© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
‘One chance’ robbery attacks rise in Abuja, and ‘police are not helpful’
“IT’S like a pharmacy in here,” said Atoo, 43, attempting to break the ice as he welcomed visitors into his living room in the Apo Resettlement area of Abuja, the federal capital city.
On the armrest of a Chesterfield sofa lied a drug sachet containing vitamin C tablets. And right across the room was a green desk with an eye drop, a number of other drug packs, prescription notes, and a polythene bag from a popular pharmacy.
Three days before this visit, Richard Atoo had been a victim of armed robbery carried out by men who disguised as taxi drivers and passengers. By the time they were done with him, Atoo was left with over 30 knife wounds that nearly ended his life.
His right eye was still bloodshot while adhesive bandage covered almost all of the left section of his head.
“I least expected that I’ll fall a victim,” he said.
A mass communication graduate of the University of Jos and father of two, Atoo has been in and out of Abuja since 1994 and decided to settle in the city to work in 2007 because of the many opportunities. And not once in all those years was he ever robbed, until the night of Tuesday, April 23.
The time was minutes to 8 pm. Tired and heading towards the Area 3 junction, he had flagged down a taxi along Ogbomosho Street, Area 8, Garki. The cab appeared to have two passengers, one sitting beside the driver and the second at the back. Nothing about the men or the vehicle appeared suspicious, but as soon as Atoo boarded, the tinted glasses were wound up.
He was pinned down by the robbers. Men, well-built and in their late 30s, forcefully collected his two smartphones and searched for bank alerts. Their victim’s Automated Teller Machine (ATM) card was however not on him, and so they could not withdraw the huge sums of money they saw.
“I guess that infuriated them,” Atoo said, fidgeting with a bandage plastered above his lip. “They started stabbing me in many places. They had a gun too. I think at a point they thought I was dead because there was blood all over the car. The whole place was messed up. Anytime they struck me, I would feel blood splattering everywhere!”
After snatching his cash and phones, worth well over N100,000, they pushed him out of the vehicle roughly at the same spot he was abducted. No one helped him despite his cries until a taxi driver pulled over, picked him up, and dropped him at the gate of Wuse District Hospital, where they stabilised him, sutured his wounds, and prescribed medications.
His only regret from the entire experience, he lamented, is that he could not get the phone number of the taxi driver who saved his life.
A sustained increase
One chance robbery is a growing threat to security on the streets of Abuja. Residents of the capital city lose their assets to the criminals nearly every day. From the accounts of victims and hospital sources, the people robbed end up losing their phones, money and, sometimes, lives.
When asked how frequently Wuse District Hospital’s Accident and Emergency Unit receives one chance victims for treatment: “Everyday!” replied a healthcare worker. The medical director, Sa’ad Idris told The ICIR the hospital’s head of nursing also fell prey in April, two days to this interview.
Okey Mbaleme, a Consultant Orthopaedic Trauma Surgeon at the hospital informed this reporter they get an average of 20 cases each month一but “that would be conservative,” he made sure to add.
“It is a very very big problem,” Mbaleme said thoughtfully. “It is very rampant. It used to be seasonal, but now it has heightened. There has been a sustained increase.”
The hospital at times can admit as many as two or three victims in a night. Some of them sustained severe injuries to their brain, deep fractures, spinal cord injuries, paralysis, trauma, and “terrible cuts”.
An optometrist at the Kubwa General Hospital, who for safety concerns asked not to be named, also confirmed the frequency of the attacks, adding that her cousin was recently assaulted by the criminals, and lost her savings.
“The rate at which we see victims in this eye clinic is too much. The thing is too much,” she said repeatedly. “It is alarming and it wasn’t like this in previous years. Something needs to be done.” She noted that robbers often go for the eyes in attacking their victims and some of the patients become permanently blind after the incidents.
The dark spots the robbers frequently operate include Wuye junction, Galadimawa roundabout, Gwarinpa junction, Federal Housing junction Kubwa, Wuse Market, Area I, Airport Road Lugbe, among others.
Different tactics, same goal
One chance robbers have two things in common. They all make use of cars and are after their victims’ money or other valuables. Though their tactic varies; it is aggressive. Most victims report that the attackers are within the age bracket between 20s and 40s.
At times they make use of Point-of-Sale machines to withdraw from their victim’s account, and at other times they use ATMs while the account owner is still taken hostage. Often, they operate in the early morning hours, or early evening from 6 pm till late into the night.
They either make use of private cars disguised as taxis or, green commercial taxis registered in Abuja. The car could have only men as passengers or include one or two females to reduce suspicion, a trick that worked in the case of Roheemat, a fashion designer when she boarded what she thought was a taxi in April at Gwarinpa junction.
One chance either ply the restricted routes known locally as “Along”, or ride freely to specific destinations based on instructions. On one Tuesday night in 2015, Chidinma Okwudiri, a media consultant and scriptwriter, was a victim of robbers who fell into the second category. It was a commercial taxi, green golf car, boarded at Wuse II. Minutes into the trip, another person emerged from the trunk of the car and joined the passengers at the back seat. After beating her, the robbers snatched her bag, necklace, and wristwatch.
Okwudiri recalled her experience in the hand of the robbers.
“The driver was struggling at the trousers trying to take it off. I didn’t know what he was trying to do, and that was the point when I got scared.
“When they got to an area in Zone III, the driver was on speed but they just opened the door and pushed me out of the car without slowing down. Then they sped off. I still have the scar on my right knee where I landed. It never left.”
There are also those who make use of taxis and reportedly charms commuters without resorting to violence. They try to convince their victim that one of them was able to steal a huge amount of money from a rich client or employer and then persuade him or her to accompany them to a supposed ritualist to “cleanse” the money so they could share equally. Counting on the greed or fright of their victim, the ritualist asks each of them to bring a sum of money for his services.
A female corps member, new to Abuja, who narrated her experience to The ICIR said she boarded one of such vehicles at the Central Business District in April, hoping to return to her host’s residence in Lugbe. One of the fraudsters, a lady, started discussing with her in Yoruba and convinced her to play along and leave since they would injure her since she might snitch. She observed that while the driver was a Northerner, the second passenger was an Ibo man.
She followed them to a remote area to meet the traditional medicine expert, “Mama Gwari’s son”, who asked them to bring N210,000 for the cleansing. She lied she did not have her ATM card, and convinced them to take her to Lugbe junction to retrieve the card in order to withdraw.
“This is our opportunity to become rich,” the lady passenger had told her in Yoruba during the return trip. “Even if you don’t have up to that N210,000, just bring N50,000. We can persuade the baba to collect it.”
Chigbo, nicknamed Simba, an area boy at Berger junction, one of Abuja’s most vibrant bus-stops, said though they do not know who the criminals are, they have ways of suspecting when they are operating. Usually, he explained, they don’t stay close to the bus-stops where there are crowds.
He added: “They only park along and say remain one, remain one. And sometimes when the passenger wants to enter, one of those inside would claim he has an injury, come down, and then they’ll put the new person in between four people. And then they often ask where you are going, instead of you asking them. If you say you are going anywhere, they would say they are going there too.”
Not all victims have been lucky, as Atoo. In December, one of the ushers at the EYN Church of the Brethren, Utako, died on the way to the hospital after he was robbed and stabbed. He had gone to Apo to drop his car with an auto mechanic for repair, called his wife to inform her he would soon be home but fell into the wrong hands. The pastor-in-charge and chief security declined to speak on the incident “because of its security nature”.
Another resident who spoke to this reporter disclosed that his neighbour also lost his life around on December 20 to similar circumstances. He explained that, having lost their breadwinner and a sense of safety, the family decided to relocate from Abuja.
Then again, three days to Christmas, a young lady posted to Abuja for the compulsory National Youth Service Corps scheme became a victim. On December 14, she was abducted by the mobile armed robbers and shot after she was shoved out of the vehicle. There are numerous other cases of lives lost to the menace, most of which do not make the headlines.
Some of those who escaped death in the hand of one chance robbers show signs of emotional distress, hyperarousal, and hypervigilance. Atoo, for instance, mentioned that he has felt jumpy since his close shave with death.
“When I sit down, I have a feeling like they are grabbing me,” he said with an upset look. “You know, I will just jump. And I’m still feeling it. I’m still feeling it … The shock is still very much alive.”
Joseph Olayanju, administrative manager at the International Centre for Investigative Reporting who was robbed on March 14 and battered on the face, related similar experiences. He is afraid of being close to other humans, except people he trusts or knows.
“Anytime I find myself in a commercial vehicle, the next thing is I begin to assume the people inside are criminals,” he said. “Then if I’m going to Kubwa, when I look in a vehicle and the people appear normal, I quickly enter regardless of where the car is going, even if it won’t get to my destination.”
Olayanju added that, unlike in the past, he has learnt to leave the office early and feels uneasy anytime nightfall approaches.
It takes time before many victims recover emotionally. Okwudiri estimated that she was messed up by the incident for at least “one good month”. “I was traumatised badly. I lost some weight. I was a walking shadow of myself for a while,” she said.
For over two weeks, she could not sleep without a knife under her pillow and a friend had to remove it. Now, she checks the driver’s seat and trunk before boarding any taxi.
“It has happened that at times when I tell them I want to see their trunk they just speed off. It happened to me two or three times,” she added. “Still, when I enter a car at night, I’m always at alert. Everything in me is alert. I want to see anybody’s next move and what is going to happen. Even if I check the trunk and everywhere else, I am always very alert.”
Nine in 10 residents have been victims or know someone who was
As many as nine in 10 residents of Abuja who participated in a poll conducted by The ICIR, to measure the prevalence of ‘one chance’ incidents in the city among other indices, have either had an encounter with the robbers or know someone who has.
15.6 per cent of the respondents said they themselves have been victims of the menace, while 59.4 per cent replied that they know persons who were victims. 12.5 per cent said they have both been victims and know others who have as well, and only 12.5 per cent belong to none of the categories.
Seven in 10 (66.7 per cent) of the respondents said they do not “feel safer living in Abuja today, compared to previous years”. Only 8.3 per cent replied otherwise, while 25 per cent is undecided.
On the effectiveness of the Nigeria Police in tackling the crime on a case to case basis, 66.7 per cent of the relevant respondents said the police were not helpful “at all” in tracing the criminals and recovering stolen assets. No one thinks the police were “very helpful”, 3.3 per cent said they were fairly helpful, and 30 per cent said they did not bother to contact them.
Some of the victims who spoke to The ICIR complained of the police not following up on information provided by them, and others fear that going to the police will only cause them to lose money in two places without obtaining justice.
Maliq Aina, whose sister, Aishat, was robbed of N500,000 in March, said they gave up hope of getting back the money after noticing the police’s strange reluctance to act—though they had gone to the bank to temporarily freeze the recipient’s account, identified the account owner and got his picture from the ATM security camera, and also paid a lawyer N100,000 to get a court order.
“The police was informed of the incident and were given the criminals name and picture for easy identification but they claimed they couldn’t apprehend them,” Aina told our reporter.
“The interesting part is when we got a court order for the reversal of the money and we thought we were the only one who had the copy, we discovered the police somehow had it too. And when the bank said the money is no more there, they [the police] went silent about it.”
The inadequacy of streetlights in Abuja may have contributed in no small measure to the rise of criminal activities in the city. Many parts, including major road networks, are dark at night.
The reporter observed this trend for instance on the Murtala Mohammed Expressway linking Berger junction to Kubwa, a route particularly notorious for frequent one chance attacks. While a couple of the streetlights at the junction are working, a major part of the road stretching to Kubwa, a trip of over 30 kilometres, are dark.
A few street lamps are still functional around Gwarinpa junction, one km after Starview Palace Hotel, but the rest of the road is dark except for illumination from roadside filling stations, halogen lamps from nearby factories, and headlights of passing vehicles.
Vendors at Berger junction confirmed that the police patrol vehicle stationed at the area often parades on the Berger-to-Kubwa lane in the night. However, taxi drivers, including James who has travelled the Berger-Kubwa route regularly for over five years, said not once have they been stopped by policemen on the road for a random security check.
The absence of Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras also has contributed to the difficulty in tracking and arresting robbers. The ICIR reported in 2017 that security cameras planted on major roads in Abuja did work for long after their installation, though as much as N76 billion was spent on the project. Many of them have since been vandalised and stolen by hoodlums.
A bank source, however, told the reporter that, in cases where ATMs are used to withdraw from the victim’s account, the face of the culprit is captured by the machine’s camera and this image may be requested for by the account owner or police. Where a transfer is made instead, the recipient’s account can be frozen for a maximum of 48 hours. A court order is required to either extend the freezing period or reverse the transaction.
‘The police isn’t sitting around,’ says FCT Command
In a bid to deal with the menace, the FCT Police Command recently established an Anti-One Chance Squad headed by a chief superintendent of police. But the squad is yet to nip the crime in the bud.
Danjuma Tanimu, the Command’s Deputy Public Relations Officer, told this reporter the police is doing all it can to arrest the robbers and raise awareness among the populace on how to remain safe. He also said they enjoy a good relationship with the commercial banks, from whom they get useful information.
“We have strategic checkpoints across the city,” Tanimu said in response to a question about preventive measures. “We provided more Rapid Response Squad (RRS) vehicles. If you go round, you will see them. They are there, except if there is an emergency they must attend to.”
Asked if he thinks the lack of functioning CCTV cameras is impeding the fight against one chance, the deputy PRO replied in the negative.
“That we don’t have working CCTV is not contributing to one chance,” he said after a brief pause. “If an individual has the mindset to commit a crime, he will commit a crime. If the CCTV is not working, we have our gadgets like walkie-talkie. It’s working 24 hours … So CCTV cannot stop police from checkmating the activities of criminals.”
He urged the public to inform the police anytime they see something suspicious and assured them of the officers’ readiness to act promptly. Police emergency numbers that may be called include 09052397880, 08024130926, 09051488448, and 07014951751. “The moment they call, they will be connected to the control room, which is available for 24 hours.”
‘The FCT administration is fully aware’
The FCT Administration’s Director of Security, Adamu Gwary, has said the government is “not unaware” of the emerging trends and the FCT minister has recently approved certain proposals aimed towards finding solutions.
“The minister has directed the commissioner of police to come up with remuneration in terms of financial inducement to those who provide actionable intelligence on criminal hideouts or black spots within the FCT,” he said.
He disclosed that the administration is also partnering with media organisations, such as Brekete Family and Sports Radio, to better inform and orient residents, as well as sister agencies in neighbouring states. He mentioned a surge in population as a possible factor that has led to increased criminality.
Gwary also said there are plans to better regulate the operations of unpainted taxis, otherwise called kabukabus, and every driver will have to be registered under a licensed transport operator.
The FCT administration, he further noted, has taken special interest in deploying mobile streetlights to dark areas of the town, and also hopes to expand already existing pilot CCTV projects to other parts of the FCT.
“Very soon,” he concluded, “residents of the FCT will heave a sigh of relief with regards to issue of emerging security threats within the territory.”
Ifeanyi Ughamadu, PRO to FCT Transport Secretary, also agreed that the spread of unpainted taxis is a huge push to one chance incidents. The previous administration recorded some success in registering and regulating these cars but compliance has since dropped, he said.
He added that a meeting of stakeholders in the transport sector will be held in May. “The essence is to discuss all relevant problems in the transport sector in the FCT after which we will come up with resolutions that will be binding,” he said.
With all hands on deck …
The problem of one chance is one that can be cut back with the right amount of commitment, discipline, and collaboration between the public, government and security agencies. This is the view of Ben Okezie, a security analyst, columnist, and chief executive officer of BRANE Security.
Residents boarding taxis should note number plates, especially at the rear, and avoid vehicles in which the boots and back seats are connected such that someone hiding in the trunk can easily batter the passenger.
“Then the security agencies, the police and Road Safety Corps, should ensure they are present on all those areas designated as Along,” he said.
He also urged the government to amend criminal laws to make sure vehicles used for robberies are impounded once suspects are arrested and prescribe severe penalties to dissuade criminals. It is also important to create jobs to keep the country’s teeming young population productive, he said.
Okezie stressed the need for research into modern methods and the incorporation of technology, especially security cameras and biometric data, into crime fighting.
“It is very important,” he added. “What electronics can do is greater than what 100 or 500 policemen can do. We should invest in it.”
Mbaleme also pointed out the need to have universal health insurance coverage so that victims can get immediate attention from all hospitals, and then a public transportation network to reduce reliance on private cabs.
*Not real name.