November 1, 2023, started just like every other day for the family of Maduabuchi and Chekwube Okeke, residents of 32b Umunze Street, Awada, Onitsha, Anambra State, without any premonition of death. As it was their daily routine they left the house early to work to earn legitimate income to be able to take care of their young families and aged parents.
But that was the last they saw their families as death came suddenly before mid-day in the bustling commercial city of Onitsha in a most gruesome manner. The two brothers were cruelly targeted and burnt alive allegedly by the Anambra State Anti- Tout Task Force set up recently by Governor Chukwuma Soludo to curb the menace of motor park touts and reduce insecurity in the state.
Maduabuchi Okeke, 28 years old, and the eldest of the two was said to be a “Keke Napep” driver as at the time of the incident while his younger brother, Chekwube Okeke, 24, just finished apprenticeship in Carpentry, from Ogbaeru, Orlu in Imo State.
The gruesome murder of the two brothers is undoubtedly heart-rending to their immediate family as Maduabuchi is said to have four young daughters with a young wife, an aged mother and other dependants making life unbearable for the family.
Rosemary Oluchi Okeke, a petty trader and wife of Maduabuchi Okeke, while narrating how her husband and his younger brother were killed, said on that day, she took her 10-month old baby to the hospital while her husband left for the shop. “I was shocked when I was called by my neighbour at the shop that anti-tout squad came and took my husband and shot him. I tried calling my husband but immediately he took the call, his phone went dead and I was unable to reach him again until they were burnt by the anti-tout squad,” she narrated amid wailing.
Though she admitted that her husband was an agbero (tout) before but with the coming of the anti-touts initiative, her husband switched to driving keke as a means of livelihood, and wonders why her husband should be gruesomely murdered without any trial or fair hearing.
While the Soludo’s administration’s decision to launch the outfit may have been informed by the rising insecurity in the state, some questions readily come to mind: what are the operational guidelines for the squad, does the law establishing it give the agency power to arrest try and execute offenders without recourse to the Nigerian Police? Why shouting and burning unarmed civilians who posed no danger and did not resist arrest?
The anti-touts’ initiative was introduced with the noble intention of curbing lawlessness and ensuring public safety. Touts, known for their involvement in criminal activities and harassment of citizens, became the target of the government’s crackdown. However, as events would unfold, the line between justice and jungle would blur, leading to a tragedy that shook the foundations of the very justice system the initiative aimed to uphold.
While launching the State Special Anti-Touting Squad at Upper Iweka, Onitsha, recently, Governor Soludo reiterated that “the days of touts in the state are numbered,” noting that a full-blown war has been declared on them.
He also revealed that members of the anti-touting squad shall collaborate with the Nigerian Armed Forces who he said have the primary responsibility to keep the state safe.
Soludo also pointed out that the launch of the squad was an acceleration on the key promise he made to the people living in the greater Onitsha area, which consists of Onitsha North, Onitsha South, Ogbaru, Oyi, and Idemili, to restore Anambra State known for law and order back to its full glory as “the Light of the nation.”
“We have told the youths to come out from their hideouts and the bush. We shall help to rehabilitate and integrate them into society to be useful to their families, communities, states, and nation. While dealing with hoodlums on a larger scale, we will be dealing with touts in Onitsha Greater Area and Anambra State as a whole” the Governor was quoted to have said during the launch of the initiative.
Soludo during the event reminded his audience that at his resumption of office, eight local governments were taken over by criminal elements in the state but noted that the combined efforts of the security agencies and the vigilante service ensured that those local government areas have been liberated and normalcy restored.
The two brothers, caught in the crossfire of the government’s anti-touts campaign may have found themselves labeled as troublemakers without any due process. In a society where the rule of law is supposed to protect individuals from arbitrary actions, the brothers were denied their right to a fair hearing by a court of competent jurisdiction and subjected to a most excruciating death by burning them alive with a complicit mob cheering and making a sport of the dastardly act.
Okoronkwo, a leadership and good governance advocate, writes from Lagos