The slumbering village of Gidinwaya between Ibi and Wukari, southern Taraba State, was the scene of the fatal shooting of three Nigerian policemen and a civilian by Nigerian soldiers last week Tuesday.
The soldiers from 93 Battalion were manning a checkpoint at Gidinwaya when they opened fire on a vehicle in which the police officers were taking away a crime suspect. The incident now portends a threat to national security as it has strained the relationship between the police and the army.
The police operatives, travelling in a privately-registered white bus, were in Ibi Town to arrest the suspected leader of a kidnapping syndicate, Hamisu Bala, more commonly known as Alhaji Wadume.
PREMIUM TIMES visited the scene of the incident at Gidinwaya, lying on Ibi-Wukari Road - not the widely reported "Ibi-Jalingo road". Our investigation included testimony by locals who witnessed the incident. Our findings indicate that the public statement of last Wednesday by the army contained claims that were significantly different from what happened at Gidinwaya.
Gidinwaya is now heavily protected by soldiers, with some of them taking cover in the bush directly opposite the scene of the incident. There is strict monitoring of the locals, who now are gripped by fear of dire consequences should they reveal what they know about the incident to outsiders, residents said.
The slain officers are Mark Ediale, an inspector, and two sergeants - Usman Danzumi and Dahiru Musa. The civilian killed is called Jibrin.
Who Shot First?
In a statement last Wednesday, army spokesperson, Sagir Musa, described the police operatives as "suspected kidnappers who turned out to be an Intelligence Response Team... on a covert assignment from Abuja."
Mr Musa said the team refused to stop at military checkpoints.
"It was in this process that the suspected kidnappers who were obviously armed opened fire at the troops sporadically thus prompting them to return fire," said the army spokesperson.
Contrary to that claim, two witnesses separately told PREMIUM TIMES there was no shooting at the soldiers by the police team. However, the police did not stop for disclosure at the military checkpoint, about 100 metres from the actual scene of the incident, our investigation further showed.
"His (Mr Wadume's) boys were following the police bus from Ibi after the arrest," said one of our sources, who witnessed the incident and interacted with the "boys" from Ibi. "They (the boys) were the one who told the soldiers at the first checkpoint that the bus that just passed was of kidnappers who abducted Alhaji Wadume. Alhaji Wadume is well known to the soldiers and they can do anything to protect him."
The source further added that the soldiers at the first checkpoint then called their colleagues at the second checkpoint, right inside Gidinwaya, who were directly involved in the pursuit and killings.
Our source identified the civilian as Jibrin, a mason, who he said he knew. The civilian was a police informant, whose brother was said to have been killed by persons allegedly working for Mr Wadume.
"I don't know why the police did not wait or disclose their identities to the soldiers but they might think the soldiers were going to rescue Wadume because they knew he was generous to them," added the source, who said one of the five soldiers, Musa, who allegedly killed the policemen and Jibrin, was his acquaintance. "But I believe they initially did not know they were policemen. They thought they were kidnappers."
That the soldiers thought the police officers were kidnappers and wanted to rescue a victim, particularly Mr Wadume, "whom they know well", is a belief shared by three witnesses separately interviewed by PREMIUM TIMES.
Our source continued: "They (soldiers at the second checkpoint) started pursuing and shooting at the bus, resulting in an accident. "The police wanted to come out and run. The soldiers shot at them and two died immediately. Jibrin (the civilian) also died. The third one wanted to show his police ID card but they still finished (killed) him. They saw the police jacket on him and they still killed him. Others managed to escape before being killed but they sustained injuries too."
How Wadume was freed
As the soldiers pursued and fatally attacked the police team, according to our sources, Mr Wadume's supporters who had been following from Ibi joined and formed a riotous mob.
"Everything took about 20 minutes and while it (the attack) was ongoing, Alhaji Wadume was sitting cross-legged on the road with handcuff," said the source. "Later, they dipped their hands into their pockets and brought ID cards out. They saw their ID cards after they had killed them but the soldiers still said the ID cards were fake.
"Then, the boys started saying 'let's go' and also cursing. They were querying what the government had done for them and saying that it was he (Mr Wadume) that they knew and took benefits from.
"Then, the soldiers removed the handcuff and asked him (Mr Wdume) to find his way. I saw them (soldiers), five of them with my eyes. After the handcuff was removed, he entered a black car his boys brought and they drove him back towards Ibi.
"They did not hide it. It was on that tarred road (Ibi-Wukari Road) that everything happened. They hailed themselves after everything. Their oga, Captain Usman, joined them there and he was the one who took away the guns taken from the policemen."
The said captain, whom we are only able to identify as Mr Usman for now, is a constant mention among several persons we interacted with across Ibi, Gidinwaya and Wukari. He is said to have nurtured a rapport with Mr Wadume.
"They are doing everything together," said our source, referring to Mr Wadume and the captain, adding: "Even the king (Aku Ibi). Dem dey collabo (they collaborate). The king likes him, everybody likes him. He spends money like government. He solves problems. I know 11 boys he gave motorcycles in Gidinwaya alone."
Our source alleged that Ibi's traditional ruler and the captain, Mr Usman, provided some support for Mr Wadume's syndicate. We were not able to verify this claim.
There have been reports the captain ordered the killing of the policemen. However, our source, who said he also spoke with his friend among the soldiers involved in the incident, did not believe such a claim.
He said: "The captain does not have a good reputation and he is a friend of Wadume but he did not order the killings. It was the soldiers at the first checkpoint that told those that directly attacked the policemen at Gidinwaya that some kidnappers in a white bus had kidnapped Wadume and that they should stop them. The ones at the first checkpoint were informed by Wadume's people who were following the police after he (Wadume) was arrested."
How Wadume escaped from Ibi
Mr Wadume's return to Ibi with his people triggered celebrations, PREMIUM TIMES was told.
Sources in Wukari and Gidinwaya said the 93 battalion of the army based in Takum later realised the enormity of the soldiers' action. Not until then did they start searching for Mr Wadume.
The soldiers then blocked the roads that entered Ibi, including the Wukari end.
But he disappeared from Ibi before long, while roads were still blocked in desperate efforts to recapture him.
Our Ibi sources said they believed Mr Wadume and at least two of his closest men left Ibi through the water body through which River Donga and River Taraba flow into in the town. The locals call the water body River Ibi, and it is a tributary of River Benue. It is the water which hosts Jukun's Nwonyo fishing festival.
"He left through River Ibi to Kuka in Plateau State," one source said. This was shared by another person, who said, 'That's how he escaped with two of his men. When you see Wadume, you see the two of them."
PREMIUM TIMES shared key findings of our reporting in Wukari, Ibi and Gidinwaya with the army spokesperson, Mr Musa. He, however, declined to comment.
The Gidinwaya incident is now a subject of high-level investigation involving a panel set up by the Chief of Defence Staff on the instruction of President Muhammadu Buhari. The police are also probing the matter.
Police teams have visited Gidinwaya and Ibi Town where they sealed assets belonging to the fleeing Mr Wadume.
The five soldiers, deployed to the Gidinwaya checkpoint and involved in the killings, and the captain, are now being held by authorities to face a probe.
Both the army and the police have made counterclaims regarding whether the police team reported their presence and mission at the formations in Taraba. However, we could not establish the veracity of any of the claims as officers across levels in Taraba declined to comment.
The police commissioner, Alkassim Sanusi, and the spokesperson for the Taraba command, David Misal, said there was a strict directive that no comment should be made to the press on the matter.