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Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 10:14 GMT
Crime war rages in Nigeria
Nigeria police and robbers battle for the high way
Robbery suspects are often paraded before journalists
By Sam Olukoya in Nigeria

The battle between police and armed robbers for control of Nigerian streets is proving a costly one for both sides.

Flipping through Nigerian newspapers one frequently comes across headlines like: "Police, Robbers in Bloody Gun Duel", "Robbers on Rampage Kill Police Chief" and "Police, Robbers in Midday War - Five robbers Killed."

Lagos violence
Aug 00 - May 01
273 civilians killed
84 police killed
133 police injured
Lagos, the country's commercial capital, is the worst hit.

Police statistics show that between August last year and May this year, criminals killed 273 civilians. Within the same period, they also killed 84 policemen and injured 133 others.

In the past couple of months, criminals have been operating with impunity, snatching cars on the highways, raiding banks and breaking into homes.

Tough nut

The police have been hitting back seeking to curb the crime wave, but in the first week of July, nine policemen were shot dead in Lagos alone.

Burnt necklace victim
Vigilante killings of suspected robbers are a problem
The police are also inflicting serious casualties. There are daily reports of robbery suspects shot dead during gun battles with the police.

Those caught alive are paraded together with their weapons before journalists.

But even though police authorities boast they will win the war against crime, they agree it is a hard nut to crack.

Soldiers

This is partly because thieves often operate in large numbers. Some gangs have as many as 50 men in them.

These gangs also carry sophisticated arms, like AK-47 rifles, and wear bullet proof vests.

The number of robbers is increasing like ants and they take joy in killing the police

Police spokesman Victor Chilaka
It is suspected that some of the gangs that have inflicted the worst casualties on the police have soldiers in their ranks.

This suspicion is borne out by the arrest of some soldiers and the recovery of military rifles.

In an effort to reduce casualties among its men, police authorities have given policemen the authority to shoot robbers on sight.

Shoot to kill

Lagos police spokesman, Victor Chilaka said: "Since the number of robbers is increasing like ants and they take joy in killing police officers, the police has decided to adopt this measure not only to drastically reduce the growing number of robbers but also to save the lives of policemen."

The shoot on sight order is not without its problems for the police.

On one occasion, police shot and killed five people who they thought were criminals.

But the families of four of them said they were victims fleeing from robbers.

For a police force with a reputation for extra judicial killings, this incident was one of several public relations nightmares.

But despite this, Nigerians are becoming more supportive of their law enforcers such is extent of the crime problem.

Vigilantes

This growing crime wave is partly a product of widespread unemployment and a rising cost of living.

For many desperate and unemployed youths, robbery appears the only avenue left open to them to make a living.

The robbers are a common enemy

Muri Adesanya
The situation is worsened by the ready availability of small arms like rifles and pistols.

In some neighbourhoods young men are teaming up with the police to help fight crime.

Muri Adesanya, whose Bariga neighbourhood in Lagos has been subjected to repeated attacks, says: "The robbers are a common enemy."

But in a worrying trend, others are taking the law into their own hands.

Attacks by vigilantes on suspects with stones and sticks are common and some end with the "necklace treatment".

A tyre doused with petrol is put around the neck of the suspect who is subsequently set on fire.

In one instance, five alleged bank robbers were burnt to death that way.

There will be many more battles on Nigeria's streets in the coming months.


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11 May 01 | Africa
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