Lagos, Nigeria – Moments after an attack on the advance convoy of the president in Katsina state in northwest Nigeria, another set of gunmen stormed Kuje medium-security prison, 50km (31 miles) outside of Nigeria’s capital city last Tuesday. Almost four hours later when they left, they had released more than 900 inmates, including 64 Boko Haram members in detention.
The attack, claimed by the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), an offshoot of Boko Haram now allied with ISIL (ISIS) group, is the latest instalment in the escalating attacks on prisons across the country.
In 2021 alone, more than 5,000 inmates escaped.
Nigeria’s prisons are usually overcrowded well beyond official capacity.
Available statistics on the Nigerian Correctional Services portal, the agency responsible for the management of the prison system, as of July 4, 2022, show that two-thirds of the entire prison population – in 240 prisons across the country – have yet to be convicted for any crime. So apart from being a target for armed groups, the country’s prisons have always been susceptible to outbreaks of riots due to the poor treatment of inmates and congested, delapitated facilities.
Still, analysts say the attack is different from the others the country has witnessed in the past 24 months and that it could be a new chapter in Nigeria’s long-running war with Boko Haram and other elements fuelling insecurity nationwide.
“It begins to speak to what it is to come,” Abiodun Baiyewu, the Abuja-based executive director of Global Rights, a non-profit organisation focusing on security and human rights, told Al Jazeera. “Abuja is meant to be the most secure part of the country. And if you break into the Kuje prison, even if it is [a] medium-security prison but that is where we have most of the terrorists, that has very huge implication because this is the seat of government.”
A spokesperson at the Ministry of Interior told Al Jazeera he was not authorised to speak on the issue.
‘Growth in capacity’
Prison authorities say hundreds of inmates have been recaptured but the whereabouts of many remain unknown, including top Boko Haram commanders like Kabiru Sokoto, the mastermind of the 2011 Christmas Day bombing which killed at least 44 people at a Catholic church in Abuja – and several attacks in Sokoto. Hamisu Wadume, a notorious gunrunner and mastermind behind multiple abductions is also believed to be missing too.
This uncertainty could trigger a spike in attacks, analysts say.
“I don’t think we should expect any of these Boko Haram leaders to have been broken out of prison to retire or go into civilian life,” Leena Koni-Hoffmann, an Africa programme associate fellow with London-based think-tank Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.
“The implications are concerning because it indicates that these groups have no intention of stalling their attacks [on] the state and civilian population,” she said. “Clearly, this demonstrates the growth in capacity and strength or the intention to renew their strength and re-organise.”
In recent years, ISWAP has been spreading its tentacles beyond its orbit of influence in northeastern Nigeria. Last month, interior minister Rauf Aregbesola said the group was responsible for the deadly shooting that killed dozens in a Catholic church in the southwestern state of Ondo.
The group has already claimed responsibility for other attacks in other states including Kogi and Taraba where it claimed responsibility for a bar bombing that killed 30 people.
The observed rise of ISWAP’s influence is concerning, according to experts who say the group is far deadlier than Boko Haram. The attack on the prison clearly demonstrates a more lethal capacity, they say.
“The ability to execute such an attack at the heart of the Federal Capital Territory and releasing that number of inmates points to their capacity and ability to organise attacks,” Koni-Hoffmann said.
The attack is also a hint of the possibility of a criminal partnership, Idayat Hassan, the director for Abuja-based research think-tank Centre for Democracy and Development, told Al Jazeera.
“What is important and different [about the Kuje prison attack] is seeing the collaboration between criminal groups in this instance working together for the second time to exact very huge damage,” she said.
‘A sense of frustration and helplessness’
In his response to the attack, President Muhammadu Buhari blamed the intelligence agency for the attack and asked “how can terrorists organize, have weapons, attack a security installation and get away with it.”
This reaction, coming from the president who had been an army general, has left the public bewildered with many pointing to the statement as an admission of incapacity to deal with the armed groups.
“It is telling us that the centre is no longer holding,” Hassan said. “I think it is from a sense of frustration and helplessness [from the presidency].”
As is common in Nigeria, no government official has resigned or been penalised for the attack.
Beyond the symbolism of the attack happening right next to the capital, experts say there is an increasing inability of security agencies to put up adequate responses to the insecurity and a correspondingly worrying level of sophistication by the group.
“This prison break planning has several legs,” Koni-Hoffmann said. “It was not just the assault on the facility but how and when to move these assets around Abuja and avoid detection. So, this level of planning is disturbing because it must have involved a lot of resources and contacts and intelligence gathering on the part of the terrorist group.”
“It demonstrates a re-organisation and re-establishment of groups that were not really weakened, to begin with, maybe dispersed, and occasionally disrupted but clearly very, very determined.”