The suspects – Johnson Igadu, 25, Daniel Poku, 25, and 26-year-old Sterling Longlife – told PUNCH Metro that they carried out the operation after allegedly getting assurances from some military officers that nothing would go wrong.
The suspects, who were paraded on Tuesday at the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps’, Lagos State Command headquarters in Ikeja, said their kingpin, identified as Soji, was still at large.
They alleged that the soldiers colluded with them in the operation.
PUNCH Metro gathered that Soji had on May 21, 2016 engaged the suspects to convey 10 barrels of fuel in a boat from 7th Avenue, FESTAC Town, to a place called Ghana village, saying he had “settled” the military men monitoring the waterways in the area.
It was learnt that the gang had scaled through with the fuel at two checkpoints reportedly manned by soldiers before luck ran out on them.
Igadu, who hails from Warri, Delta State, said he could not tell why the operation went wrong as his friend, Poku, had allegedly spoken with a soldier on the phone who assured them of safety.
He said, “I came to Lagos two months ago. Soji called us to bring 10 barrels of fuel from a creek on 7th Avenue, FESTAC Town. We went there to carry the fuel to Ghana village. We knew there were soldiers in the area, but he said he had already paid them and that we should not be afraid.
“He sent Poku’s number to one of the soldiers to call us when it was safe to get the fuel. The soldier called Poku and said we should come to carry the fuel. That was why we got the confidence to move.
“We carried the fuel around 12.30am and left in their presence. We passed the first two checkpoints. The soldiers there checked the fuel and told us to go.
“When we got to the third checkpoint, we heard gunshots. We fled the boat and escaped through the waterways. We ran to a man and begged him to allow us pass the night at his house. But he alerted the vigilantes around the area who handed us over to the police. The police handed us over to the army and we were later transferred to the NSCDC.”
Twenty-five-year-old Poku, an indigene of Delta State, said he had declined to embark on the deal but Soji persuaded him.
“I am a businessman. I came to Lagos to hustle. I later met Soji. He engaged the three of us to carry the fuel to Ghana village and promised to give us N10,000 each. I told him soldiers were around the area and he said he had settled them.
“The soldiers at the checkpoints knew we were carrying fuel but they did not stop us. It was at the third checkpoint that some of them started shooting. Maybe Soji didn’t settle those soldiers,” he said.
Ondo State-born Longlife, a mechanic, confirmed the statements of the other two suspects.
“I decided to do the job on that day because I did not have money. I have realised the errand he sent us was wrong. I beg the government to forgive me,” he added.
However, the Public Relations Officer of the 81 Division, Lt.-Col. Kingsley Samuel, refuted the suspects’ allegations, saying they could have mistaken the officers of other forces for soldiers.
He said, “That is an allegation from suspects; it is spurious. Can they identify the soldiers? The Nigerian Army, the Air Force and the Navy wear the same camouflage. There is uniformity in the camouflage, so you can’t tell who is a soldier, an air force officer or a naval officer.
“Operation MESSA is not made up of soldiers alone. We cannot speak on the allegation now because we don’t know those paraded and we were not informed of the parade.”
The Lagos State NSCDC Commandant, Tajudeen Balogun, said the suspects would be charged to court after investigation, adding that the corps would continue to track down pipeline vandals sabotaging the country’s economy.
He said, “About 2,500 litres of petrol was recovered from the suspects. Investigation is ongoing. We will charge them to court at the end of our investigation.”