November 1, 2023 started just like every other day for the family of Maduabuchi and Chekwube Okeke, residents of 32b Umunze Street, Awada, Onitsha in 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, was said to be a “Keke Napep” driver while his younger brother, Chekwube Okeke, 24, just finished apprenticeship in carpentry, from Ogbaeru, Orlu, 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 months 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”.
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 murdered without any trial or fair hearing.
While the Soludo 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 Nigeria 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 aims 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 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 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 glory as “the light of the nation.”
“We have told the youths to come out from their hideouts and bush. We shall help to rehabilitate and integrate them into society to be useful to their families, communities, state, 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 said during the launch of the initiative.
Soludo during the event reminded his audience that on assumption of office, eight local government areas were taken over by criminal elements in the state but that the efforts of security agencies and 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 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.
Curiously, no one has been arrested since November 1, when the incident occurred and mum has been the word from Anambra state government.
It is a morbid feeling that Anambra state government is comfortable that citizens were burnt and accusing fingers were pointed at a government agency and officials of the government have remained taciturn.
Soludo administration in its zealous pursuit of order failed to distinguish between genuine lawbreakers and innocent citizens. The brothers, like many others, became victims of a system that bypassed legal norms, stripping them of their rights to fair hearing and rendering them helpless in the face of state-sanctioned brutality.
While the Nigerian legal system is equipped with statutes designed to maintain law and order and deliver justice, the recurring instances of extra-judicial punishments cast a shadow on the effectiveness of these laws.
Nigeria’s legal system, a fusion of English common law, Islamic and customary laws, provides a comprehensive framework for dealing with criminal offenses. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) guarantees the fundamental rights of individuals, emphasising the right to life, dignity, and fair hearing. Additionally, the Criminal Code and Penal Code delineate offenses and prescribe penalties for those found guilty.
Sections 33, 34 and 36 of the 1999 constitution, as amended, stipulate that every person under the law has the “Right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria; a right to dignity of human persons, right to personal liberty and right to a fair hearing”.
However, mob justice denies alleged criminals this right. While the legal framework is robust on paper, the grim reality often reveals a different story. Jungle justice, defined as extra-judicial punishment carried out by a group without legal authority, remains pervasive .
In cases where communities take the law into their own hands, the absence of legal proceedings and due process creates a chasm in the application of justice.
The effectiveness of any legal system is contingent on robust enforcement. In the context of jungle justice, the disparities in law enforcement capabilities across different regions contribute to a sense of impunity and embolden state actors and those who engage in extra-judicial acts.
Initiatives that raise public awareness about the consequences of jungle justice and educate citizens on legal alternatives can foster a greater understanding of the importance of due process and the rule of law.
Bolstering the capabilities of law enforcement agencies, ensuring adequate training, and addressing logistical challenges are essential steps in deterring individuals, communities and state actors from resorting to extra-judicial actions.
Community leaders, traditional rulers, and religious figures play pivotal roles in shaping societal attitudes. Encouraging their active involvement in discouraging jungle justice and promoting peaceful conflict resolution can bridge the gap between legal statutes and cultural practices.
The tragic end of the two brothers not only raise questions about the effectiveness of Anambra state’s anti-touts’ initiative but also shines a light on the dangers of allowing empowering and arming group of people to enforce laws they were not properly trained for. While touts and criminal elements must be addressed, it is imperative that the government’s actions adhere to the principles of justice, fairness, and human rights.
The incident has left the community in shock and has raised concerns about the potential abuse of power in the name of maintaining order. The erosion of trust in government institutions and the fear instilled in the hearts of citizens further exacerbate the already fragile relationship between the people and those sworn to protect them.
In the aftermath of this tragic incident, there is a growing chorus of voices demanding accountability and a re-evaluation of Soludo’s anti-touts initiative. While maintaining public safety is paramount, it should not come at the cost of sacrificing the very principles that underpin a just and democratic society.
Soludo administration is now faced with the responsibility of ensuring that such a tragedy does not repeat itself. Transparency, accountability, and a commitment to upholding the rule of law must guide every government actions moving forward.
The tragic end of two brothers allegedly at the hands of government-sanctioned anti-touts agency serves as a stark reminder that the pursuit of justice must always be tempered with a commitment to human rights and due process. As the community mourns the loss of these young lives, it is a clarion call for all governments to reassess their approaches to maintaining order, ensuring that justice is not sacrificed in the process.
Only through a balanced and principled approach can societies hope to prevent such heart-wrenching tragedies and build a future where the rule of law prevails over the shadows of vigilantism.
Okoronkwo, leadership and good governance advocate, writes from Lagos via [email protected]