The incessant jailbreaks in Nigeria are endangering the lives of judges, policemen and prosecution witnesses who played roles in confining escaped inmates in prison.
LEADERSHIP Weekend reports that law and order is taking a beating in Nigeria, with separatist conflicts, banditry, kidnappings, insurgency and now mass jailbreaks threatening to completely unravel the country’s security architecture and test the criminal justice system.
In recent months and years, after armed attacks on correctional centres, thousands of convicted criminals and inmates awaiting trial have escaped from prison custody and remain on the run, with little or no serious efforts by the government and prison authorities to track and rearrest them.
And should any of these criminal elements be prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned, legal and security experts, speaking with LEADERSHIP Weekend, have raised concerns about the ability of the state to hold and secure kidnappers, bandits and murderers, while enforcing judicial verdicts in criminal cases.
Even more worrisome to experts in Nigeria’s criminal justice system is the safety of the judges who sentence the criminals to time in prison, and, in some cases, hand down death sentences, the safety of the prosecutors who brought the cases to trial and also that of witnesses to testified against the convicted criminals.
Speaking with LEADERSHIP Weekend, legal and security experts also raised concerns about housing convicted criminals and those awaiting trial in the same prison facilities, with a majority of inmates in the latter category.
A professor of law, Mohammed H. Gafar, described the inability of the state to hold prisoners and enforce judicial verdicts as unfortunate.
He said incessant jailbreaks will not allow investors and foreigners to have confidence in our judicial process.
‘’If court orders cannot be enforced to the letter, it is a dangerous thing for the country and its economy because in one way or the other it will affect the economy.
‘’If investors know that our judicial system is porous, they will not have confidence in it and it will have an adverse effect on the economy.
‘’Apart from the economy, it is also one of the indices of a failed state. You can imagine the effect of not having the power to keep inmates safe in lawful custody. If this trend continues, it may spell doom for the country in the nearest future.
‘’The earlier the government nips this trend in the bud the better for all of us because some of these people, when they escape from lawful custody, can cause mayhem in the society. The lives of the judge and the complainant may not be safe if they found their way back into the society.’’
A senior advocate, Mr Abdul Balogun, said some of the security challenges such as separatist conflicts, banditry, kidnappings and insurgency may have been the result of activities of criminals who escaped from the prisons.
He described as appalling the deplorable state of Nigeria’s correctional facilities, adding that those saddled with the responsibility of securing the nation have not demonstrated proactive measures to forestall it.
He said, “In most cases, the outfits received forewarning signals of the impending attacks; however, they have usually been caught up in one prison break or the other as the inmates broke loose after the expiration of the ultimatum and forewarning.’’
He also said the lives of the judge who sentenced the criminals, the prosecutors and the witnesses are being put at risk because inmates who escaped from lawful custody could go back and attack them.
Some aggrieved officers of the Nigerian Correctional Centres have argued that aside being poorly equipped, most of the correctional centres contrast sharply with the standards in advanced countries, thereby making them vulnerable to frequent attacks.
According to them, the prison attacks are caused by “ a combination of various factors,” a senior official of the Nigeria Correctional Service confided in our correspondent during the week.
The officer lamented the deepening level of vulnerability as he lamented structural defects, poor security structures, and acute shortage of armed personnel and weapons required to guard the facilities.
They said, “The prison walls are high enough but we need to reinforce them. They can be blown up with explosives. The perimeter fencing is not barbed to deter attackers.”
They also expressed worry that escapees from the various correctional centres can be sending threat messages to judges, complainants, prosecutors and others who investigated and prosecuted their cases.
LEADERSHIP Weekend writes that the nation’s custodial facilities had in the last one year witnessed violent attacks with thousands of inmates, including condemned criminals, unlawfully released, thus compounding the security troubles facing the country.
While prison break is no longer alien to the Nigerian system, it has assumed a proportionally disturbing dimension since the nationwide #EndSARS protests in October 2020.
The beginning of the worrisome trend was the September 12, 2020 attack on the medium Security Custodial Centre in Kabba, Kogi State, at 10.45pm. Gunmen besieged the facility and freed 240 inmates out of the 294 in custody.
Although the Service claimed it rearrested 114 escapees as of Tuesday, dangers posed by other fleeing inmates to already distressed members of the public are better imagined.
The danger was evident in the tragedy that trailed jailbreaks in two correctional facilities in Benin City, Edo State. Amid the violence that erupted from #EndSARS protests, hoodlums on October 19, 2020 attacked Oko and Benin correctional centres in the state, freeing 1,993 inmates.
Hours later, one of the escapees from the Oko Correctional Centre reportedly killed the prosecution witness who testified during his trial. Parading the inmate, a former commissioner reported that escapees from the two correctional centres had been sending threat messages to policemen who investigated and prosecuted their cases. As of October 25, 2020, just 207 inmates had been rearrested or turned themselves in.
Another factor blamed for recurrent jailbreaks is the country’s overcrowded correctional centres which hold a large number of inmates awaiting trials.
“If we have the resources, there should be at least 15 to 20 armed warders on the ground at any point in time. At times, we have only four available. It is the same armed squad who guard the prisons that lead inmates to courts.
“We also need more arms and ammunition as well as other equipment. If we need 10 items, for instance, and three is supplied, that is grossly insufficient.”
Another official told our correspondent that arms and ammunition were last supplied to the NCoS sometime in 2019 but that they were insufficient.
“The supply should be consistent. We don’t have enough arms and ammunition to repel attacks. When we exhaust the ammunition during an attack, what can we do?” the official asked. “We need strong partnership with sister security agencies. If there is reinforcement, we will be able to repel the attack,” he added.
A senior officer said the federal and state governments did not consider the NCoS as a critical component of the security architecture, adding that the leadership of the Service should be included in security meetings.
Also, an official privy to the security architecture of the correctional centres told LEADERSHIP Weekend that the facilities were not only short of arms and ammunition but grossly lack basic modern security apparatuses such as closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs).
The source explained, “Some correctional centres have CCTVs but most of them are concentrated inside and cannot capture what is going on outside. They should be mounted on the perimeters to monitor external attacks.
“We have security towers but what is the essence of the towers when arms and ammunition are not sufficient to engage attackers?
“We also need a drone to carry out night patrol. The issue of awaiting trial inmates should also be looked into. Judiciary at both federal and state governments should look into it.”
In about five years, twelve jail breaks have been carried out in the most violent attacks in Edo, Imo, Bauchi, Niger, Ondo, Kuje in the FCT, Kogi and other prisons across Nigeria, with almost 3,400 escapees, including condemned criminals, still at large.
Also, an attempt was made on Ikoyi prison in Lagos last year.
A lawyer, Barrister Ode Ajike, agreed with Balogun, the senior advocate, that the lives of actors in the judicial process are being put at risk when inmates escape from prison.
He called on the federal government to ensure their safety whenever there is a jailbreak.
‘’It is a dangerous thing when there is a jailbreak because the life of the judge who sentenced the inmate and others are seriously at risk.
‘’Part of the reason we have incessant jailbreaks is because the facilities in our correctional centres are obsolete. Another problem is that the welfare of personnel is not looked into.
‘’Also, there is congestion in our prisons today and urgent steps should be taken to decongest it. Until solutions are found to some of these problems, we will continue to experience jailbreaks in the country.”
A security expert, Mr Mike Awesu, likened the scenario to someone fighting multiple wars without changing tactics.
According to him, it is either the person is overwhelmed or bereft of what to do next.
He said, “I really commend the government for being resolute and I equally salute the courage of our security agencies at a time like this. Truth is, this is a trying time for all of us.
“However, our security architecture appears overwhelmed and needs rejigging. Not only that, I also think we should change tactics.
“Can you imagine our security agencies applying the same tactics they employed in fighting insurgency to banditry and to even chase kidnappers; the truth is it won’t work.
“That was what I meant by change of tactics. There should be different units specially trained to combat different categories of crime like we are having now.
“Look at the agro-rangers force unit with some people trained with tactics to combat certain crime; now if you ask this same people to tackle other crimes they are not trained for, you would not expect to get good result because these criminal elements have also stepped up their game.”
While also advancing ways forward, a prison official, who does not want his name in print, cited lack of regular training, shortage of manpower and shortage of personnel as reasons why they are helpless most times when under attack by invaders.
The assistant controller called on government to beef up the ranks with more officers and to equip the prison officers with more sophisticated weapons to fight the invaders.
“More importantly, I think we also need a specialised trained force to be deployed across our correctional centers in the country,” he said.
Separate Hardened Criminals From Other Inmates, Experts Tell NCoS
Security experts have said the continued attacks on correctional centers are aimed at making Nigeria ungovernable and called on the federal government to take decisive actions to tame the tide.
The experts who spoke to LEADERSHIP Weekend said high profile criminals should be separated from petty criminals in order to reduce risks.
They, however, said though prison breaks have become a global trend, those in Nigeria are carried out by political actors opposed to the present administration.
The secretary general of Veterans Federation of Nigeria, Dr Awwal Abdullahi Aliyu, said keeping hardened criminals and petty criminals together put the correctional facilities at risk of attacks.
He said such practice had continued to defeat the aim of the centres as released inmates have a high chance of committing bigger crimes.
“Correctional centres house those convicted and those awaiting trial, and if there is a prison break, in most cases people who were convicted are usually the ones running away from the prison, which suggests they were not comfortable in there. This also shows they have an intent to commit even bigger crimes.
“One dangerous thing about our correctional service is the fact that you keep hardened criminals and petty criminals together. This is even dangerous in terms of trying to correct those convicted and brought there. You have a situation where someone who stole N100, N10,000 or even a million naira is housed with someone who stole billions of naira. Or you have petty house thief and lock him up with armed robbers, assassins, or hired killers,” he said.
He said in a Nigerian correctional centre, you would find a small crime offenders locked up with a terrorists, pointing out that “by so doing, instead of trying to correct the people, you are bringing them to learn about bigger crimes.”
He said those who run away during a prison break have learnt under hardened criminals and are eager to go and commit a bigger crime.
“Once convicted in that correctional centre, it gives them the opportunity to learn bigger crimes; they don’t come out reformed.
“Most of them have the record of being in the prison four or five times. It is very dangerous.”
He advised government to separate petty criminals from hardened criminals to avoid recurring prison breaks.
“Don’t combine them; combining them is dangerous for our national security.
“There should be prison categories for various crimes and not one prison for everybody that commits a crime. When a murderer is locked up with a pick-pocket, the pick-pocket ends of learning what he didn’t know before.
“Government should have different prisons for different crimes,” he said
A public affairs analyst and private security trainer, Major Banjo Daniel (retd.) blamed subversive elements for the continued attack on security facilities.
He said the attacks are politically motivated in order to stop the president from actualising his vision of a safe Nigeria.
He said it started in the North, then moved to North Central, and Northwest before the EndSARs, but has now become a national problem.
He said the EndSARs protest had a subversive intent and because it failed, the sponsors continued attacks on security facilities.
“They tried it in Lagos by killing one CSP. The plan is to make the president unstable but the man has been composed. These attacks on correctional centres are part of the subversive intents, it is political. The sponsors have been against him,” he said
He accused the Service Chiefs of having relaxed and allowing non-state actors to roam free.
“The whole thing aims to rubbish the government. It is going to continue unless Mr President decides to be decisive.Prison break everywhere is part of the whole game plan to make sure this government does not succeed,” he said.
According to him, the lack of decisive action by government gave rise to attacks by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) on security facilities and allowed people of Sheik Gumi to say Nigeria will become ungovernable if bandits are tagged terrorists.
“The new chiefs started well but they’ve also relaxed; otherwise Gumi will not be saying the country will become ungovernable if bandits are tagged terrorists,” he said
He, however, expressed confidence in the new formed bilateral relationship between Nigeria and Russia.
“I’m glad we are now forming a relationship with Russia. That is what we should have done since 2016. If we had gone to Russia, they would have helped us tame this rubbish,” he said.