There was a loud bang, the kicking down of a door, and the frightened cry of “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” It was the voice of the pastor that had just checked into the hotel that morning with his wife and three children, one of whom was a toddler. The time was about 10:55 p.m. I had just returned from a pepper soup joint with my friends, Segun Adegoroye who lives in Gravesend, just outside London, Jide Ogundana, a Lagos-based lawyer and Gbolagade Busari, a House of Representatives candidate in Oyo State. All of us had been mates at the University of Ibadan and had lived on the same floor in Mellamby Hall. It was a good reunion as most of the others had not seen each other for over twenty years, while I maintained contact with all of them.
We parted ways at about 10:30 p.m. I escorted Segun and Jide to their hotel since they were not very familiar with the area. After exchanging a few banters, I headed for my own hotel. I kicked off my shoes, undressed and got into the tub for a shower. That was when I heard the loud bang coming from downstairs. I stood still for a moment, to enable me decipher the cacophony of voices, but I could not make out anything. My first instinct was whether something was wrong with the pastor’s child. Then I thought maybe people were fighting downstairs. Or could it be armed robbers? I quickly discarded the armed robbery thought. The hotel had four or five stoutly built employees on duty that night. It could not have been armed robbers. I got out of the tub, got dressed and headed out to help the pastor. I was sure his toddler, who did not look very well when they arrived in the morning, was in some form of trouble.
I opened my door, stepped into the hall and called out to “Ololo” – an employee of the hotel, asking him what the matter was. Before he could answer, a hefty guy, about my size, ran up the stairs carrying a pistol. He calmly introduced himself to me in Yoruba: “We are armed robbers and we have come to collect our sallah gift. Let’s go to your room.”
It was December 29, 2006. Sallah was the 30th. Close on the hefty guy’s heels were two others – one carrying a hunting rifle and the other a sawed-off shotgun. Any idea of heroism that I might have had quickly evaporated. My famous Yoruba proverb quickly took over my head: “sagenti moridele san ju genera akusogun” – it is better to be a surviving sergeant than a dead general.
I took them to my room where they took their time to ransack the whole place. They took my wedding band, my phone, my blackberry and my laptop. That laptop contained materials that took me years to complete and pictures to which I have sentimental attachment. Then they asked for money. I told them it was in my SUV downstairs. I had been buying building materials for over a week and had people working at our site through the holidays. They had to be paid and more materials had to be bought before the banks opened again for business. Because Christmas, Sallah and New Year celebrations all fell within a week, banks were closed for just as long. So, I had some cash stashed away in my SUV. With all kinds of guns arrayed against me and slaps and punches raining on my eyes – just my eyes only, I took them to my vehicle and handed them a plastic bag containing N620, 000.
Now they wanted the key to the vehicle. I begged them to allow me to retrieve my wallet which was in the glove compartment. My wallet contained everything that anyone living abroad keeps in his/her wallet – I.D. cards, credit cards and bank cards. After searching it for “foreign money” (which was there but they did not find because they could not tell the Euro from ordinary papers) they threw it at me.
As they were about to lead me back to one of the rooms where they kept all guests and staff of the hotel at gunpoint, one of them called me back to remove whatever security device I had on the SUV. I told him that I did not set it. They did not believe me. The slaps resumed. I had bought the SUV brand new in the US in 2000 and had never set the immobilizer. I did not even know that it had one! But last year, we shipped that SUV to Nigeria and replaced it here with a different model, but same manufacturer. While thumbing through the owner’s manual of the new one, I came across the immobilizer instructions and read it. So, when the robbers were going to kill me if I did not “remove the security,” I went back to the vehicle praying that since it was the same manufacturer, the security systems would be the same. And they were. I then set it. I set it for three minutes of operation. Then I told the robbers that I had “removed the security.”
After a couple more slaps and punches, I was led to the room that the rest of the guests were kept and ordered to lie down. When I took too long because the whole floor and bed were already filled with people lying down, I was hit in the head with a dining plate that broke into pieces, and ordered to lie on top of a child – I believe one of the children of the pastor, probably 9 or 10 years old girl. They locked us up and left.
After about three minutes of complete silence in the hotel, I reasoned that they might have left and asked the men in the room to follow me downstairs to see. None responded. Everybody was either afraid or still in shock. I got up and went downstairs. There were no signs of them. I walked all the way to the gate and found my SUV in the ditch right in front of the gate. Apparently, the three minutes had elapsed while they maneuvered the vehicle inside the parking lot. The breaking and steering mechanisms failed. The security system had worked!
The owner of the hotel (Mr. Demola) and his friend arrived just minutes after the armed robbers left. All three of us drove (in his car) to the nearest police station, a total of 3 minutes driving from the hotel. There were only three police officers on duty. None was armed – at least, not that I could see. We reported the robbery. I asked where the rest of the officers were, and the female officer told me that they were on patrol. She got on the police radio and dispatched the patrol team to the hotel. By the time we returned to the hotel (about 20 minutes later because we had to complete our report) the patrol team had come and gone! They had talked to all the hotel guests. Everybody was robbed. The pastor had his suitcase containing all his money and his entire family’s clothes taken from him. He was traveling to Abia State and wanted to rest for one day before continuing on his journey. He had nothing left. My vehicle was still in that gutter with its key in the ignition. No attempt was made by the police to retrieve it, impound it or search it for whatever the robbers might have left. With my eyes burning and swelling rapidly, I got in my vehicle, switched on the 4-wheel button and drove it out without revving the engine. You should own a 4-wheel drive if you live in Nigeria. It will literally get you out of all kinds of holes.