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Kuje Prison Attack: Is Anywhere Beyond The Reach Of Armed Groups — By Emeka Ugwuonye

9 min read

Emeka Ugwuonye

(Special Report)

The story of the audacious attack on Kuje Prison on 5/6th July, 2022 was a surprise to many for many reasons. First, Kuje is the major prison in the capital city of Nigeria, with many high-profile inmates. Thus, if Nigeria had the capacity to protect its government, that capacity was put to test by the Kuje attack and it failed woefully. Also, with similar attacks in other prisons all over Nigeria, one would have expected that the Government would be adequately prepared to protect Kuje prison. To put it in the mildest form possible, the successful attack on Kuje prison demonstrated the greatest intelligence failure and laid bare the country’s inability to protect any asset against invasion or assault by an armed groups. Indeed, would it have been different if the attackers had aimed at the presidential lodge, or the airport or the national assembly complex or the Supreme Court premises? Indeed, those are now more vulnerable to similar daring assault.

What Really Happened In Kuje Prison?

It is difficult to have an accurate picture of the details of what occurred in Kuje Prison before midnight and up till 3:00am on Wednesday, 6th July. It is hard to get accurate information because of the following reasons: (1) According to available reports, the attack started around 9:30pm. By this time, the inmates are locking in, each in his own cell. None would know what happens outside his cell. (2) The main prison gates are locked with only the warders on duty inside the prison yard. They would not know what is happening outside. (3) Even the little they known will not be easily divulged to outsiders because of the official attitude toward secrecy. And where fingers are likely to be pointed at the ineptitude of government officials as part of the cause, there will be an enhanced motive to suppress the truth and hide under the culture of silence and secrecy.

Nonetheless, one can piece together bits and pieces of information and stories to arrive at certain facts. The attack started with three or four main explosions around the walls and main gate of the prison. From the pictures shown in the media, the side-frontal gate through which prison vehicles bring inmates in the prison after attending court trials was blown away by what was described as a massive bomb blast. Another blast on the side of the prison wall, a few meters away from the prison mosque, was breached, leaving a huge hole on the concrete walls of the prison. Similar blasts breached two other sides of the prison wall. These blasts opened ways directly in the prison yard.

The puzzle is how the attacker made it to the prison wall without notice when there are about three checkpoints on the on the only approach to the prison through the one single street that leads to the prison? Were the guards on duty asleep or were they silently overpowered by the attackers? Or was there a different explanation for the fact that the attackers made it all the way to the prison wall and blasted the wall down before gunshots were heard? Kuje Prison is normally guarded by armed soldiers, and personnel of the Civil Defense who are there to reinforce the prison’s armed unit. Finally, the prison has a watch tower which is manned by armed and watchful guards, with the ability to detent an attacker from a distance. This supposedly robust security shield failed and the attacker had uninterrupted entry into the prison yard.

The Structure And Configuration of Kuje Prison

Kuje prison, though a medium security prison, is actually well-fortified to resist such attack. The main wall around the prison is up to 18ft high with razor wires, three feet high, on top of the wall. It is impossible, therefore, for an inmate without a ladder to scale that wall. Even if he makes it to the top, he will not overcome the wires. And if he manages to get over the walls, he would be landing on deadly spikes on the outer base of the wall. Kuje prison wall is unscalable. After lock-up, it is impossible for an inmate to get near the walls. Inmates are locked up in individual cells of two to fifteen inmates per cell. Small cells contain fewer inmates. A few elite inmates, like Abba Kyari and Abdulrasheed Maina, are allowed to be alone in a cell, usually the smaller cells. But regardless of how big or special the cell or how many inmates per cell, after lock-up, inmates are in their cells locked in from outside the cell and only the warders can open a cell after lock-up. In Kuje, inmates are locked in from 6pm till 8am. There are additional lock-up points. Even if an inmate manages to get out from his cell, he cannot get far. There are two additional gates he would need to break through before coming out of the custody block.

For an inmate to get to the prison wall after lock-up hours, he will need to break through: (1) his cell locks, which is an impossibility, (2) the floor gate, which is an impossibility, (3) the custody gate, which is an impossibility, (4) a special barbed wire around each custody block. And if the inmates avoids the wall and tries to escape through the gates of the prison, he will have to break through three additional lock points, before he would face a rapid gunfire from a combined team of soldiers and prison armed squad. Indeed, the only way an inmate could escape from Kuje prison is if he has a legitimate reason to be out of the prison yard and escapes the watchful eyes of the guards. Example; the inmate is being taken to court or hospital or he is among the few inmates who are sent to bring in the fire wood for the prison kitchen. That is probably the only way to make an escape good.

The Arrangement Of The Custodies Within Kuje Prison

Kuje Prison has four blocks of custodies: – Custody One (otherwise called Egypt). This is the poorest custody. It has no individual cells within it. About two to three hundred inmates are piled up in this block, sharing about 5 toilets arranged in such a way that when you sit on one of the toilets, your body will be touching another person on the next toilet. Egypt contains both convicted inmates and awaiting trial inmates. (2) Custody Two (otherwise called the Bomb Blast). It is called the Bomb Blast because that is the custody where suspected Boko Haram and ISWA fighters are detained. It is specially fortified because the prison authority considers the inmates in Custody Two to be dangerous terrorists. (3) Custody Three, which has upper and lower level – Custody Three-Up and Custody Three-Down. This is the custody that contains convicted inmates who are not otherwise kept in Egypt. But because the number of prison inmates that are convicted is less than 20% of the entire inmate population, some awaiting trial inmates are held in Custody 3. (4) Custody Four: This custody is occupied by awaiting trial inmates. Finally, you have special cells outside these four custodies. One is a set of sells in what used to be the isolation or segregation unit, where they keep inmates in solitary confinement. Also the prison officials converted some of the offices in the Prison Hospital as cells for privileged or special inmates. DCP Abba Kyari and Abulrasheed Maina have rooms in the hospital converted into their cells.

All the members of ISWAP and Boko Haram suspects in Kuje prison were held in one cell. It can now be understood why it would be easy for ISWAP operatives to zero in on one custody and set easily set their members free without anyone stopping them. In retrospect it appears as if the authorities were dumb in keeping all ISWA members in one place, thus make it easy for their members to rescue them. With so much time on their hands, the attackers did more than rescue their colleagues. They sowed seeds of destruction that went beyond the escape of their members. After setting their members free in Bomb Blast, they went ahead and opened every block and every cell, making it possible for the over 1200 inmates to have the chance to escape, and more than a thousand escaped. (Consistent with the tendency toward secrecy and misinformation, it is to be noted that an official from the Ministry of Internal Affairs understated the number of inmates in Kuje by 400).

How Far Will An Escaping Inmate Get Before Recapture?

It should be expected that Boko Haram and ISWA inmates will not be recaptured. The reason is obvious. Their friends and colleagues came to set them free. So, they would have made all necessary arrangements for their logistics, to ensure they get out of the area as quickly as possible. To be able to escape being recaptured, the inmate will have to have money and have the logistics to get far away, and must know the geography of the area well or be able to hide. Nearly all the inmates other than the members of the terrorist groups will not be able to escape. It should not be a surprised that most of those who are not members of Boko Haram and ISWA will have no choice than to voluntarily submit themselves to the authorities. They simply lack the money and means to make good their escape.

The Real Losses To The System

The armed men that invaded Kuje prison were on the prison ground for up to six hours. That was unusually long time, during which they were not challenged by the Nigerian security forces. Within that time, they had opportunity to destroy vital equipment of the prison. They set on fire every vehicle in the prison premises, including particularly vehicles used to convey prison inmates to and from court for their trial. Also, they set ablaze the records office. The entire files within the prison records office were burnt to ashes. This has far reaching effect. It is to be noted that Kuje prison, like every other prison in Nigeria operates a manual recording system. This is where they keep the record of inmates’ time in prison – the date of arrival, the record of sentence and the date of competition. Because these records are in manual forms, there are no back-ups anywhere. It is now practically impossible for the prison authority to be able to tell the inmates that escaped, the offenses they were charged with, when is their next court date and, for those already serving sentence, it is impossible to tell the date each inmate is to complete his sentence. It is also in the records office that the prison authorities keep record of the inmates’ money and the records of that. Preliminary reports indicate that millions of inmates’ money in the record office was stolen from the inmates. The impact of the attack on Kuje prison attack is that it has blinded the system of criminal justice in Abuja in ways too embarrassing for the government to admit.

How Many People Died From This Attack?

This is another area where the world will encounter lack of transparency by the government. It is highly unlikely that this sort of operation would go without several people killed. If nobody died, it will suggest that there was absolutely no resistance or counter offensive by the security personnel on duty. It is reasonable to expect that scores of people – warders, security men on duty, inmates trying to escape and possibly some of the attackers. But the government can be expected to deny that there were any casualties.

The Call For Massive Reform

If anything will ever come out of this incident, it should be the final call for massive reform in our justice system, especially the prisons. First port or call is the practice of keeping people in prison for years awaiting trial. This led to 80% of the Nigerian prison inmates being people who have not been convicted and who may never be convicted. And these stay in prison for average of 5 years. It is most disheartening that some of those who may have lost their lives in this incident were people who were left in prison because corrupt and inept judges denied them bail and who were in prison based on false charges filed by corrupt police officers. Time has come therefore for Nigerians to demand an overhaul. Criminal trials must be completed within six months. Bail must be granted in situations where a trial cannot be completed within six months and the determination should be made very early in a trial whether such trial will likely last longer than six months.

NOTE: Emeka Ugwuonye was detained for a period of 2 years, based on false allegations by the police of Abuja command intent on punishing him for attempting to expose high corruption within the Abuja police command.

He turned his time in prison as opportunity to understudy the Nigerian criminal justice from inside the belly of the beast. He is thus extremely familiar with the way the Nigerian prison works, and will be commenting on what happened in Kuje prison.

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