Crime Stories

In Nigeria, robbers let their victims know they're coming

July 12, 2001


LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) _ Bolanle Ijikelly wasn't too surprised when armed robbers broke through the wall of her apartment with a sledgehammer one night last month and started carting away her valuables.

The week before, they'd sent her entire apartment block a note to let everyone know they'd be stopping by.

In Lagos, thieves are so sure of getting away with crimes they hand-deliver notices alerting intended targets they're coming _ so even the poorest victims will have some cash on hand to steal.

The rationale is simple: Those with no money and nothing worth stealing are often beaten _ or shot.

In a city where police were cleared last month to shoot suspected criminals on sight, everyone's got a crime story to tell.

The anonymous message penned on a sheet of paper and pasted to the wall of Ijikelly's rundown apartment block was blunt:

"We are coming to Block 31 to rob each flat and no flat will be exempted."

Many tenants fled. Others stayed home during the day but slept elsewhere after dark.
Some, like Ijikelly, were so resigned to their fate they chose to stay and wait.

"I knew they were coming, so I prepared an envelope with 650 naira ($5) in it to give them," the 47-year-old teacher said.

Ijikelly and her five children woke to the sound of gunfire, got dressed and soon met eight armed men who crawled through the hole they knocked in her wall.

Two hours, 13 ransacked apartments _ and no arrests _ later, officers finally chased off the robbers.

That the police came at all was remarkable. In Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, only 12,000 officers are deployed to protect a population of 13 million.

Few residents expect much help. The poorly paid police force is best known not for foiling crimes, but for extorting bribes from drivers at checkpoints around town.

Left on their own, many residents barricade neighborhood streets with gates and lock themselves up inside houses with barred windows.

Few have telephones at home to call for help.

When the sun goes down, many parts of the city are plunged into darkness because electricity is so scarce.

Moving around at night can be eerie _ and dangerous.

"I try to get home as early as possible. Nowhere is really safe," said Akin Ajose-Adeogun, a 42-year-old civil servant.

"We usually hear gunshots every night somewhere in the distance. It's like we're under siege."
Robbers frequently operate in groups of 50 or more, hitting not just single houses but entire streets.

Sometimes they stuff nails into shoes or oranges and toss them onto bridges to blow out the tires of passing cars. Bands of thieves then converge on the car and rob the occupants.
Shootouts with police are common.

Gruesome crime stories make headlines in local newspapers every day and robbers have become infamous for acts of brutality.

Actress Patience Oseni, 37, said a gang of thieves who lost one of their men during a robbery last month in the Bariga neighborhood returned a few days later _ and gunned down two dozen residents in revenge.

Lawyer Femi Odutola said one group even attacked a police station this month in another act of revenge, killing two officers.

But the violence goes both ways.

Oseni said she saw police kill five suspected robbers as she was going to church one Sunday in June.

"They didn't ask too many questions. They just took them out on the street in front of the station and blew their heads off," Oseni said. "It's jungle justice."

Some civilians, tired of all the crime, have shown little sympathy for thieves.

Odutola saw one man caught July 5 trying to steal a car from the parking lot of the Lagos High Court.

A mob threw an old tire around his neck, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.
"These things happen often," Odutola said, holding a photo he took of the scene showing a charred corpse.

"But the fact that they burnt him to death right in front of the High Court shows how little faith people have in the criminal justice system."

Since January, 183 robbers, 41 civilians and 14 police officers have been killed in Lagos, according to police statistics reported by the independent Guardian newspaper. Figures for the previous year put the death toll at more than 700.

Some residents would like to leave the city altogether. But not everybody's got a choice.

"If I could get out of here, I would," Ijikelly said. "But I can't move. I can't afford it."

Copyright 2001 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.