Benin: A city at the mercy of cultists, robbers, kidnappers

EVERY town has its own ailment; restlessness is for Lagos, just as street brawl is for Ibadan,” so goes the saying. Benin, the Edo State capital, has, in the last three weeks, registered its name as a leader in the comity of criminal-infested cities as men with sanguinary tendencies took over the once-peaceful city, leaving in their trail sorrow, tears and blood.

Security observers will readily agree that the last two months of the year have always been turbulent in the city, with different types of crimes coming into play as ‘bad boys’ ‘hustle’ ahead of Christmas. But in recent times, nothing has come close to what Benin has witnessed in the past three weeks. The bloodletting and harvest of deaths have been mindboggling.

The season of anomie and bloodshed started on October 19 when the peaceful EndSARS protest was hijacked by hoodlums who visited unprecedented violence on the city and its citizenry. By the time the orgy of violence subsided, two prison yards, now known as correctional centres, located on Sapele Road and Oko, Airport Road, had been broken into and 1,993 inmates released. Of the lot, a whopping 286 were on death row.

Besides, seven police stations at Oba Market, Siluoko Road, Textile Mill Road, Dumex Road, Saint Saviour, Ugbekun and Idogbo were attacked, razed with their armouries looted. With the number of arms and ammunition in the hands of political thugs, preparatory to the September 19 governorship election in the state, the stage for the theater of war had been set and the escaped inmates joining the criminal elements in the city presented a complete cast for the drama that was set to unfold.

Apparently envisaging what would play out with the looted armoury of the police in the wake of the crisis, the state Commissioner of Police, Mr Johnson Kokumo, issued a seven-day ultimatum to the hoodlums to return the looted arms and ammunition. Kokumo stated that at the expiration of the ultimatum, which would take effect from November 9, the command would use all legal means to arrest, disarm and prosecute the suspects. “The criminal elements must return within seven days, with effect from November 9, 2020, the police and other security agencies’ arms, ammunition and other items looted during the attacks on government and private facilities in Edo State, under the guise of EndSARS protests,” he said.

The first indication that Benin City, nay, the entire Edo State, was set for a night of the long knife began with the looting spree that followed the EndSARS protest as hoodlums invaded warehouses and looted what was termed COVID-19 palliatives. When they were done with the government-owned warehouses, attention was paid to privately-owned storage buildings.

From looting, criminals, like the proverbial thieves in the night, crept into the city and the entire landscape became charged. Incidentally, Upper Sokponba Road, where all the police stations – Ugbekun, Saint Saviour, Dumex and Idogbo – had been burnt became the epicenter of robberies, with particular attention paid to the stealing of a certain car brand, Toyota.

At the Murtala Mohammed Way, MM Way end of the Upper Sokponba, a nursing mother was robbed of her Camry. The dexterity of the victim’s husband prevented the criminals from making away with her newborn baby. Inside the same week, luck ran out on two suspected robbers as they were caught and lynched by a mob.

At a time, armed robbers became so audacious in the city that they had a drinking session before leaving a hotel they had robbed 500 meters from the entrance gate of the Edo State Government House, which shares the fence with the official residence of some officers of the 4 Brigade of the Nigerian Army. As the city groaned under the yoke of the armed robbers, it soon woke up to the war of supremacy between two rival cult groups, Eiye and Aye.

The city suddenly turned to a theater of war with the first clash claiming five lives all at Upper Sokponba end of the city. Saturday Tribune gathered from a reliable source close to the warring groups that the crisis was triggered by the inability of the cultists to agree on a sharing formula after an “operation.”

The source said: “The killings are shameful. These boys are just useless. They went for a joint operation and the whole thing started because they could not agree on how to share what they got. Imagine the number of people that have died because of sharing formula.”

Saturday Tribune gathered that while Eiye and Aye confraternities engaged in the bloodletting, other characters suspected to be some of the inmates who escaped from the two correctional centres joined the fray. The theory in town is that many of the escaped prisoners gained their ‘freedom’ because members of the various cult groups in the city joined the EndSARS protest and used the opportunity to free their members.

As the crisis raged, an Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr Agabi Godiri, and two other senior police officers were shot, also at the Upper Sokponba area of the city, as Aye and Eiye members renewed their supremacy battle in the state.

The shooting of the ACP, who is an Area Commander in the state police command, heightened tension in major parts of the ancient city, just students, traders and residents in the area remained indoors for most part of the day. In that vicinity, for two days, no school or business centre opened.

It was gathered that members of the rival cult groups opened fire immediately they sighted the vehicles conveying the senior police officers. And to forestall further breakdown of law and order in the area, military personnel were deployed to the flashpoints, Third East Circular, Upper Sakponba, Idogbo, Three House Junction and the  adjoining streets, where activities of the cultists could easily spill to other locations in the city. That was after about 18 persons had been killed in the conflagration the cult rivalry had become in the locality.

Meanwhile, the Upper Sokponba Road cult clashes, like a harmattan fire, quickly spread to Ekenwan, Siluko, Wire Road, Dumez, Texile Mill, New Benin, Ogida Quarters, Ogbe Quarters and Ibiwe Quarters.

At Idogbo, headquarters of Ikpoba-Okha Local Government Area, two people were reportedly killed, one at a filling station near the council secretariat. The other person was reportedly killed near Y-Junction on the same Sokponba Road, where the two suspected armed robbers were lynched two weeks earlier.

Saturday Tribune learnt that the next day, two other persons, a father of four and a man believed to be one of the escapees from one of the prisons, were also killed near Ogida Barracks, Egor Local Government Area of the Benin municipality. The fifth victim of the cult clash was hacked to death near Costain area in New Benin, Oredo Local Government Area.

On the same day, some strange men took over Siluko Road, close to the burnt Ogida Barracks, brandishing guns, forcing people to raise their hands and scaring several motorists into turning away.

A resident of Upper Sokponba Road lamented the plight of the people living in the area: “We have been living in fear in this area and other parts of the state capital. By 5.00 p.m., people take refuge in their houses because these boys brandish their weapons, robbing and harassing people. This morning, two people who we later learnt belonged to the rival cult groups, were killed.”

By the third week of the cult clash, corpses of victims became common sights on the roads and streets of the flashpoints, with many families and homes in mourning moods. The situation worsened when the third group, the Arubaga, otherwise known as Vikings Confraternity, joined the fray in solidarity with one of the warring parties.

With residents of Siluko, Ugbowo, Dumex and a large part of Upper Sokponba Road leading to Sapele Road fleeing their homes for fear of becoming targets of the bloodthirsty cultists, the areas became shadows of their former boisterous selves as social life came to a sudden halt.

A devastated father of one of the victims, Mr Etinosa Osifo, said: “I was in the house yesterday when two boys came and called out my son. Before I knew what was happening, they had killed him. I don’t know whom to meet for help over my predicament. My son is gone.”

Residents of the city were not the only ones that fell prey to the rampaging cult boys, policemen were also targets. Policemen who served as Investigating Police Officers (IPOs) in the cases of the escaped prisoners started receiving threat messages from the fleeing inmates.

The Commissioner of Police, Johnson Kokumo, while confirming the threats to his officers and men, said the text messages were sent to those officers who, in the course of their duty, prosecuted and secured the conviction of the escaped prisoners. “You can imagine what it means that three police stations along Sokponba Road were burnt and patrol vehicles destroyed in several other parts of the state capital. All the officers in these stations now operate from the headquarters,” he lamented.

The situation, Kokumo noted, had negative effects on the performance of his men. “What do you expect? Some of these escapees have been sending threat messages to policemen who investigated and prosecuted them. One of the escaped inmates, who was convicted for murder, that same day, killed the prosecution witness in his village, but he was rearrested immediately. Everybody must be part of the restoration of sanity. People who know these escapees should avail us information about them,” the CP pleaded. But he assured that “we are not sleeping but with what has happened to the police in Edo, some of these hitches are expected. But we are not sleeping and we will continue to work. As I speak to you, I am on my way to visit three of our personnel, an Assistant Commissioner of Police and two Inspectors, who were shot. They are recuperating.”

At Igueben, in faraway Edo Central, rampaging armed men one Monday night attacked the Divisional Police Headquarters in the area, carting away arms and ammunition and injuring two policemen in the process. The two police officers, an Inspector and a Corporal, who were badly injured during the attack, were rushed to an undisclosed hospital for treatment.

Saturday Tribune gathered that the suspected armed robbers came to the police station around 8.00 p.m. and threw an object believed to be locally made dynamite into the station before gaining access. With the explosion rocking the building, the armed men gained access into the building and headed for the armoury, where they sole arms and ammunition.

While initial reports indicated that the two police officers died in the attack and their bodies deposited in the mortuary, the state Police Public Relations Officer, Chidi Nwabuzor, claimed that the officers were only wounded. “On November 9, 2020 at about 19.30hrs, hoodlums suspected to be armed robber invaded the police station at Igueben. Immediately, the police personnel mobilised to repel them. During gun duel, one of the suspected armed robbers was shot dead, two policemen were wounded and they were taken to the hospital. One motorcycle suspected to belong to the robbers was confiscated by the police. No policeman was killed in the attack,” Nwabuzor reiterated.

The high and mighty also fell victim to the worsening security situation as the younger brother of Comrade Philip Shuaibu, the state’s deputy governor, Frederick Shaibu, was kidnapped by gunmen after taking his kids to school in the Aruogba area of Irhiri in Benin City.

Irhiri, where the kidnapping took place, is a few meters away from the Ogba Zoo, where Mr Osa Ehanire, manager of the zoo and younger brother to the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, was kidnapped sometime ago, with the Ogba River serving as the getaway route for the men of the underworld who operate with speedboats. The young Shaibu was made to travel that same route by his abductors.

A family source who confirmed the incident on condition of anonymity said: “The kidnappers attacked him and took him away. It happened at around 7.00 a.m. when he was going to drop his children in school. The children were left by the gunmen who took their father away. But the incident has been reported to security agencies. They have not made any contact with the family.

“It is believed that the kidnappers came through the river because people who witnessed the incident said they went through the bush in that area that leads to the riverside. Security agencies have been informed and they are doing everything to ensure that he is released unhurt and reunited with his family.”

After spending about 24 hours in captivity, Shaibu was released by his abductors after an undisclosed amount of money was paid for his freedom.

Another family source who pleaded anonymity confirmed that the kidnap victim was released in good health. “I can tell you authoritatively that Frederick has been released to the family and he is in good health. The family is happy to have him back and he is also excited to rejoin his family after his ordeal at the hands of his abductors,” the source said.

With the deteriorating security situation, Benin residents are resorting to self-help by forming vigilance groups and neighbouring watch to protect their lives and properties from cultists and other criminal elements who have taken the city by the jugular.

Two suspected cult members were killed at Urohra Junction and Pipeline Junction in Eyaen, in the outskirts of Benin. Also at Amagba, one of the satellite towns to Benin, the young men in the area have resorted to community policing, conducting stop-and-search on all persons and vehicles coming in and going out of the community.

“We will not wait for the miscreants who have made Upper Sokponba and other areas of Benin uninhabitable to bring their lawlessness into our community. We have resolved to join our vigilante group to patrol, check and monitor the security situation in our community and we will make sure that Amagba is safe for all,” one of the youths volunteered.

At Second East Circular, a young man who was caught with a locally made, cut-to-size pistol had his legs mangled, preparatory to being lynched. A 58-second video of the incident shared on various social media platforms showed the young man with his hands tied to the back to demobilise him. While he was held by one of the mobsters, another was seen emerging with a big plank. The man with the plank dealt deadly blows to the legs of the suspected armed robber, while the crowd kept asking for the mangling of the legs. His cries did not dissuade the crowd from inflicting more pains on him.

As the suspect fell down, a used tyre was seen nearby, while someone in the crowd asked that the suspect be doused with petrol, saying “make una put fuel.”

But the police in the state are not sleeping over the security matter. While officers and men the state police command have not fully returned to their duty posts after the violence which greeted the EndSARS protest, the command had in the last couple of days foiled some kidnap attempts in the state. The command’s spokesman, Chidi Nwabuzor, while reacting to the kidnap of eight passengers in Emu, Esan North-East Local Government Area of the state last Tuesday, said while he could not confirm the kidnap of the eight female passengers, there were other foiled kidnap attempts from Ekpon, Esan Central Local Government Area.

“Reports received from the Divisional Police Headquarters in Ekpon indicate that on November 13, at about 20.00 hours, information was received that hoodlums were operating within the axis with the intent to kidnap some persons but police operatives, in collaboration with a vigilante group, were immediately mobilised to the scene where they engaged and dislodged the hoodlums,” the PPRO stated. He explained that during the operation, one of the vigilante men sustained gunshot injury and was rushed to Irrua Specialist Hospital for treatment. He said investigation was ongoing to ensure the arrest of the suspects.

In Uromi, the police spokesman confirmed the arrest of a suspected kidnapper after the Divisional Police Headquarters received reports on November 14, that “one Yussuf Reuben conspired with kidnappers within Okhuen axis of Uromi where two persons were kidnapped. Police operatives swung into action and arrested a suspect.”

“During interrogation, the suspect confessed that he was contracted by some armed Fulani armed men for the past three months and that his duty was to supply food and water in the forest. Acting on creditable intelligence, police operatives have arrested Usmaila Mohammed in connection with the incident. Efforts are being made to arrest other gang members,” he explained.

The Commissioner of Police, Kokumo, promised that the rising cases of cult-related killings in the city would soon be a thing of the past as 16 cultists and 18 runaway inmates had been arrested. The CP disclosed that 14 other suspected armed robbers were also nabbed by the police in the renewed onslaught against violent criminals, while 877 vigilantes who were recently inaugurated by Governor Godwin Obaseki would soon commence training.

“Our main concern now is geared towards re-arresting the escapees and recovering the looted and other illicit arms and ammunition in circulation. To this end, the police and other security agencies, in conjunction with the state government, have put machinery in motion to checkmate the activities of these rampaging hoodlums, which have yielded some positive results,” the police commissioner said.

As part of the efforts at stemming tide the killings by rival cultists, the commissioner also inaugurated 70 vigilantes in Ikopaba-Okha Local Government Area of the State. Kokumo said that policemen would no longer fold their arms and allow criminals to run riot, killing innocent people and policemen.

“It is our responsibility to sanitise the state and the Inspector General of Police has gone ahead with confidence building of the police after the EndSARS. We will keep talking to our men not to police with bitterness. But never again will it happen for someone carrying jack knife to kill a policeman carrying AK-47. The police will no longer fold their arms and die like chickens. I want everyone to take the message home to their children and neighbours. The police should use their arms professionally if our lives are in danger or while defending others whose lives are threatened and we will have justification to use our arms.”

With the death toll rising to 38, leaders of the warring cult groups met in the city on Monday morning and agreed to end the two-week long bloodbath. The cult leaders, popularly known as Heads of Homes, Saturday Tribune gathered, resolved to put a stop to the killings because the situation was becoming embarrassing even to them. It was further gathered that the various leaders agreed to meet on Sunday night following the intervention of one of their patrons.

At the peace meeting, it was agreed that the warring cultist would sheathe their swords, just as a robust compensation plan was mapped out to take care of the losses suffered by one of the leaders, whose attack led to the mindless killings in the first instance.

With the peace accord signed, relative peace has returned to the city as the only security problem residents are grappling with is robbery. But then again, many residents would consider that as normal with the festive season approaching.

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