Was it a jail-break. Was it an invasion? Whatever it was, the evening of Friday, June 24, is certainly one that residents of Kuje, a sub-urban town of nearly 43 kilometres from the Abuja city-centre, are not likely to forget in a hurry.
As sounds of gunshots rented the air at about 7:30pm, residents, especially those along the street of Kuje Medium Security Prison and people in Shetiku, a settlement behind the prison, scampered to safety with rumour of a militant invasion of the prison flying about along with bullets.
Consequently, the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Prisons Service (NPS), Ahmed Ja’afaru, immediately swung into action ordering two probes. The first was an interim audit of inmates at the facility, which established that two awaiting trial inmates, escaped from the prison.
The second probe was to ascertain the immediate and remote causes of the incident appropriate remedial measures and sanctions to take.
The first probe found that two dare-devil inmates, Maxwell Ajukwu, from Delta State, and Solomon Amodu, from Kogi, had scaled the 25- feet-high Kuje Prisons fence.
Checks revealed that shots were fired by soldiers and prisons personnel guarding the facility at the time, ostensibly to ward off any attack even while combing the immediate vicinity for escapees.
NPS Public Relations Officer, DCP Francis Enobore, told Sunday Vanguard that the incident was neither a jail-break nor an invasion.
According to him, the two inmates merely “escaped” from the prison at about 1930hrs.
Enobore said the inmates in question were awaiting trial for culpable homicide. Efforts were on in collaboration with sister security agencies to recapture them.
Immediately the incident occurred, news filtered in that a brother of Henry Okah, jailed leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), Charles Okah, had escaped.
It was alleged that militants in the Niger Delta had plotted Okah’s escape in order to enlist his services in the renewed militancy in the region.
When Sunday Vanguard visited the prison on Monday, journalists were denied entry . However, Enobore said Okah was still in custody. He also debunked the insinuation that the two fleeing inmates had any relationship with the militant leader. The gist in town had been that while Okah could not escape, one of his accomplice, who allegedly detonated the explosive during the 2010 Independence Day celebration in Abuja, had escaped.
The NPS spokesperson told Sunday Vanguard: “Although there was an ‘incident’ at the prison on Friday night, it had nothing to do with Charles Okah.
“Yes, there was an incident…but Okah was not involved. It is not true, Charles Okah is still in custody. I have been in touch with our men in the prison facility and there is nothing like that [Okah escaping].
“Contrary to the speculation that there was a jail break in Kuje Medium Security Prison and that Charles Okah had escaped from lawful custody, I wish to state that Charles Okah is still in the prison safe and sound”.
On their part, Okah’s lawyers, First Law Solicitors, said it took both inmates and prisons officials nearly 24hours to ascertain that their client was still in custody.
A statement, signed by one Timipa Okponipere, on behalf of the firm, said Okah had no involvement in the incident as he was quarantined in a room at the prison clinic for a suspected lLassa fever infection.
“On account of his popularity amongst the inmates, word quickly spread that our client was among the two inmates who escaped by scaling the 25- feet-high Kuje Prison fence. It took almost 24 hours for the inmates and authorities to realise that our client had not escaped from the prison.
“Our client has further instructed us to notify all Nigerians and the international community that, God willing, and without prejudice to his ongoing trial, he shall triumphantly walk out of the Kuje Prison gates as a free and vindicated man”.
The Nnamdi Kanu theory
A new twist was however added to the incident as some Nigerians sympathetic to the Biafran cause have accused government of trying to kill secessionist leader, Nnamdi Kanu.
Kanu, who is currently at the prison, is standing trial for alleged “criminal conspiracy, intimidation and membership of an illegal organization”, the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB.
After it was ascertained that Okah was still in custody, word went out that the Federal Government planned the whole incident, with the intention of using it as a smokescreen to murder Kanu.
From the account of the incident by officials and insiders at the prison, this theory does not however hold any modicum of truth.
Security lapses at Kuje Prison
The Federal Government has, in the meantime, admitted noticing security lapses at the prison since last year.
Minister of Interior, Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau, stated this after an inspection tour of the Kuje Prison, on Monday in Abuja.
Dambazau said he had noted the lapses during the era of Dr Peter Ekpendu as Comptroller General of the NPS.
“The last time I was here, I noticed some security gap in the prison, I made my observation then with the former CG Prisons and I noticed the security gap and I told them precisely what to do but unfortunately this (incident) has occurred”, the Minister said.
“Two prisoners escaped and these are prisoners who are awaiting trial for murder. So, this is a very serious issue that I cannot be happy about. I think those lapses were the ones that made it possible for the escape.”
He assured that the present government will do everything possible to ensure that Nigerian Prisons become a better place for inmates.
Dambazau has himself instituted an independent probe of the incident.
Although, the minister did not list the lapses, the question is, how did the inmates scale the fence? Was a ladder provided for them or did they form a human ladder?
Some insiders have however claimed that since the beginning of Ramadan, some of the rules were relaxed to allow Muslim inmates partake in their very-important spiritual obligation. For instance, the lock-up time for the inmates was said to have been extended to enable them observe iftar or breaking of fast. While this is laudable, as the prison is both a centre for spiritual and attitudinal reformation, the handlers of the facility should have intensified surveillance within this period.
Going forward, Nigeria would have to evolve more ingenious ways of ensuring a faster system of criminal justice administration. That way, there would be less awaiting trial inmates at the facilities and the prisons would be decongested.
There is also a biased funding of other security agencies to the detriment of the prisons. Most times, when the various tiers of government extend support to “arresting” agencies, the prisons service is often ignored. Then, the location of Kuje Medium Prison is in itself an issue. The prison is located within a residential area. When prisoners escape, they often find it pretty easy to dissolve into the crowd. This is not the case, for instance, with Jos Prison whose immediate neighbours are offices of sister-security agencies.