Residents of Auchi in Edo State are still in shock over last Monday’s invasion of the town by suspected bandits who left in their trail tears, sorrow and unquantifiable financial and material losses.
Auchi, the headquarters of Etsako West Local Government area of Edo State, was last Monday evening a theatre of violence and blood-letting as suspected bandits unleashed terror on the town, breaking into banks, business premises, private residences and a police station. After about three hours of sporadic shooting and looting, the daredevil robbers left in their trail no fewer than 15 corpses, massively destroyed and bullet-riddled bank buildings, smashed automated teller machines, ATMs, as well as shattered windows and fallen walls.
Access Bank, First Bank of Nigeria, FBN, GTBank and Ecobank were simultaneously attacked by the robbers with bombs, dynamite and other sophisticated weapons. The attack reportedly began at about 6.30 pm from Warrake Road. where military officers attached to Operation Thunderstorm, the state’s special security outfit. An attempt was made to bomb the building. but the impact was only felt on the perimeter fence, which was brought down. The soldiers engaged the invaders in a gun duel while panic-stricken residents took cover.
The robbers similarly attacked the area command of the Nigeria Police Force as well as the divisional police station, both located on Jattu Road. The idea was to render the security agents prostrate in order to have a free rein. The Amoured Personnel Carrier of the Nigeria Police, strategically stationed along Warrake Road, was demobilised. Several buildings were destroyed in the vicinity while a patrol van parked opposite the area command was bombed.
Having demobilised the security forces, the robbers proceeded to the banks, blowing up their security doors with explosives and swiftly gaining access to vaults of the banks. They, however, found the FBN’s strong room impregnable. A staff of the bank was happy that the attack happened when the banks were closed to customers.
“You can imagine what would have happened. We are talking of [fewer] than 20 people killed. It would have been a massacre if they had come much earlier when the banks were busy attending to customers.”
At the GTBank, the bandits bombed part of the building in order to gain access into the banking hall, and also smashed the ATMs.
An eyewitness said, “It was like a scene from James Bond movie. They stormed the town shooting indiscriminately. Many people were confused and, in an attempt to run, fell into the hands of the robbers. Many people were killed. They all carried guns, searching everywhere for money. You would think it was war. In fact, I thought that they were Boko Haram.”
One of the victims, a pastor with Living Faith Church, Winners Chapel, was the son of Zuberu Sheilu, a retired army colonel and cousin to Zakawanu Garuba, former speaker, Edo State House of Assembly. He was said to be on his way to Igarra, where he was assistant pastor, in the company of his counterpart. They were said to be travelling with three others in a car when they ran into the bandits. Even though they ran into the bush on sighting the robbers, they were reportedly pursued and killed.
Business activities were paralysed as traders abandoned their wares and shops and scampered to safety. Travellers along the ever-busy Benin–Auchi–Okene Road were stranded as security agents cordoned off the road. One of the persons killed was reported to be the driver of Bob Izua Motors, a popular transport company in Benin. Three soldiers were also among the casualties.
Though the police denied that no soldier was killed, Jude Omoregie, zonal medical director of Central Hospital, Auchi, confirmed that the corpses of three soldiers were brought to the hospital. The soldiers were reportedly killed at the garage near Baloon Petrol Station while praying. Unconfirmed sources said several soldiers were killed at the Igbira camp. Most of the people killed were said to have walked into their untimely death while trying to escape home from their farms. Omoregie regretted that the protracted bombings made immediate evacuation of the injured difficult. Khadijat Musa, 16, was lucky to survive. She is presently undergoing treatment at the Central Hospital.
Opinions are divided on the real motive of the rampaging criminals. While some people said it was an armed robbery attack, another school of thought believes it was a terrorist attack given the sheer number of the invaders. Eyewitnesses said the bandits numbered up to 100 with many of them dressed in suit.
Pius Odubu, deputy governor of Edo State, who visited the crime scene with security chiefs in the state, said it was an armed robbery attack.
“We have seen things for ourselves. We have seen the damage done to the divisional police station and the area commander’s office and four banks. It is clear these people came with one intention – to wreak maximum havoc. They were daredevil armed robbers who were very blood thirsty, sadistic in approach.”
Mohammed Hurdi, acting commissioner of police, agreed with the deputy governor: “As far as we are concerned for now, it is robbery and nothing more than that, because they were after money, not even after arms”.
Some residents of the town contend that the attacks were characteristic of the deadly Boko Haram Islamists who could have infiltrated the town from the neighbouring Kogi State, where they had launched similar attacks in the past. For instance, when the sect struck August this year at the Deeper Life Bible Church, Okene, Kogi State, three of the suspects, including a woman, who were involved in the killing of 20 worshippers, were apprehended at Ibillo in Edo State where they had sought refuge and were taking treatment for injuries sustained.
Auchi, like most parts of Edo North Senatorial district, is a predominantly Islamic community. The security operatives reasoned, “The JTF has destabilised their operations up North, destroying a greater part of their armoury and that the searchlight on their sponsors has made the sect cash-strapped. Hence the attacks on banks to get money to procure more arms and fund their operations. And Auchi appeared to be an easy target.”
Hurdi debunked claims that the police were caught unaware: “Because if you look at the time they [the bandits] got there, that was the time when the police were changing duty. Some of them were praying; others were taking over duty for night patrol.” Some of the policemen on duty at the time, who spoke under condition of anonymity, confessed that they had to take to their heels because they could not march the superior firepower of the invaders who brandished assorted sophisticated weapons.
As at the time of going to press last week, tension was still high in Auchi and life was yet to return to normal, as the people were mourning and still counting their losses. Fear was still palpable among the residents who were wary of another invasion. But the deputy governor tried to allay their fears, promising that the government would spare no expense in ensuring that the perpetrators were traced, arrested and charged to court.
“Edo State can never and will never be a safe haven for criminals,” he said.
But as at late last week, no arrests had been made.