On Thursday, 28th March, 2008, there was a bizarre robbery incident in Owerri when in a mid-day bloody orgy, a platoon of well-armed robbers, stormed the Owerri branches of Zenith Bank and Intercontinental Bank on the busy and popular Wetheral Road. After over one hour of internecine strafing, the robbers reportedly went away with several bags full of cash, killed several people, including four policemen and pumped so much bullets on the bank buildings that the two bank branches located close to each other and several surrounding buildings still bear the imprimatur of that siege with holes pierced by hot bullets. While the operation lasted, the robbers took control of the operational areas and successfully cordoned it against road users, beat back the feeble effort of the police to mount a challenge to that audacious atrocity. Motorists abandoned their vehicles and ran, people ran helter skelter to avoid being cut in the heavy strafing. In fact, it was like hell was launched in Owerri that day. Frantic phone calls were made to friends and relatives to intimate them of the development and warn them to steer clear of the targeted area. The Radio Nigeria FM station tried to keep listeners abreast of the sordid happenings and people eagerly waited for updates on the incident. As expected, the Police, so overwhelmed by the action of the robbers and its own profound incapacity, has come forward with their usual, convenient and tepid lie that the robbers did not succeed in looting the banks but eye witness accounts speak of several sacks of money being emptied from the two banks.
Many Imo people were aghast that robbers operated in the city center for hours and after a successful operation, left unmolested. They fume that no place is sacred for robbers and gun-totting brutes to trample on and nobody is safe in the state. In effect, and of course it is being muttered everywhere, the trumpeted clean bill of security health the state, especially the state capital, has been basking in for years, was a mere ruse that cannot stand the test of criminal challenge. To many, the state government’s security outfit, Operation Festival, launched just before Christmas and which is touted as the reason for the near total absence of hair-raising criminal incidents for some months in the state, particularly the state capital, is not working. To many others, as has oft been repeated; the security situation in the country has come under yet another scrutiny and has failed woefully.
I was in Owerri the same day and when the operation started, my friends called to ensure I was out of harm’s way and for me to avoid coming nearer the siege theater, a very busy area, opposite the Dan Anyiam Stadium. I tried to monitor events from where I was, which was not far from the center of action. I heard the unending gunshots and the entire city was thrown into one huge bedlam as the fiendish operation lasted and several questions wafted from the eager, fear-struck mouths of the bewildered citizens who have not witnessed such bizarre experiences in recent times. To most Imo people, what happened was more than ordinary robbery and must have transcended the urge to snatch some cash and embark on a celebration spree. It was war, declared and levied by hounds that have both pecuniary and susceptible political interests and we shall come to these as the circumstances behind that brazen incident unfold with the coming days.
Till now, the issue is still the hottest news in town. Taxi drivers, commercial motorcycle operators, popularly called okada, passers by and people in their respective homes, still discuss that incident just because Owerri has cut a peaceful note of late and since the state government made the issue of security a topical issue, it has made much capital from the fact that for several months now, there has not been any major earth-shaking incident of armed robbery in Owerri. The blame game is on and this is a right approach the people employ to explain the successful conduct of the operation. As is apt, the police and other security outfits are the targets of Imo people for their shoddy response to the challenge thrown by armed goons in broad daylight. The state police led by Mr. Donald Iroham has been very loud in flaunting this testimonial and while people appreciated his dexterity, they have still pointed out that in recent times, the Imo hinterlands have come under persistent pressure from armed robbers who seem to be in a hurry to recoup lost grounds after the general bliss that attended the celebration of the holidays in Imo State.
Before the robbery incident of March 27th, there have been some foiled attempts by armed robbers to stage the kind of deadly show they enacted that day. There was one incident where the police intercepted armed robbers that targeted the branch of Union Bank in Aboh Mbaise while they were on the way to their target and prevented from carrying out their mission. The state police commissioner talks of foiling what would have been the biggest robbery heist in the history of the country but the details are not so clear to me. But what one knows is that bank robberies are not too popular in Owerri. In fact, the March 27th incident was the first incident of successful bank robbery since May 2007, when Governor Ohakim came with his heightened emphasis on the security of lives and properties in Imo State. Indeed, it was the first successful high-profile bank robbery incident in three years after the midnight invasion of the Wetheral Road branch of UBA (then Standard Trust Bank). Before the recent incident, it was nearly taken for granted that bank robbers would not successfully carry out a successful operation in Owerri and the government and the people have not been modest about this. Perhaps, it was in a bid to puncture this fact that the shocking incident was carried it, which is why we have to look beyond armed robbery to see if there were political statements the incident was intended to sound. And here, we have to consider so many factors. First, the Governor cried out that he was being targeted for elimination and then, the hoax about his arrest and prosecution by London police for money laundering was generously planted in the media by God-knows-who and when he had barely weathered this, the robbery incident happened.
I know many would wonder why I raise so much fuss about a mere robbery incident in a country where no day passes without such incidents, some even more deadly and more brazen, happening. But, as I stated earlier, this incident was the first since Ohakim came on board and he has been sounding so confident that with the security arrangement he had put in place, such similar event was not possible in Owerri. Then, the manner of the operation gives out some suspicion that it was not an ordinary robbery incident. This was an operation where, as those that witnessed the operation reported that only machine guns were used in the operation as there was a non-stop shooting spree, often fired erratically and without precision, during the long period of the operation. In fact, the hounds seemed to have a limitless cache of arms. The robbery zone looks very much like a war scene as the surrounding buildings were riddled with bullet holes. In short, the robbery incident was the most deadly incident in Owerri in recent times. From all possible indications, there was a veiled message contained in the entire incident and this far outweighs the implications of a routine robbery act. Most people in Imo State fear that there is a political implication to ridicule the security arrangement in the state and present a picture of a government that is loosing grip of the state. I bet that the truth here would be reified in the coming days.
But I hope the state government is not loosing sight of the central issue, which is that it has to work more to firm up the security arrangement in the state. The Ohakim government, which has so far, made tremendous investment in the security sector must see this to reposition the existing security outfits and prepare them for such incidents as the one that happened on March 27th. I hear that the state government has summoned an emergency security meeting to rise to the challenges thrown by the robbers and ensure such brazen display never gets re-enacted in the state. This is commendable and should be supported by Imo people that neigh for peace to carry out their respective activities. Knowing the seriousness with which the present government reacts to similar incidents and challenges, there is little doubt that the people of Imo would be spared the kind of harrowing experience they had on March 28th. This equally demands a symbiotic interface between the state government and Imo people so that nothing will happen to ensure such horrifying incident is repeated.