Special Report: Inside story of how Anambra anti-touting squad tortures, extorts victims

0

Inside story of how Anambra anti-touting squad tortures, extorts victims

•I paid N23, 000 for bail; we were locked up in container –Victims •We use pestle, koboko to punish criminals, and it’s yielding results – SASA director

From Aloysius Attah, Onitsha

It was a bright sunny afternoon. Date was May 21, 2024, at Upper Iweka, the heart of Onitsha. The usual hustle and bustle of the city was at its feverish peak as everyone, as always, seemed to be in a hurry. Roadside herbal medicine vendors hawked their products using public address systems even as other hawkers made brisk businesses attending to commuters in nearby motor parks. Down there before the Lagos Park, there were other commercial activities.

•An Anti-tout operative in action with a pestle

At the left hand side facing the old NITEL building, and just before the flyover, there were secluded premises that used to be motor parks but were reclaimed by the Peter Obi administration, before he left office in 2014. Those three different spaces already beautified as side garden parks for relaxation are now occupied by government agencies.

•Ejem Asika recupering after the attack

The first one now serves as the  operational base of the state owned Emblem Enforcers while the other two – one before the flyover and another after the flyover just before Ogbaru main market gate and the Federal Road Safety Corps base are now occupied by the Anambra  State Special Anti-Tout Squad (SASA).

•Front gate of the Anti-Tout camp at Upper  Iweka

SASA was created by the Charles Soludo administration on October 23, 2023, to fight the menace of touts harassing and extorting people in Onitsha. The outfit was a welcome development when it was established. But over time, it deviated from its primary assignment and became a terror outfit that employs all manner of crude methods in its operations.

•Emblem Task Force at work  in Upper Iweka

When Saturday Sun visited their operational base, it was business as usual – dealing with supposed touts. There is a small building of about three rooms, which serves as the agency’s office. Detached from the building is another small structure that serves as their detention centre. Behind it is their theatre where various weapons are allegedly used to torture their captors. Their major weapons are short wooden pestles usually used in pounding food in small mortars. They also brandish other weapons like knives, batons, and hammers while some of their hit men carry guns.

In a secluded part of the office, there was a vehicle built in the mould of the famous Black Maria which they use as an operational vehicle to convey apprehended touts to the office.

Visitors to the office are dispossessed of the mobile phones. The rule is that visitors are not allowed to record what they do. On the front desk where he kept this reporter’s phone was a wooden pestle to serve as a deterrent.

At the second operational base of the outfit, manned by another Commander just before the Ogbaru main market facing Lagos Park, a man was being brought out from their torture chamber. Unable to walk anymore, the man, whom the reporter later identified as Ejem Asika, an Onitsha indigene, was piggybacked by another man while his wife frantically sought help. She eventually flagged down a tricycle rider who agreed to carry them to the hospital.

In March this year, a video of operatives of the Special Anti -Touting Squad hitting ferociously, the legs of one Wilfred Ezike, popularly known as Mgbiligba with a huge wooden pestle, went viral. In the video which contained gory scenes, Mgbiligba persistently cried for mercy to no avail until they broke his legs and demobilized him. The public outcry was loud enough.

Following the outrage that trailed the video, the state Commissioner for Homeland Security, issued a statement thereafter, assuring that government would fish out Mgbiligba’s attackers and punish them accordingly even though the victim was labelled as a serial lawbreaker.

Soon after that, another viral video surfaced. It was another scene of battery of some boys even in a more brutal manner. They were dispossessed of their belongings as they groaned in pain.

I saw life going out of my system – Ejem Asika

Ejem Asika, 42, an indigene of Onitsha was a victim of the squad who was discharged on May 22, 2024 from the second operational base of the Anti-Tout Squad at Upper Iweka. Asika, now recuperating at home having been discharged from the hospital, was still unable to walk as at the time of filing this report.

“I’ve never done any touting in my life. I was in my neighbourhood that day together with my friend, Nnama Okwunwanne. The SASA operatives just drove past us and slowed down. One of them, wearing a mask approached me, and after some time, four others from their vehicle joined him. Brandishing various weapons, they said I should follow them to their office.

“I asked what was happening, what was my offence? But they didn’t listen.  They forced me into their vehicle and said I should sit on the vehicle floor. I saw about seven others in the vehicle arrested at various locations. There was one they picked that was a dispatch rider. When they got to their base, they brought us down and commanded us to lie down and face the sun. We were lying there when they divided us into two groups of five each. Some were ordered to go to the left side, and others to the right.

ALSO READ  ECHOES OF WINCO FOAM INDUSTRIES LIMITED

“At the time they told me to stand up, I thought they looked at my demeanour and wanted to release me. The next thing was that I was ordered to be taken to the ‘theatre’ which I discovered was their torture chamber.  On entering there, I saw various sizes of pestles, batons and other heavy weapons. They asked me whether I sold hemp, drugs or other hard substances to which I replied, no. 

“They also accused me of being the ring leader of armed robbers operating in Oguta Road and Ugwunobankpa which I told them that I’m a responsible family man whose full identity can be verified at Aduba/Wilkinson Street in Inland Town Onitsha.

“It was then that they told me that I was going to receive instant prosecution since I didn’t want to tell the truth. The next thing was that they descended on me with the pestle, hitting me on all my joints until I became unconscious and almost paralysed.

“They never took my statement or even wrote down my name when they took me there. I was in pain and dying slowly when they were done with me. But my greatest pain again was the fact that some other people they arrested with substances in their possession were not tortured. They were just given their phones and told to call their people for settlement.

“They picked another security man in our locality, Onyeka Edeh and he paid N23, 000 before they released him too. It was Ifeanyi Aduba that came with my wife and bailed me from them after they collected N23, 000 from me too.

“Anyone who saw as they were beating me that day would have concluded that this criminal is getting his instant reward. It is high time the governor looked into their activities and reform them completely,” Ejem said.

Under the siege of uniformed men

Anambra is under the siege of uniformed men. While the anti-tout outfit wears black and black without any name tag for identification, the accredited revenue collectors of the government appear in brown tops and black trousers without name tags too. They chase motorists and tricycle operators with logs of wood, trying to issue receipts or checks for payment of weekly levies. In the process, they break windshields of vehicles and sometimes cause road accidents.

Chukwuka Okoli, a tricycle operator that plies Army gate to Rainbownet route in Awada Odume Obosi told Saturday Sun how the revenue collectors descended on him and broke the windshield of his tricycle even when he did not owe the government.  He said the incident caused serious commotion as many people gathered there blaming the revenue agent.

The vehicle emblem rate collectors also wear yellow T-shirts with the inscription ‘Emblem Enforcement.’ They hijack vehicles at random and also deal ruthlessly with any of their victims that fail to cooperate.  The Anambra Road Traffic Management Agency (ARTMA) officials also wear yellow shirts and ash coloured trousers with name tags. They also have their excesses in the manner they impound vehicles. However, it was gathered that the Managing Director of the agency, Emeka Okonkwo, has been responding to public complaints against their excesses and disciplining errant officials. 

The Operation Clean and Healthy Anambra (OCHA) Brigade is another outfit with its excesses reverberating across the city. With their green shirt and black trouser uniform, they operate in unmarked vehicles and tricycles, leaving tears and sorrows in their trail too.  They arrest those who cross the main roads without using the pedestrian bridge and those urinating in public spaces. Even when the government stipulates a fine of N5, 000 for such offences, to be paid into dedicated accounts, they hold people hostage and collect amounts ranging from N30,000 to N45,000.

Okpoko killings

On Friday Dec 8, 2023 three residents of Okpoko, in Ogbaru near Onitsha were reportedly killed and 20 others injured when the anti-tout operatives allegedly opened fire at the residents who were protesting the highhandedness of a sanitation levy collection agent assigned to the area. Among those killed was a fresh university graduate.

Saturday Sun gathered that the problem started when the private firm engaged for sanitation activities in the area engaged the services of the squad and the security arm of the town union for forceful collection of sanitation fees from the residents.

Marcel Nnaeto, chairman of all street chairmen and secretaries in Okpoko community, said the armed squad with their leaders invaded the community in the wee hours and bundled six street leaders of the community into their vehicles after beating them and blindfolding them before taking them to their office in Upper Iweka where they branded them criminals that were terrorising Onitsha.

ALSO READ  My Experience confronting Sars Atrocities - Okey Nwanguma

Nnaeto listed others taken away by the invaders to include Raphael Agu, Patrick Utobo, Onyeka Omeh, Obumneme Ohiagu and Dr. Solomon Ibezim. He said concerned residents of the community embarked on peaceful demonstration the following morning demanding the release of their leaders. They marched to Okpoko Police Division when the squad opened fire on the defenceless protesters, killing three on the spot and injuring over 20 others.

He identified those killed as Nzube Akuma, Chimezie Uduji and a popular tricycle rider known as Nwa Togo. Though the police confirmed this killing, the anti-tout outfit denied any complicity in the incident.

“When they took us to the anti-tout office at Upper Iweka, they first dumped us in the field, collected our money and phones. They later locked us up in a small container after beating us. We were 22 inside and suffocating. At one stage, they brought us out and as we sat on the bare floor, they forced us to sing Soludo Solution songs, recorded us on video and posted it as arrested touts and criminals disturbing the peace and security of Onitsha,” said Nnaeto.

On 16th February, 2024, a trader at Ogbo Ogwu medicine market, Bridgehead, Onitsha, identified as Arinze Obunadike was hit by bullets allegedly fired by the anti-tout operatives. According to an eye witness, members of the outfit were arresting people who were urinating in the gutter along the Onitsha-Asaba expressway within the Bridgehead Market axis. A trader in the market, Ibe Ozor who spoke to Saturday Sun said the boys had to use the gutters because the toilet facilities in the market were undergoing renovation.

APGA chieftain and businessman escapes by the whiskers

Chiagozie Nzeako, a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in the state recently had a bitter taste of the excesses of the Anti-tout and Ocha Brigade boys. Chiagozie who is also recuperating from injuries sustained as a result of torture shared his experience.

“On May 31st, 2024, a trader was offloading his goods at Oguta Road, Onitsha. The truck parked properly by the roadside. The OCHA Brigade came with their usual intimidating force, hitting the truck, trying to take away the truck’s battery. The traders came out en masse and resisted them. The OCHA Brigade boys demanded that they must be given ‘offloading money’. The traders said, no way; that all payments go to the government account. Seeing that the traders outnumbered them, they went away and later returned with the Anti-touts Brigade. “They tried to arrest some of the traders, and out of fear, many of the traders ran away. However, the government-appointed caretakers of the market stood their ground, telling the Anti-tout boys not to be used by the OCHA Brigade for illegitimate

activities and extortion. Defiantly, the Anti-tout boys went ahead, arrested, labelled the market executives and two others who stood on the governor’s template of ‘No Extortion.’

“The Anti-tout boys began to manhandle us, breaking our joints and bones, hitting us with their pestles. If this could be done to an APGA member and market executives, then nobody is safe in Anambra,” Chiagozie said.

What the law says about torture

Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended provides that every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly (a) No person shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.

The Anti-Torture Act 2017 was passed by the 8th National Assembly and signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari on 29th December 2017.  Section 1 of the Act titled ‘Duty of Government’ imposes an obligation on government to ensure that all persons, including suspects, detainees and prisoners are respected at all times and that no person under investigation or held in custody is subjected to any form of physical/mental torture.

Why we use pestle, koboko to deal with criminals – Solomon Chukwuebuka, Anti-tout Director

Solomon Chukwuebuka, Director of Anambra State Special Anti-Tout Squad, in response to series of allegations of torture and extortion brought against his men by residents of the state, explained that the method of their operation is unique and is achieving results. He alleged that when such cases are taken to the police, the suspects often get off the hook and return to their old ways. He claimed that apart from the case of Mgbiligba,  the second viral video of boys being dealt with by the outfit were criminals who stabbed their victims to death. He said they were arrested twice and cautioned after handing them over to the police who later released them.

ALSO READ  Insecurity in Anambra: An Open Letter To Governor Obiano

“We’ve had many cases of arresting these people and handing them over to the police only for them to buy their way out and continue their nefarious activities. If you are a brother to the lady they stabbed to death, how will you feel and what will you do to these people when they are caught? Will you not even be the first to move to kill them in retaliation? 

“On collecting money, who is that member of the outfit that can go out and collect money from people? We have a code of conduct and mode of operations, (under oath). If you deviate from that, you see the effect on you and your family. We know there is propaganda against us from the opposition parties, but we are not deterred,” Chukwuebuka said.

Despite the public outcry over what many view as gross violation and abuse of persons’ rights, particularly hitting their captors with pestle and other weapons, the SASA Director is unapologetic about the brutality of the squad.

Is that the official method approved by the governor, the reporter asked him.

His response: “Why are you asking that question, so that you will go and write that we said that the governor has given us the power to do so? Well, I don’t only use a pestle, I also use koboko cane and other objects. After that, we hand the person over to the police, DSS, NDLEA or any agency in accordance with the offence the person committed. But I will flog you first.”

Anti –tout operating in Anambra lacks democratic face – Umeagbalasi

Emeka Umeagbalasi, a criminologist, human rights activist and Board Chairman of International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety), while expressing his views on the situation attributed the excesses of the various outfits set up in Anambra to the lack of effective monitoring mechanism and scrutiny by the government. “The government of Soludo has no effective monitoring mechanism. His commissioners and other government functionaries are not checkmated. The governor is also not readily available and down to earth to really understand the nitty-gritty of democratic governance. The outfit possesses the toga of a militarist arrangement and Anambra people don’t know 98 per cent of the identities of its personnel or their personality profile. Government doesn’t even have a comprehensive database of their personnel and their real names as most of them go by aliases, not real names,” he stated.

You can’t pat criminals on the back, SASA has sanitised the city – Anara

Chikaodili Anara, Commissioner for Homeland Security, under whose ministry the Anti-tout squad is domiciled, acknowledged that there may have been some instances of abuse but that the SASA operatives have done so well to sanitise Onitsha and environs from the clutches of touts and other nefarious activities. He said the outfit was formed in response to a clarion call by the traders in Onitsha to the governor to save them from imminent collapse of their business because of the activities of touts.

“Dealing with a criminal is different from dealing with a gentleman. I can appeal to your conscience or take you to court but when you are standing face to face with a criminal, you have to be on the offensive because he is targeting your life.  It is difficult to catch such people and give them a pat on the back without beating or taking them to the police station, someone that has taken a life.

“Those that the Anti-tout squad manhandled are guilty and involved in one way or the other when you probe dutifully. I’m not giving them any authority to torture anybody because it is against the law and if I catch any of them doing such, I will report them to the police, but journalists should take it easy with us.

“In the process, we might make some mistakes but the society should bear with us because no organization is perfect. On the issue of extortion, nobody was sent to collect money from anyone. If I see such an instance, you will see what I will do to such a person.  The outfit is not a money making organization, it is an outfit that serves people and they even recover money from touts and hand it over to their owners. I don’t believe that they extort money from people because they are not free to do so. They are trained and are being paid too.”

Kenedy Ibegbunam, a lawyer, noted: “Governor Soludo is a Professor. Anambra also belongs to the A-list states in Nigeria. We can do much better than this. This crude method is anachronistic, out of sync with global best practices and should be totally done away with. This state prides itself as the light of the nation for crying out loud,” he said.(TheSun)

What are your thoughts?

Discover more from Odogwu Blog

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading