Asokoro district of Abuja, an area that houses amongst others, the official residence of President Goodluck Jonathan, woke up to a volley of gunshots in the morning of Sunday, March 29, 2014. The sporadic shooting came from within the premises of the Department of State Security (DSS) located not too far from Aso Rock. The early morning bursts of gunfire were later confirmed to be from Boko Haram members who were attempting a daring jailbreak from DSS detention facilities, and the state security officials who successfully aborted the attempt. Eighteen Boko Haram members were reported to have died in the shootout, while three others later died in the hospital. Two state security officials were also confirmed to have suffered serious injuries.
Although there were initially conflicting reports on the incident, the DSS spokesperson, Marilyn Ogar, explained that the affected inmates were not convicts, but suspects in the holding facility of the DSS at the Headquarters of the service. She disclosed that the suspects overpowered the operative who went to deliver their meals by using their handcuffs to hit him on the head as he turned his back to leave. They subsequently seized his gun, overpowered a second operative and also grabbed his handgun, before breaking through a window in their cell and shooting at officers within the DSS grounds. The DSS officers promptly shot back to arrest the jailbreak. The service also denied initial reports that some Boko Haram members stormed the DSS headquarters in several buses and engaged the operatives in a shootout. It said the problem only involved the detainees in the facility and its operatives.
This attempted jailbreak at Nigeria’s security powerhouse is condemnable. The circumstances under which the suspects overpowered the security operative detailed to serve them breakfast also sounds quite unprofessional. It suggests that a review of the processes for handling detainees, especially with regard to their feeding, has become necessary. This is more so as the Boko Haram sect, to which the suspects are believed to belong, is widely known to be violent. Handling its members, therefore, calls for the utmost level of care and professionalism.
Nevertheless, jailbreaks occur all over the world, even in the most secure facilities.Criminals will also always attempt to escape justice by breaking jail, but the real test of the detaining authorities is in ensuring that such attempts are either nipped in the bud, or aborted where they are eventually carried out. It is on this score that the Department of State Security deserves some commendation for bringing the situation under control before it got out of hand.
However, we do not agree with the position of both the Presidency and the DSS that there is no cause for alarm on this incident. There is, indeed, every reason to be worried. The events of March 29, 2014 are a rude awakening for Nigerians on the extent to which Boko Haram suspects can go to evade justice, and the need to properly secure wherever they are detained. It also brought home to us the need to review the detention of Boko Haram suspects within the neighbourhood of the Presidential Villa. While it may be okay to have the DSS Headquarters in that part of Abuja, it is certainly not right to detain suspected members of the Boko Haram sect, which has declared war on the government, so close to the nation’s seat of power.
The attempt at a jailbreak sent worrisome signals on the safety of Present Goodluck Jonathan to all well meaning Nigerians and the international community. This is a development that could have been avoided if the detention facility was not so close to the Presidential Villa.
Our view is that the DSS detention facility is too close to the president’s residence for comfort. Whatever happened to our maximum security prisons? It is not just enough to say that the prisons are not secure enough to hold these suspects. In fact, it is a sad commentary on our prisons, and those who run them, that the whole setup is so porous that it constitutes a major national security threat to keep Boko Haram suspects there. Not too long ago, the country was treated to shocking tales of how a detained Boko Haram suspect was, from his prison cell, coordinating even more heinous attacks outside the prison, using a cell phone right under the nose of prison officials.
Even if we agree that the entire security architecture in the country has recorded a quantum leap from what it used to be in the years gone by, we must also observe that the security challenge of the country today has probably quadrupled in the last five or so years. Our security apparatchik must, therefore, be equipped and positioned to tackle the fresh challenges.
Before our very eyes, the United Nations (UN) building, police headquarters, newspaper houses, churches, mosques, markets, motor parks, banks and private residences were bombed. Entire villages were razed. Students were slaughtered in their dormitories. The insurgency is spreading terror every passing day. We cannot continue to do business as usual, believing that the insecurity would be restricted to a section of the country.
If we had been thinking that we had a watertight security arrangement, this aborted jailbreak is compelling us to make a detailed reappraisal of the processes and tighten all loose nuts. Even if the existing order has served us faithfully all these past years, what happened on March 29 has shown that it is not foolproof, after all. It is apparently in need of retuning.
We also suggest the construction of a more fortified DSS detention facility that will be removed from the present headquarters of the DSS. It may not be as elaborate and cost-intensive as the Guantanamo Bay of the United States of America, but it must be fortified enough to serve our purpose and ensure that our most revered office is not in any way in the direct line of possible danger.
While the abortion of the jailbreak vividly portrays the ability of the DSS to contain attempts by detainees to escape from its facilities, the fact that the attempt happened at all, and the circumstances under which it did, should tell us that we must never take our eyes off the ball in the fight against terrorism, insurgency and insecurity. The DSS and all the nation’s security agencies must continue to retune and update their strategies to always be a step ahead of the terrorists.