So I nearly got robbed…

[23 December 2015]

I’m currently in a bus continuing my journey to Accra. A thick silence hangs in the air, occasionally disrupted by soft murmuring. The driver continues to calmly drive in the fog filled night, with soft music playing, underneath barely visible stars.

Everyone seems silently contemplating the events of the past 45 mins. As I write on the tablet, which I thankfully still own, the bus halts. Silence quickly falls, and tension rapidly builds as people uncomfortably shift in their seats. The bus begins to move again, from what apparently was a toll booth. The murmurs continue as everyone relaxes.

About 45 minutes ago, just like now, the bus stopped.
I looked out the window as a young man in quickly ran past.
Seconds later, two young men also sprinted past.

That’s kinda weird considering the fact that it’s past midnight….. Out in the middle of nowhere.

Now the taxi which stopped right before the bus did, made a rapid U-turn…speeding away.
A young man in a green singlet rushing past our bus screamed at us.
ARMED ROBBERS!

In under two minutes, I went from being comfortably asleep in an air conditioned bus to expedited disembarkation, quickly walking past my bus toward faint lights in the distance…..like everybody was…..with my valuables – my laptop, phone and external hard drives, all in my bag. As much as I was growing to love my stringed instrument, my violin was left behind.

My rapid steps blew into a fully fledged, adrenaline fueled sprint as a wave of people from buses which stopped ahead of mine, ran toward us…..with gunshots in the background. Cycles of rapid steps, gunshots, 191 calls and sprints continued, constantly fueled by new waves of running people. In those short breaks, I got to know there was a police barrier some distance ahead.

As we drew closer, I found some people already standing there.
Suddenly, the thought of we being herded, for a more comprehensive transfer of our valuables, hit me. Centering myself in the crowd while searching for the nearest viable exit into the bushes close by, I found two policemen, one armed with what I guess was an AK-47.

One man was narrating his ordeal as the officer tried to calm him down.
After being robbed of 300 cedis, asked to stand by his bus, and asked again to provide more money, he escaped into the bushes like many others, sustaining multiple cuts and bruises.

While standing next to a fairly wide path – hopefully leading to houses, in the event of an emergency – I heard a lady from one of the first buses narrating the situation.

Apparently, a bus broke down and likely attracted them. They later stopped the lady’s bus, armed with large sticks and knives. They struck their driver and told them to disembark as they moved to search the vehicle. Anything carried on their way out, like her purse, was quickly snatched. Luckily she hid some items on herself. She mentioned how another woman complained she couldn’t take her GHC 3000, which was still in the bus.

Her narration was abruptly cut by shouts from what looked like men berating another police officer. One of the buses which had been robbed was heading (back I presume) to Sunyani. Amidst the shouting, I heard complaints questioning how a robbery could have happened close to a police checkpoint. You could not blame them for their anger, as the police officer tried to calm them. As they returned to their bus, some occupants loudly barred any potential hitchhikers, saying they should also meet their fate.

Minutes later, a police car sped past, siren blazzing. Trucks arriving from the location of the robbery informed us it was over, and we began walking back. What seemed like a few hundred meters during the adrenaline rush, turned out to be a few kilometers, as we walked past a line of cars in the ensuing traffic.

I found my bus, with my driver in it thankfully and my sitting partner, Innocent – A keyboardist from UDS with a love for Jazz.
Unfortunately, all was not well.

In the rush to exit the bus, he dropped his phone on the seat, and now couldn’t find it. As we searched, a gentleman walked through the bus, handing out items he’d found to their owners. After querying him, he gave Innocent his phone. We gave a sigh of relief, as comments on giving thanksgiving offerings floated around the bus.

As the bus started to depart, we left a stranded woman as concerns from other passengers arose on the potential of her being an informant of some sort, to the robbers.

As I write, at 3:40am, I can see the lights of what seems to be the outskirts of Accra. I can also hear snoring, which was kind of a good thing, considering how bad the past hour went.

As I recount the events, I can’t help but remember how I thought – It finally happened. Well, like they say – Mum is always right. I’m currently gearing up for a barrage of “I told you so”s after I play happy birthday to my mum on the violin and narrate the incident…….I just hope it doesn’t spoil her mood.

After living my life mostly in Accra, and never having experienced an armed robbery, the requirement of a police escort on a trip to Tamale earlier this year, seemed very odd. After hearing a bus I was to take to Accra from Sunyani narrowly missed a robbery, I had a brief suspension on traveling at night. That fortunately/unfortunately, didn’t last long enough to prevent this ride.

The engineer in me that wanted to be efficient by taking a 7 hour bus ride at the expense of disrupted sleep and a low probability for a robbery, as I once analyzed this possibility months ago.

In a classic situation of – When your tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail – I considered the option of a few autonomous drones (with batteries charged via solar panels in the day) constantly surveying portions of the road, with passes every 5-10 minutes. Using the easily available thermal imaging cameras for drones, broken down vehicles could be identified and protection granted them and thermal anomalies in the bushes near the roads could be investigated by a patrol team.
In spite of how good working on such a project would make me feel as an aerospace engineer, I do realize equally viable and potentially better alternatives include, giving groups of buses police escorts or equipping drivers with a panic button, alerting the nearest patrol team.

Decisions like these tend boil down to a political move as it’d esquires constant funding. Like many similar recurring problems, Accra’s annual floods for example, even multiple deaths and, hundreds of thousands of cedis lost, will likely not be enough to inspires the implementation of a solution. As I think about the passengers in the robbed bus heading to Sunyani, the silence and angst they would experience, the vows many will make to never travel at night, and the pain and helplessness they are feeling now, I wonder how that would affect them.
Many I believe will slowly forget this and move on. Little will change with the police methodologies after this. Buses will continue plying that route at night and this will slip into the obscurity of interesting experiences people share, like the many others before it.

……and sadly yet another robber will stop another bus with a long story about it ending on some obscure blog, just like this has.

Update
As I exited the bus at the VIP station in circle, I asked the driver if it was his first robbery. His reply “Naa, I’ve seen many many”
I guess this was just another tick in a long list.

I’m not implying the police have been utterly ineffective. As I head home, I’ve passed two check points.
Similarly, after a robbery at UENR in Sunyani I believe, a checkpoint was erected near the university and students’ hostel. I believe these and similar interventions have helped deter potential robbers.

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