The violent jailbreaks at two highly fortified correctional centres and the razing of five police stations in Benin, Edo State capital, made nonsense of the initially peaceful #EndSARS protests in the state and other parts of the country. Southsouth Bureau Chief, BISI OLANIYI, report on how the protest culminated in the escape of close to 2,000 prisoners from custody.
It all began as a genuine piece of agitation coordinated in different parts of the country by aggrieved youths who were protesting the highhandedness of many officers of the unit of the Nigeria Police Force known as the State Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Tagged #EndSARS protests, youths in Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, Port Harcourt and other state capitals and major cities across the country mounted roadblocks and kept vigil as they sang, danced and made merry in a harmless atmosphere of camaraderie.
Benin, the capital city of Edo State was no exception. In different parts of the city, the youth came together like their counterparts in other cities to register their disapproval of the country’s state of affairs, particularly with respect to the activities of the operatives of SARS and mass unemployment, among other social issues of the day. Their protest was widely hailed as one that was long overdue, considering the rate at which unemployment was growing with seemingly no end in sight.
Kola Edokpayi, an indigene of Edos State and one of the leaders of the #EndSARS movement at the forefront of the peaceful protests, had said that the agitations by the youths were meant to end brutality, lawlessness and extortion by operatives of SARS nationwide and to ensure the reformation of the police. He expressed displeasure over the attitude of many SARS operatives, who he said were fond of forcing innocent Nigerians to part with their hard-earned money with point of sale (POS) machines provided by the SARS men or by taking them to the nearest automated teller machine (ATM) points to force them to withdraw money in a move he described as the height of criminality, impunity and wickedness.
When on October 15, thousands of commuters were stranded for more than five hours as the protesters barricaded the ever-busy Benin-Lagos Expressway at Ugbowo, in front of the Federal Government-owned University of Benin (UNIBEN), one of the travellers, Osagie Osarobo, rather than lament the situation, decided to team up with the protesters, because he believed that an agitation for an end to police brutality was a just cause.
Osarobo said: “Although I may be stranded, I am not frustrated, because the reforms in the police are long overdue. An end must come to policemen moving innocent Nigerians to ATM points or using POS machines to force their victims to part with money. Policemen and women should also be well paid.”
The newly-constructed pedestrian bridge in front of the main campus of the University of Benin (UNIBEN) was converted to an emergency point for a Disc Jockey (DJ) to dish out popular Nigerian musicians’ revolutionary songs from big loudspeakers to entertain the protesters, commuters and passersby, as well as to let the Federal Government and police authorities know that the youths would not back down on the massive protests until holistic police reforms were carried out.
The peaceful nature of the protest made policemen drafted to the area to maintain law and order to see it as a form of holiday, as they were also enjoying the music.
Also addressing the protesters, the President of the Students’ Union Government (SUG) of UNIBEN, Benjamin Egwu, said they were adding their voices to the nationwide protest in order to ensure a better Nigeria and comprehensive reformation of the police.
“More graduates and other intellectuals should be encouraged to join the Nigeria Police Force (NPF). Nigeria, as the giant of Africa, should be a role model for other African countries, and we must always get it right. Give Nigerians a reformed police,” Egwu said.
The UNIBEN SUG president also stated that as youths, the leaders of today and tomorrow, they decided not to keep quiet in the face of the lawless acts by Nigerian policemen in order that they might have a brighter future.
From peaceful protest to violent confrontation
As a mark of the public sympathy for the protesters’ cause, Edokpayi was nominated by Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki, as a member of the Judicial Panel of Inquiry that would investigate the protests across the 18 local government areas of the state and make far-reaching recommendations to reform the police. Events, however, took a different turn from that point as hoodlums hijacked the peaceful protests, openly brandishing AK-47 rifles and other dangerous weapons, killing and injuring innocent people as motorists and pedestrians groaned under the weight of the attendant gridlocks.
On Friday, October 16, a young, defenceless #EndSARS protester lost his life while many of the youths also sustained injuries. The deceased youth identified simply as Ikpomwosa was shot by fully armed hoodlums most of whom spotted red T-shirts at Ring Road, near the palace of the Oba of Benin, His Royal Majesty, Omo N’ Oba N’ Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II.
The continuation of massive nationwide protest was slated for Ring Road, Benin in the morning of that day. But as the youths were gathering in their thousands, the hoodlums, who accused the protesters of preventing them from making money from daily issuance of tickets to commercial drivers, swooped on them with guns, machetes and other dangerous weapons, dispersing them and killing the unarmed youth.
The determined protesters, most of who scampered into safety after the bloody attack, however, regrouped and continued their movement round Benin and its environs, terminating the protest at Government House in the Government Reservation Area (GRA) of the state capital.
The injured protesters were treated at the nearby government-owned Central Hospital, Benin, with the body of Ikpomwosa later conveyed through Reservation Road to Government House, Benin in an ambulance.
With the well-coordinated protest in Benin involving thousands of fearless youths, policemen on their routes quickly disappeared while some of the security personnel changed into mufti to avoid confrontation with the aggrieved youths.
Edo Governor, Godwin Obaseki, also condemned the attack on the protesters, assuring that a thorough investigation would commence immediately to bring the culprits to justice.
He charged the Edo State Police Command to come out in full force to provide adequate security for the protesters, stressing that they were exercising their rights as concerned citizens of Nigeria.
Obaseki said: “I have just learnt that hoodlums have attacked #ENDSARS protesters, who have conducted themselves peacefully in Benin City. I extend condolences to the victims of the attacks, including those who lost their lives and others who were injured by the thugs.
“It is disheartening that anyone would attack a peaceful assembly of young people who are expressing genuine concerns over police brutality and intimidation in their own country.”
Edo governor also charged personnel of the state’s police command to ensure that no one was harassed in the course of exercising their rights (protesting).
The Edo State Commissioner of Police, Babatunde Kokumo, ordered the homicide section of the State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID) in the state to commence a full-scale investigation into the immediate and remote causes of the killing of one of the protesters, vowing to arrest the perpetrators of the dastardly act for immediate prosecution.
The making of a jailbreak
If Obaseki and Kokumo thought they had seen the height of the violent bend to the protests, the events that followed on October 19 proved that they were mistaken. On that day, the angry protesters had blocked all the entry and exit points in Benin with bonfires, logs of wood and other heavy objects, causing some motorists to abandon their vehicles and trek long distances with pedestrians to their various destinations, while many motorists opted to endure the complete standstill.
When the protesters got to the front of the correctional centre, popularly called White House, on Sapele Road, they intensified their agitations for good governance and police reformation at the junction of the dualised but barricaded road.
Suddenly, hoodlums, who were brandishing AK-47 rifles, machetes and other dangerous weapons, appeared and moved towards the correctional centre, shooting indiscriminately, damaging the massive structure and forcing open the main gate of the facility after overpowering the gallant guards and officials of the centre, with many inmates escaping through the main entrance and the broken wall and fence, which they climbed to the top.
From the Benin correctional centre on Sapele Road, the hoodlums moved to Oko medium correctional centre on Airport Road in Benin, freeing almost 2,000 inmates, including 120 condemned criminals, while nine of the escaping inmates were shot dead by the guards on duty at the Oko medium correctional centre.
Some shops near the facility were looted while the centre’s offices were vandalised and valuable items were also stolen, after injuring many of the officials, most of whom were still receiving treatment in various hospitals in Benin at Press time.
An official of Oko medium correctional centre, who spoke in confidence on the phone, disclosed that the fully-armed hoodlums came in thousands with the intention of freeing the inmates, who were earlier communicated with by the invading criminals, stressing that the inmates were already rioting at the centre before the attack.
Hoodlums also attacked and razed the Central Police Station at Ring Road, near the palace of the Oba of Benin in Oredo Local Government Area; Ugbekun Police Station at Upper Sokponba, Benin; Idogbo and Dumex police stations, with the three in Ikpoba/Okha LGA of the state; as well as Benin’s Textile Mill Road Police Station in Egor LGA.
At the five razed police stations in Benin, many vehicles were also burnt while the hoodlums had a field day looting the armoury, with many AK-47 rifles, ammunition and police uniforms stolen.
Some hoodlums, who brandished guns, including AK-47 rifles, were also openly shooting into the air on St. Saviour’s Anglican Church Road in Upper Sokponba axis of Benin in Ikpoba/Okha LGA of the state.
Banks, shops and schools, among others, in Upper Sokponba and most parts of Benin hurriedly closed to avoid looting and attack, with motorists abandoning their vehicles and joining pedestrians to trek long distances to their destinations.
Commuters, especially persons travelling into and out of Benin and other parts of Edo state, as well as pedestrians, had it very tough with the blocking of the roads by protesters, with bonfires set on the ever-busy roads, leading to standstill of traffic and leaving many people with no choice but to trek.
Govt imposes curfew
The situation forced the Edo State Government to impose an indefinite curfew across the state, vowing to decisively deal with errant residents who flouted the directive. Obaseki, in an announcement he made through the Secretary to the Edo State Government (SSG), Osarodion Ogie, said the statewide curfew would take effect from 4 pm on October 19.
He said: “This (indefinite curfew) decision has become necessary because of the very disturbing incidents of vandalism and attacks on private individuals and institutions by hoodlums in the guise of #ENDSARS protests.
“While the government of Edo State respects the rights of its citizens to undertake legitimate protests, it cannot sit idly by when hoodlums have taken laws into their own hands to cause mayhem on innocent citizens and the state.
“By the directive, schools and businesses are to shut down activities accordingly. Parents and guardians are advised to rein in their children, wards and the youths, to forestall further breakdown of law and order.”
Edo governor also stated that the responsibility of government was to protect lives and property, as well as to maintain law and order, while declaring that anyone found violating the curfew would be dealt with according to the law.
Most residents of Edo state, on October 20, however, defied the indefinite curfew imposed on the entire state’s 18 local government areas; a situation that angered Obaseki and caused him to summon a security council meeting in the night of the same day, with the security chiefs asked to enforce the curfew, with fully-armed soldiers and riot policemen taking charge.
In the afternoon of October 20, two men were shot dead at Santana Market on Sapele Road, Benin, when hoodlums and some policemen engaged in a fierce gun battle, while the security personnel were attempting to restore law and order in the area.
Sadly, most of the hoodlums, after attacking the correctional centres and burning the five police stations in Benin, were openly wearing the stolen police uniforms and displaying the looted guns, mostly AK-47 rifles, without being challenged by security operatives.
A former Provost-Marshal of the Nigerian Army, Brig.-Gen. Idada Ikponmwen (rtd), pointed out that the challenges that led to the #EndSARS protests predate the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.
He called on well-meaning Nigerians to adequately engage the protesters for government to quickly meet their demands
The Controller of Correction Edo State Command, Babayo Maisanda, disclosed that 1,818 inmates were still missing, with 163 either recaptured or secured, while six voluntarily returned.