October 23, 2020, will forever be engraved in the hearts of residents of Ilorin, the Kwara State capital. It was the day terror went on a rampage, rubbing salts on the wounds of residents who are barely recovering from the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic. It was the day businesses were looted in the city in what started as the looting of the state covid-19 palliative warehouse to a face-off between the mob and men of the Nigerian customs service.
But for a young journalist who was caught in the web of the violence, it was a super mixed adventure. I had bruises while rolling like bowling balls to avoid stray bullets. My sandals defied the order to stay glued to my feet as I scampered barefooted for safety, yet I remained undaunted being a foot soldier of information.
However, the one-million-dollars question my fellow young journalists and close associates have been asking was; how did I get into this imbroglio that shut the peaceful city down for hours? I hope these black-lettered words whisper those answers you have been craving for, as I narrated how I flirted with time to cover the day unceasingly for hours.
It all began on a beautiful morning. I had just scoured through a response to an FOI request I sent to a federal agency, handling the construction of a multibillion naira water project in Kwara when I decided to visit the state water corporation for additional information on the operation of the project.
I’d my bath, put on one of my finest wears – it was Friday, remember. But you know what? If I had known the day would bring me closer to the world, that I would see a land hounded by hunger, I would have prepared as that foot soldier of information, covering grief, tears snd regret. I wouldn’t have been awestruck by the resounding smacks of bullets which rented the air of the Custom House in Ilorin as famished citizens blindly followed men of the underworld to loot what was said to be rightfully theirs (food items seized by the law enforcement agency) after emptying the state covid-19 palliatives warehouse at Ilorin cargo terminal and the state Agro Mall.
Like most government agencies would likely do when it comes to washing their dirty linen in public, I was turned down by the state water corporation. The dark-skinned PRO who attended to me at the office of the corporation’s general manager insisted I must present an official letter, detailing my request before I could be allowed to meet with his boss.
I left the office disappointed. But it would later be a blessing in disguise. I couldn’t go back home so I went to a state-based online media platform, TheInformant247, to read, and perhaps exchange banter with like minds. I defied the sweltering sun to arrive at the outfit’s office along Ibrahim Taiwo road in less than 15 minutes. The exquisitely tiled office appeals to me anytime I visit Taiwo Oke. The cutting-edge welcome note I give any time I walk into their office unexpectedly is, “no one pass by a palace without paying homage to the king”
Soon after I couched in the deepest reflection, staring at my laptop for minutes, I got a request from the publisher of the platform, Solihu Taofeek, to get an on-the-spot assessment of a video that was fast circulating online; it was a twenty seconds clip, claiming that a warehouse along Airport road, holding Kwara state covid-19 palliatives were being looted by members of the public.
I had learnt of the mass lootings in Lagos following the widely condemned shooting of peaceful protesters by men of the Nigerian Army on October 20, 2020. The discovery of a warehouse housing covid-19 palliatives was invaded and looted. A similar ‘looting’ spree happened in Osun and other states of the federation.
So, it only took me the time it takes paper to burn to agree on assessing the claim. He, then, asked one of his guys who knows Cameras like the back of his palm to assist me. We both walked hands in hands to the roadside to call a motorcyclist who could get us there before the snap of a finger. But what we did not know was that what sprawled before us was more than a figment of our imagination. It was massive! We got to the location – Airport terminal – at exactly 3:44 pm. An enraged population, disappointed by what they described as “insensitive’ of the state government to their plights welcomed me as I alighted from the Okada.
“Haha! And they said there is no food!” A voice bellowed behind me. “A le ko tan (we can’t exhaust the food items) another young with two cartons of noodles perched on his shoulder said gleefully. CACOVID was boldly written on them.
CACOVID is a private sector-led coalition against COVID-19 (CACOVID). It’s a COVID-19 relief initiative spearheaded by the Central Bank of Nigeria.
I could feel their pains as their eyes bride contempt and anger. I had written a report on how mixed reaction trailed the distribution of palliatives during the lockdown in the state. I heard first-row accounts of how families were given food items that would barely last a day to palliate the economic shock of the pandemic in the state.
While on it, I looked back and saw a whole city descending on us. How they learnt about the warehouse amazed me? But one thing struck me, they were all ordinary citizens. Even though the gate was closed, people – young men, ladies, married men and women, elders who should have cautioned against looting the warehouse – mounted the high fence to gain entry into the house. What mattered to them was simply to cart away food, the fear of getting injured had fluttered its wings away.
It was not entirely a free world. The mob were at first resisted by security operatives. But their canisters and the rounds of bullet shot into the air failed to stop them. The police stopped and the looting continued unabated. At 3:52 pm, people had started gaining entry into the cargo terminal effortlessly through a passage carved out of the fence. I knew I had to get in to have the full picture of what was happening inside. Without thinking it through – it was an adventure I wanted badly, I joined the cluster of people, waiting to crawl in. And I did.
Gaining entry into the building was the beginning of my intimacy with the world. I saw greed. I read helplessness in the eyes of older women who could not dare move closer to the warehouse. Again, I had to gain entry into the warehouse. This was nothing I was prepared for. But my hunch prompted me to remove my glasses while I joined others struggling to gain access into the warehouse. This was where my sandals slipped off my feet. I could not pick them for fear of being trampled down by fierce-looking gentlemen of the underworld.
After about five minutes of pushing and pulling, I eventually gained entry into the dimly-lighted room, as a ray of torchlight and the reverberating murmuring exchanged duties. By mere surveying the warehouse as of 3:59 pm when I entered the room, it was filled to the brim with food items, including noodles, spaghetti, sugar and Semovita. Another thing was, entering the warehouse was not as herculean as getting out. Any misstep could lead to severe injury or even death.
While I was still trying to get out, I slipped over the carton of noodles I stood on. I had cuts on my left hands, but it was not as fatal as one of the guys whose trailed I followed. He was struck in the face by the iron door, yet he looked undisturbed. The three cartons of noodle and a bag of sugar he held in his hands mattered.
Upon seeing me coming out of the warehouse emptyhanded, an old woman whose frail demeanour reminded me of my late grandma said “my child, you did not take any food item?” she asked in a softness that showed her curiosity. I retorted quickly “my work doesn’t condone criminality”
“This is not theft” another man chipped in as if to give me a knock. “The governor gave the nod’ he claimed “when he came there, didn’t you see how he shook his head. He gestured to the commissioner of police to leave us. When he was about to go, the policemen told us to enter that the governor would not do anything. What is it we are saying? There is food here, and they were distributing peanuts to us during the lockdown” the old man justified.
What the man said was not different from the position of the Nigerian police force, Kwara state command during a press briefing with journalists after the deed had been done. The state commissioner of police, Kayode Egbetokun, said the force did not stop the mob due in large part to avert loss of lives.
“Intelligence report was available to act on and we acted on it but, with what happened yesterday at Cargo Terminal, the people came in thousands and we initially repelled them but, we later got directive from the authority that we should allow them to take whatever they want to take instead of causing violence that might lead to the death of citizens, but unfortunately they took leniency of security officers for weakness.”
…And the Leniency Wreaked Havoc
Although drained, I managed to stagger through the hole that was carved on the fence. I had thought it was all over until some coarse voices asked people to follow them to the Custom House, Ilorin, to loot food items that were seized by the law enforcement agency. It was the beginning of the end.
At 5:25 pm, I alighted at the Custom House, Yidi Road, Ilorin. At first, the men of the Customs service tried to douse the rising tension, but it all fell on deaf air as some of the mob started stoning them. The custom started shooting to disperse the growing numbers. How I managed to dodge the bullet still scared me to the bone. This was when the hoodlums said two of their “brothers” had been hit by bullets flying from the Custom House. They raged, burnt tyres and the atmosphere became tense. I started receiving calls to leave the scene because I was giving live updates on my WhatsApp status updates.
The road linking to the Custom House, Asa dam Junction Rd – Unity Rd was blocked by the hoodlums while vowing to avenge the shooting of their brothers. It, however, got heightened after a car which was stopped to obey the cessation of movement crushed two more people to force his way.
While trying to escape, the driver had an accident. Although there were claims he could not be found, the car was set ablaze by the angry mob. Here, I was approached by some haggard-looking men, one of whom has a bold mark stretching down his chin, while I was filming their acts. I was asked to identify myself, but a touch of the street in me replied with “Egbon, Ajoo wa ni oo” loosely translated as “Brother, we’re together.”
The line saved me, but could not spare me from trekking the night. One thing stood out, the looting of a filling station to set the car on fire was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. At 7:12 pm, major roads in Ilorin metropolis were shut down by hoodlums in a capital city that houses the headquarters of most of the law enforcement agencies in the state. This could be attributed to the leniency of the police force in carrying out their statutory duties while the state is sitting on gunpowder.
The clash led to the death of two of the hoodlums while two of them suffered gunshot wounds. Two of the customs officers were injured. Another young man who was watching football at the state football academy, Kwara Football Academy, was hit by a stray bullet. He is also recovering.
In addition, twenty-four motorcycles and one tricycle supposedly meant to transport goods from the command were seized during the encounter.
When I got home I learnt businesses in the city were being looted. The popular Shoprite store was invaded and looted while other business owners in the city also counted their losses. At 11:55 pm, the governor eventually announced a curfew to calm the situation and arrest the perpetrators.
Despite the arrest and prosecution of some of the looters, October 20, 2020, will remain a black Friday in the deepest heart of the city as some pieces still remain scattered. Who was the Authority that asked the police chief to look away while the peace of the state was being threatened? Does the ‘look away” also cover the police leaving their statutory duty while the hoodlum held the city to ransom? These are pieces that must be knitted today if justice must be served. Until then, it was indeed an adventurous day for a young journalist like me.
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