Suspected armed robbers who stormed the second-largest town in Kwara State last Thursday divided themselves into two teams upon arrival, with the first team confining officers at the nearest police station while the other unleashed terror on bank premises and residents, the state police commissioner has told PREMIUM TIMES.
Daredevil robbers stormed Offa at the close of business on April 5, killing 17 people and raiding five bank branches in an operation that witnesses said lasted for nearly two hours.
Some media reports have quoted a death toll as high as 32.
"Because they came in large number, they were able to divide themselves, attacking the banks and attacking the police station at the same time," police commissioner Lawan Ado told PREMIUM TIMES Sunday. "They demobilised the police station."
The strategy, which the state police spokesperson described as "spontaneous and simultaneous", saw the robbers spend over one hour without any potent resistance from law enforcement authorities, according to witnesses accounts.
At least eight police officers were killed at Owode Police Division at the heart of the polytechnic town, and four of the remaining nine victims were suspects in police custody. The robbers also made away with uncertain but large amount of money from the branches of Zenith Bank, Guarantee Trust Bank, Union Bank , First Bank and Eco Bank in the town.
Eight suspects have been taken into custody in connection with the attack, and Inspector-General Ibrahim Idris said he had deployed more officers to the state to stymie security threats.
The brazen dimension of the incident has fueled renewed concerns about the state of law enforcement agencies countrywide, especially the police whom security analysts fear have become hopelessly underfunded and ill-equipped amidst rising criminal activities.
The attack comes five years after armed robbers hit four banks in the town. The December 2013 attack left seven police officers and about a dozen civilians dead.
Residents decried police's failure to learn from the 2013 incident five years later, especially since it affected the same police station and some of the same banks that were affected in the same neighbourhood.
'No single helicopter'
Even if the police had a reinforcement nearby, it would have been logistically problematic to dispatch, said Kwara police spokesperson Ajayi Okasanmi.
Offa is situated about 60 kilometres south of Ilorin, the state capital. Residents tackled the police for failing to scramble a helicopter to the scene from the capital, a response that would have taken only minutes.
"Actually, we don't have helicopter in Kwara State," Mr Okasanmi told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Monday night. "The police don't have any helicopter in Kwara State."
The official insisted that the attack lasted only about an hour, and further explained that the police could not properly repel the attack due to how rapid and rowdy it unfolded.
"It was a spontaneous and simultaneous attack," Mr Okasanmi, a deputy superintendent of police, said. "It also happened close to a market place."
"So people abandoned their vehicles on the road and routes that some police officers around could have taken were already blocked," he added.
Mr Okasanmi said the division had about three dozen officers, but by the time the robbers struck, a few of them were unavailable.
"We have shortage of manpower by way of death, retirement and incapacitation, so we cannot say we have all the staff there," he said.
The anxiety that many residents suffered following the 2013 robbery was still fresh on their memory, and was responsible for the chaos that ensued immediately after the incident, the officer said.
The attack only serves as a reminder of the debilitating effects of a systemic security crisis which the country has grappled with for too long, said security analyst Chris Ngwodo,
"The police are the most neglected link in the national security value chain," Mr Ngwodo told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Monday night. "We've crippled them. They’ve been paralysed."
President Muhammadu Buhari, Senate President Bukola Saraki and several others have called on the police to ensure timely apprehension of all suspects in the wake of the robbery. But none emphasised the need to equip the police amongst other fundamental hindrances.
An estimated 400,000 officers are believed to be in the Nigeria police for an estimated 180 million people, a situation that analysts have long denounced as unsustainable. But funding for even the insufficient personnel remained alarmingly low.
Yet, Mr Ngwodo warned the situation may only get worse if no immediate steps were taken by appropriate authorities, especially in the face of multi-faceted internal security challenges from Boko Haram to farmers-herders killings.
"The way the federal government continues to deal with armed non state actors, even ordinary criminal gangs now feel emboldened enough to attack," the analyst said.