The recent attack on a prison in Kabba, Kogi state last Sunday, September 12, 2021, is the second of such in the state within the last seven years. The attack, which has now been attributed to “gunmen,” successfully led to the escape of 266 inmates from the prison which is designated as a “Medium Security Custodial Centre (MSCC).” The Federal Government has confirmed that two officers of the Nigerian Correctional Service are yet to be accounted for, while a soldier and a policeman lost their lives during the attack.
Jailbreaks are now becoming a frequent occurrence in Nigeria. In November 2014, the Koton Karfe prison in Kogi was attacked by unknown gunmen, who also freed 144 inmates. 145 inmates were in the prison as at the time of the attack: 119 of the inmates were awaiting trial and 26 were convicts. One of the inmates was shot dead during the confusion that followed the invasion. The controller, however, said that 12 of the inmates were either re-arrested or returned to the prison voluntarily.
In March 2014, eight months before the Koton Karfe jailbreak, about 22 insurgents were killed one morning during a fierce shootout at the headquarters of the State Security Service, located less than 30 metres from the Presidential Villa, Abuja. The insurgents were said to have been shot after they escaped from their cells and engaged the operatives in a shootout. From reports, trouble had started when an operative went to feed one of the suspected insurgents in one of the cells in the maximum-security facility. Apparently careless, the operative failed to observe laid-down security protocols. Ordinarily, while operatives are not expected to enter cells to feed inmates, this operative in question not only entered the cell, but also went in with his service pistol. He was then caught off-guard and overpowered.
Nigeria’s security challenges are like a hurricane sweeping everything in its path. Correctional facilities do not seem to be spared, and for some reason, this may be linked to a hangover of the EndSARS protests where a maximum-security prison – the Oko Prison – experienced a jailbreak in October 2020. But that linkage stops in Benin City. Several other facilities that have been attacked were breached under the cover of night. This latest incident in Kogi state lies in close comparison with the attack on the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna weeks ago where two soldiers were killed.
It is important to state that the attempted jailbreak in Kogi last Sunday was the twelfth attempt in a decade, resulting in no less than 72 fatalities. It is also the fourth in 2021. In most of the reported cases, the prisons happen to be situated in urban areas. In another case that reportedly happened in April 2021, security agents prevented a jailbreak by inmates of Kurmawa prison, located around the Emir’s palace in Kano state. Sporadic gunshots were heard within the area where the prison is located, as residents prepared to break their Ramadan fast.
Prisons situated in urban areas clearly constitute an enormous security risk. In two ways, it speaks volumes about Nigeria’s planning culture with a view to long term stability. Prisons located in urban centres could mean that the Ministry of Interior, which supervises correctional facilities, has failed to strategically foresee the kind of problems that would be faced by residents in such areas.
Nothing illustrates this better than the Oko Prison break in Benin City in October 2020 and the Owerri Prison break in April 2021 – with the latter resulting in 1844 inmates freed. In the aftermath of both incidents, residents reported a soaring crime rate that took long to suppress. In the Oko jailbreak, it took nearly two months to bring the situation under control.
In cases where the prisons have been in existence before the urbanization of its surrounding environs (Oko Prison, for instance), the blame is on government officials for failing to keep people off the area and choosing to look away when property developers pounced on the lands around the prison. In the shootout that usually follows during each attempted jailbreak, civilians run the risk of being caught in the crossfire around the perimeter. As a side note, though, it remains a mystery how the Owerri jailbreak, which lasted for two hours (between 1am and 3am) and featured the use of sophisticated weapons, was only met with highly ineffective resistance, despite the presence of a military facility nearby.
In determining casualties, we must avoid falling into the trap of looking at just human victims. These jailbreaks, successful or not, are a direct assault on the integrity of the Nigerian state because these facilities represent the power of the state. The inability of security officials to repel such attacks leave negative impressions on the minds of not only foreigners who come here to do business, but Nigerians who have summarily resigned and outsourced their protection to whatever can keep them safe.
Furthermore, it also puts into perspective the institutional capacity of Nigeria. The Kogi prison had a capacity of 200 inmates. Yet, it was crowded with 294, pushing the jail facilities past its limit. This scenario is replicated in other places across Nigeria: government schools, university hostels, and even commercial vehicles for public transportation.
Moves by state governments to decongest prisons have yielded little fruits. If jailbreaks are to be avoided in the future, emphasis must be placed on putting preventive measures in place. Such measures must include admitting inmates into only prisons that have not reached full capacity, respecting prisoners’ rights, managing prison facilities at the best possible standards, and carrying out due diligence in order to prevent wrongful imprisonment.
The Chief Judge of Lagos state, Kazeem Alogba recently remarked that 50 percent of homicide cases in the state are “trumped-up charges” brought up by the police. As disturbing as this sounds, it highlights the saddening reality of the country’s flawed justice delivery system which must be urgently addressed. At the core of this lies criminal justice reform. Wrongful imprisonment has also inflated the government’s budget for its corrections service. We must begin to look at ways to fix this.
The move by the Federal government to rename the Nigeria Prisons Service to the Nigerian Correctional Service must go beyond what it apparently is: lip service, especially when no head has rolled in the wake of the seemingly frequent jailbreaks. The first attempt to convince Nigerians that things have changed must be shown by sacking culpable officials and this would have to include the Minister of Interior if the tragedy is beyond the Controller-General of the Nigerian Correctional Service. This may be a tall order, though, since investigations are hardly launched to truly determine what causes these jailbreaks. Ultimately, in Nigeria, anything goes. It is this approach that stifles growth and innovation, without an eye for a reward for excellence.