In the last six years, there have been at least 11 jailbreaks in different states across the country—Kuje, Abuja; Kotonkarfi and Kabba Kogi state; Nsukka Enugu state; Minna Niger state; two in Edo during EndSars, Okitipupa, Ondo state; Ikoyi, Lagos state; Owerri in Imo state; Bauchi state; Ubiaja in Edo state. At least seven of these successfully led to the escape as well as dispersal of inmates, while three were foiled.
The prison attackers, with connivance from within, mostly came in from outside, armed with sophisticated weapons such as general-purpose machine guns, AK47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices; they beat our less equipped prison security and made their way to free prisoners, including hardened criminals and released them back to the society to unleash more mayhem.
It therefore did not come as a surprise when last week, the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola disclosed that about 3,906 out of the 4,860 escapees between 2020 and now, are still at large. Only about 954 have been captured, he said. This grim statistic is capable of endangering and conflating an already distressed nation in the grip of security challenges including insurgency and banditry.
Prisoners’ escape is worrisome enough, but it is distressing that we harbour their collaborators in our communities; collaborators that possess dangerous weapons and explosives, yet live among us without anybody noticing. They are neither under any form of surveillance, nor is there any intelligence about their activities, which include plans and subsequent execution of jailbreaks.
Equally worrisome is the frequency of these attacks. This year alone has witnessed three jailbreaks.The figure, to say the least is scary, but again not entirely strange. Every year, Nigeria’s security budgets surpass other sectors—- but security remains the biggest challenge to the internal security architecture of the country, such that the country is literally a prison; as every house, community, town, estate, city, no matter how small, lives under the perpetual fear of attacks in form of break-ins or robberies, and you wonder whether a substantial percentage of Nigerians have become rogues.
No need looking any further, when you consider the fact that almost 4,000 criminals now reside among us in major cities or are scattered around our forests terrorising travellers, and even daring to write to residents of their impending attack, which has often been carried out, like the one that happened in Maikunkele, Minna, Niger state. Two months earlier, bandits wrote and threatened one Mr Anthony with abduction if certain conditions were not met. They carried out their threats last week with his abduction.
Anyway, this is the Nigeria of today, where criminals hold sway and dictate the tune. The minister boasted of how the government will use NIMC’s data and biometrics to catch the escapees because “the state is a patient vulture; you can run but you cannot hide. We have biometrics. Whenever and wherever they appear to transact any business, their cover will be blown. We are working with and have shared the details of escapees with INTERPOL, to check the risks across border movements”, to which I’d just wish us well. This sounds like a forlorn cry after the deed, and further raises some fundamental questions.
How many Nigerians transact businesses involving biometrics? How secure are our borders? How do you guarantee those who man our borders won’t compromise, assuming the criminals are such good citizens, they would follow the legal borders and not escape again through our many illegal routes? Which borders anyway? The artificial ones around Ilela, Jibia-Niger Republic-Nigeria borders or the Badagry-Seme-Benin-Republic-Nigeria borders that a family can have their bedroom in Nigeria and their living room in Benin or Niger Republic as the case may be. And how many cross-border bandits has the INTERPOL apprehended for us? Has the minister factored in the maximum havoc these escapees could cause while we wait patiently like vultures?
In the interim, let’s take a critical look at the incessant jailbreaks. According to a data from the World Bank reviewed by HumAngle, 73.5 percent of inmates in Nigerian prisons are awaiting trial. This is traceable to the country’s sluggish judicial system and police’s poor handling of prosecution. Yes, congestion is a recipe for chaos on a bad day, but it can be avoided if awaiting trial cases are swiftly handled.
For example, the Oyo state custodial centre was built in 2007 with a capacity for 160 inmates but had 907 inmates at the time of the attack out of which 837 were awaiting trial. The September jailbreak in Kabba, Kogi state is another revelation in how awaiting trial cases are compounding our prison woes. It was established in 2008 to cater for 200 inmates, but by the time of the attack, there were 294 out of which 224 were pre-trial detainees. Only 70 were convicted inmates. Certainly, the task of managing 70 detainees by prison officials cannot be compared with the bigger task of managing 294 prisoners.
Therefore, prison challenge is beyond congestion or even the Ministry of Interior alone. A lot of innocent people are dumped into our prisons either because they do not have the means and connection to extricate themselves or their relations are not on hand to do same on their behalf. Otherwise, what kind of criminal justice system habours 73 percent of awaiting trial prisoners some of whom might be innocent? Section 293 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA 2015) which 30 states have domesticated, provides for an accused person to be granted bail or charged to court within 72 hours after arrest. This provision is often observed in the breach. If bail is supposedly free, why are many people languishing in prison because they cannot pay for bail?
Conversely, we should all first seek to change a system that abridges accused people’s rights, just based on allegations before a holistic prison reform can work.There is the issue of official corruption, which ensures the bribing of prison officials to look the other way. At the peak of the ENDSARS prison break in some parts of the country, someone in the know averred that there must have been insider information and official connivance, because it is near impossible for prisoners to act alone. Therefore, corruption, poor funding, poor facilities/equipment, lack of sophisticated and modern surveillance equipment such as CCTVs and motion sensors, high walls, barbed wires and electric fencing of walls, inadequate security are part of the issues of jailbreaks in Nigeria.
Too many people are angry with the state and will do anything to vent their anger on any semblance of the state, especially prisons. Imagine a Boko Haram detainee jumping out of prison. Surely all hell will let loose and everybody and everything on their path is endangered. The country is in distress and stretched beyond its capacity. No wonder, citizens have become captives in their own country, and jailbreaks have worsened an already bad situation.
Finally, we need to be serious with our national IDs and biometrics. If other countries are using fingerprints to curb crimes and other identity frauds, why can’t we do same? Most of the criminals terrorising us have been arrested over and over, yet our system does not have inbuilt mechanisms to fish them out. This must stop before we can forge ahead. Everyone who has been to police over allegations of crime should be profiled and the information shared among concerned agencies. Where humans fail, technology can be of help.