Muhammadu Buhari, who visited the Centre shortly after the attack, looked forlorn over the dereliction of duty that aided the security breach on his watch. “I am disappointed with the intelligence system,” he declared. Nigerians are even angrier, demanding that heads should roll.s is the new normal, the might of the Nigerian state did not count when terrorists invaded the Medium Security Custodial Centre, Kuje, Abuja, on July 5. The terrorists freed 879 inmates; among them 64 Boko Haram members and other criminals. From the top to bottom, everybody, as it is now usual, was caught napping. The escapees and their liberators are still marauding around the Federal Capital Territory, heightening fears of the possibility of more attacks. President
Buhari’s cascading queries on the lack of a security watch tower at the facility, how the terrorists organised, got weapons to attack and escaped, are testament to gaps in his knowledge as Commander-in-Chief in the underbelly of our counter-insurgency plan. There are illicit arms everywhere and there is no concerted effort at mopping them up. Land and sea borders are porous. These weapons fuel insecurity. Indeed, these embarrassing developments have been occurring unremittingly. Nobody is held to account. This is reprehensible. The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which claimed responsibility for the attack, operated for about two hours in a commando-like style, using multiple explosives to destroy dozens of vehicles, pull down walls, and with a fusillade of bullets had easy access to the cells.
One immediate issue of key, but disturbing, significance is the discordant tunes from principal officials of the government, which underscores the divergence in the understanding of the challenges highlighted by the prison attack on the wider security of the country. Thus, if a well resourced platoon of 30 men with a functioning Armoured Personnel Carrier, drawn from the famed Special Forces Brigade in Gwagwalada could not repel, indeed put up no resistance to the attackers in a prison with three towers, who came on a working day, defying the now established tradition of weekend jailbreaks, what hope does the nation have that they cannot breach the highest seat of power in Abuja at will?
The observation of the president of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, during his visit to the facility was though telling but at best groundless: the absence of functional Close Circuit Televisions at a facility with Boko Haram inmates, and the hint at complicity from within, given the efficiency the terrorists displayed in the operation hardly gets at the heart of the matter. Even more so the revelation by the minister of Police Affairs, Maigari Dingyadi, after an emergency National Security Council meeting that the terrorists had superior weapons and outnumbered our security operatives on guard was most shocking. At any rate, such disclosure is a morale armour for the insurgents.
The minister’s observation might not have gone down well with his Interior Affairs counterpart, Rauf Aregbesola, who was livid with the tepid firepower response to the attack. He insisted that sufficient security personnel were there to protect the facility, adding that “…strangely, something happened, most of which I cannot say on camera.” Mr Aregbesola needs to be told that citizens who pay his wages want to know that thing he is unwilling to disclose on camera. The famous Nigerian official knee-jerk response like the current detention of the guards on patrol that night is inadequate as the country awaits thorough investigations into the jailbreak.
Apparently, at issue in the Kuje prison attack are official indifference to intelligence and the lack of synergy among the security services on existential threats. Before the recent ambush by gunmen in Niger State, which led to the death of 22 soldiers, the governor of the state, Abubakar Bello, had in April ominously drawn attention to the implications of Boko Haram’s resurgence in the state for Abuja, which is only a two-hour drive from Minna, the Niger State capital. This was after the terrorists had hoisted their flag in Kauri community in Shiroro Local Government. The governor said, “I have been engaging the Federal Government and unfortunately it has got to this stage and if care is not taken, even Abuja is not safe. We have been saying this for long, and all efforts have been in vain.” Following the Abuja–Kaduna train attack in which 68 persons were kidnapped, Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State bemoaned the lack of attention to actionable intelligence. “We get the reports; the problem is for the agencies to take action,” El-Rufai stressed.
It is clear that the lack of information from citizens to security agencies was not the reason the Kuje prison attack happened. Harping on an intelligence void, as is often the refrain by security chiefs, is a canard that should stop. The Kuje prison attack is another major instance of the huge vulnerability in our national security, which should jolt the head of state into immediate action. On President Buhari’s watch, Nigeria has recorded 15 jailbreaks from September 2015 to July 2022, with some 7,000 escapees, according to one newspaper’s tally.
Interestingly, many of these breaches were orchestrated by non-state actors. Eight of them happened in 2021. These included the assault on the Owerri prison facility, from where 1,800 inmates escaped. The attack, which left the Imo State Police headquarters in ruins, occurred because three intelligence reports from the Department of State Services (DSS) shared with the governor, the police, military and prison authorities were ignored. This delinquency and hollow synergy among the security services, explain the prison attacks in Koton Karfe and Kabba in Kogi State, Oko/Benin in Edo State, Okitipupa, Oyo, Minna, Sokoto and Jos, among others, at different times.
It is scandalous that many of the escapees are yet to be recaptured. They become serious security threats to the society as they quickly return to the crimes for which they were convicted – terrorism, armed robbery, kidnapping, drug trafficking, money-laundering and homicide. This was evident in 2020. The Edo State Commissioner of Police, Babatude Kokumo, said one of the Oko jail escapees went to his village and a few hours later, killed the prosecution witness in his trial. In other instances, the lives of policemen and judges are threatened by these escapees.
After more than a decade of fighting Boko Haram jihadists and other non-state actors, Nigeria ought to have developed a level of capacity in getting things done. Keeping 64 Boko Haram fighters in a medium prison facility that is not adequately protected is foolhardy. The failure of the government to prosecute and punish them in accordance with the law is unacceptable. Nigeria has failed to learn the lesson that pampering religious extremists who are hell-bent on undermining the secularity of the state is a key policy blunder. Chad was able to control Boko Haram’s incursions into its capital, N’Djamena, when it swiftly prosecuted the 10 insurgents behind the death of 38 persons and executed them within 48 hours of their being convicted.
The war against terrorism is never won with its sympathisers plodding the corridors of power; or government foot-dragging in taking decisive steps. Nigeria’s counterinsurgency framework is at an unfortunate crossroads. This is the reason the 400 Boko Haram financiers, whom the United Arab Emirates (UAE) helped Nigeria to identify early in 2021, have not been prosecuted more than a year after, whereas the UAE swiftly prosecuted and convicted the six suspects it had arrested. The case of the 61,000 Boko Haram suspects in custody in the North-East, without trial, is a frightening development and must not be allowed to become a tinderbox.
The ISWAP Kuje prison attack symbolises many things: Primarily, it is a brutal reminder to the president that the regime’s victory against insurgency is still light years away and he should shake off his lethargy and take charge. It is ridiculous that since he assumed office in 2015, no comptroller-general of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS), minister of Internal Affairs or National Security Adviser has been fired on account of these major serial failures in official duties. Only a president detached from his or her remit would spare all those in the line of duty who should have averted the Kuje embarrassment.
Successive governments have attested to the fact that fifth columnists exist within the executive arm, and the military often witness operational schedules being leaked. These lead to ambushes of the country’s fighting forces and fatal consequences. Such malevolent elements need to be exorcised from the system. If surveillance cameras are not available in a prison where dangerous criminals are kept near the seat of power, how would they be provided in far-flung prisons?
It is important to know what the capital expenditures of these custodial centres are spent on. Clearly, the National Assembly has failed the country in relation to its oversight of government agencies. It is a no-brainer that walls of custodial centres with criminals should be cast in concrete to withstand attacks. From President Buhari to the security chiefs, ministers and the security bureaucracy, there is enough blame to go around for the rather brazen and unfortunate Kuje prison attack.
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