By Tony Ogunlowo It’s all the rage now; every Tom, Dick…
One day in 1997, during my year 3 at Offa Grammar School, Offa, Kwara state, we suddenly started hearing loud bangs from the nearby road. It was during break time when students were outside their classrooms but within the school compound enjoying their plays. We didn’t know what caused the strange sounds but they were coming from the main road opposite our school. The ever curious, if dangerously innocent, students attempted trooping to the direction of the sounds to catch a glimpse of what was happening outside, but the more discerning school management knew there was danger, and had the school gate guards lock the gates, while we were shooed to our classes. The sounds turned out to be from gunshots from a robbery operation taking place at a branch of Bank of the North (now Unity Bank) adjacent our school.
That was my first – and only – experience (or near-experience) of robbery in Offa, where I grew up and spent the first eighteen years of my life. Few years earlier, when I was younger, I heard of a similar attack at Union Bank, then inside the town’s main market, Owode. Three people were reported killed in the Union Bank robbery while one life was lost during the BON robbery.
Unfortunately, these robberies have turned out to be a child’s play compared to the series of robbery attacks the town has experienced in the last 10 years, as the community thrived economically and attracted new generation banks.
The deadliest of such attacks happened few days ago which put Offa on the map of world for a reason we don’t want, but we can’t help.
The Offa attack was one robbery too many. The mode of operation (where siege was laid on a whole town for more than one hour), the number of casualties (30 plus), the number of banks involved (6) and the scale of loss of state security agents (township police station attacked, all policemen on duty and complainants at the station killed) made it probably the worst robbery incident in the history of Nigeria.
As stoic as I can be, the pictures coming from Offa broke me down for days. I have been mourning, and the mourning could have been personal.
These pictures could have been of someone I knew or even of someone of my blood, or even of me! Offa is said to have a population of more than 100,000. I come from a large extended family of up to 100 people, more than half of whom live at home. Now, you see the probability of being personally affected.
My mum uses ATM almost every other day. She still has a shop at Owode market, also on that axis. I have 2 sisters that also have shops there. One of my sisters’ shop is almost directly opposite Union Bank. Our grand uncle’s shoe shop is less than 10 meters away from the Police Station. He is dead, but his children, my cousins (I dislike this word, we are brothers) still go to that shop, to the best of my knowledge.
That is the economic hub of Offa. Our own Victoria Island and Oshodi rolled into one.
Our Dad, the family rallying point, is a big man in the community. If you see a big SUV on the street of Offa on a non-festive period as last week, the chance of it being his is more than 20%. At any point in time, about 5 of his cars are on the road in Offa. Imagine the chance of anyone being around that economic hub at the time, the robbers could have loved an SUV for their escape rough ride! God forbid.
I live on Igosun road when in town. Igosun was used as the escape route of the men from hell. My mum goes there from our family house once in a week. She could have been on her way to or from there when the robbers were fleeing, shooting sporadically.
That is how spread we are. That is the family web. That is the chance of me being personally affected in this massacre.
I got wind of the robbery at about 5.10pm same day, while the robbery was going on, through a platform of Offa indigenes I belong to. Our elders in that group swung into action, pulling all strings, from Governor’s office in Ilorin to Commissioners of Police’s offices in Ilorin and Osogbo, the neighboring state capitals. They contacted Naval top echelon, to see if the men at the Naval base in Offa could get instruction to do something. In that spirit of self-help, I saw our big men deploying their network. We were getting situation report. They would meet their waterloo this time around, everyone thought.
It was not to be. They escaped, yet again.
I was in my office at that 5.10pm. I stood up, excused myself from my colleagues, entered the toilet, picked my phone, called my mum, not picking; called Dad, number busy; called my sister, response: we are hiding now; they are still shooting; I have left my house as it is a potential route they could use while escaping; I’m with Aunty XYZ – another sister of mine – who ran here from the market. “What of mama? I asked”. “ I have called here, she is now at home”, my sister responded, fears written all over her voice.
I got some comfort that our Dad, my Mum and sisters were safe. I continued monitoring the situation from Lagos.
I was able to speak to Dad later in the evening. I began speaking with other family members too. I got to know later that my Mum was indeed on the main road, less than 200m from the hot spot (was there even anywhere that was not a hot spot on that day?) when the incident happened and the old woman ran more than 150 meters to get home in the hullaballoo. She was still hearing gunshots from home, like everyone in the community.
Not all families were lucky, sadly. By the time the men left, blood of more than 30 dead and injured people flowed on the streets of Offa.
It was a day of horror.
In the 2013 “edition” of this incident, a good friend of mine lost his immediate younger brother. We all attended same primary school. The young man was shot while the robbers were fleeing. He was not even in Offa. He had gone to a neighboring town of Ipee, about 1km away, which happened to be their escape route. He didn’t know what was happening in Offa. He was shot as they fled through the route.
In this 2018 “edition”, I don’t know any of the victims on personal level, but I have seen the Facebook profiles of a couple of them. I have friends that know people there. How will 30 people die in Offa and I will not know someone that knows someone there? Unfortunately not possible. We are that closely knit.
This event made me realize how people in the North East feel, how people in troubled regions of the world feel. “He who feels the pain, knows the pain”, a friend reminded me.
I have asked several times in the past why people still live in Maiduguri, and other Boko Haram-prone towns in Borno and Yobe states, I now have an answer. Will all of us in Offa abandon our homes because of these incessant attacks? Not possible. I now know the difference between a pundit and those personally affected by terror attacks.
This is also a big economic loss to Offa, and indeed Kwara South. Offa banks feed the economy of Kwara South. In fact, one of the victims of the April 5 incident had come from a neighbouring community to transact business in an Offa bank. The last time similar bank robbery took place in Offa, in 2013, the banks shut down for almost a year. Now, I fear for another long close, or even permanent close of their branches in Offa.
But far more critical than the economic loss is the loss of dear ones by our people. Security of lives of citizens is the first responsibility of the state. Unfortunately, we have been let down. I do hope our governments will find a lasting solution to this staggering insecurity in every part of Nigeria.
A trying time for us in Offa. May God console the families of the victims, and victims of insecurity in other parts of the world.
Jarus is the Editor-in-Chief of JarusHub and Opinions.Ng