on how to fast track the Justice system, to prevent rampant prison attacks.
– A situation where the abodes of villains or convicts are easily accessible leaves much to be desired. The location of some of the Custodial centres, with poor or no proper perimeter demarcation makes them vulnerable to attacks. In saner climes, technology based security systems like alarms, close circuit camera, electrified barbwire are used to strengthen security in prisons. It is not enough that the Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde has promised to domesticate this in Abolongo. The Federal Government under whose control the custodial centres reside, must do same and even more, for all the centres in the country.
– Custodial centres must be made comfortable and truly reformatory. Willing convicts should be enrolled for functional skill acquisition trainings in the centres. A system where inmates are dumped and lumped like animals in a pen is dehumanising. It will take an enormous dose of discipline and self restraint, for anyone in a subhuman condition not to escape at the slightest opportunity.
– There should be proper intelligence sharing among the security agencies, the correctional services and host communities of custodial centres.
The dangers inherent in a single criminal who escapes lawful custody is like a wild animal on the loose. It is time to stem the tide of the grave foreboding.