In October, it was reported that a bill to protect people against jungle justice had scaled second reading in the Senate and might soon become a law. Considering that there are already laws against wanton killings in place, such a bill is superfluous. Nigerians practise jungle justice, not for a lack of laws but because our institutions are too tepid to enforce existing ones.
Lately, in the cosmopolitan city of Lagos, a young man was lynched by a mob for the alleged crime of stealing a mobile phone. There are conflicting accounts of the incident and up till now, nobody has sorted through the murky details to produce the identity of the victim. His killers depersonalised and dehumanised him to justify his gruesome murder. Even if he truly stole a mobile phone, his death was unwarranted. There are reasons human societies institute laws commensurate to a crime and we need to find the language to explain that to a mob; people who have already consigned themselves to the status of animals so they could legitimately rip another one of their kind at the jugular.
In Nigeria, it does not take much more than a mere accusation to be a victim of jungle justice. Most people who participate do not even stop to ask questions before rushing to mob a victim.
In the wake of the Lagos’ unfortunate incident, the Senate is hastening the passage of the bill into law. While it is almost gratifying that the lawmakers are demonstrating responsiveness, a law is a reductionist solution to a complex problem.
How many more laws would have protected the four undergraduates of University of Port Harcourt who were lynched after being falsely accused of theft in Aluu community? What gave their killers gumption if not a conviction that the law is largely impotent? A couple of years ago, an older woman probably suffering from dementia was lynched in the same Lagos by retarded folks who were convinced she fell from the sky when she transfigured from bird to human. Her killers do not need more laws to stop their Inquisition crusade.
Likewise, the 74-year-old Mrs. Bridget Agbahime of Kano State mobbed by those who believed she had blasphemed against an indifferent god. I read her husband’s interview where he described the incident in vivid details and I could not help but weep. Imagine how devastating it must be for him to have witnessed the death of his wife, lost his livelihood, and on top of all the trauma he has suffered, learnt that those apprehended by the police had been set free. What good would have been more laws for the National Youth Service Corps members who perished in the heated aftermath of the 2011 elections? It has been 21 years since Gideon Akaluka’s decapitation; today, the guilty parties swagger around and about the metropolis, their freedom a middle finger to the law.
I will concede though, that due to socio-cultural changes, and the upgrade in the tools we use to navigate daily existence, existing laws need to be tweaked. These days, it is not uncommon for folks to gather around lynching sites to take selfies, posing against a scene of gross inhumanity and using the dead as a backdrop for their narcissism. There are those who are quick to whip out their phones to record mobbing so they can share it on social media and generate traffic for their pages and blogs. There are those whose presence at such scenes engineer the expectation of perverse entertainment; they wilfully egg on the perpetrators, hyping a lynching so they can derive some catharsis from ritualised violence. At varying levels, these people share culpability with those who carry out the actual lynching.
What psychologists have previously described as bystander apathy has a fresh traction in the age of social media. People are no longer content to simply stand around expecting others to take responsibility and stop the crime. No, they want to see the lynching carried through so they can record a spectacular footage and share later. By processing such grievous acts into fodder for bored eyes, they might also be establishing the evidence of their own involvement in the crime. We can argue that people who record such scenes provide key evidence of human depravity but analyses of such eyewitness activities have revealed that people also create the news they eventually report. Combating mob justice should involve interrogating the role the hand behind the camera played; whether by divesting themselves of responsibility and watching the crime happen through their camera lenses, they are accessories to murder.
If the Senate will carry on with the bill, they will do well to remember that jungle justice in Nigeria does not happen only on the streets, it is in fact a staple of our judicial system. Fighting jungle justice should therefore start from understanding the processes of its social and psychological formation; the cultural undercurrents that make it possible for people on the streets to abjure legal processes and proceed to administer justice as it suits them.
We cannot talk about the jungle justice that takes place on the streets without talking about President Muhammdu Buhari who, on live TV, displayed his lack of regard for court orders on the leader of the Independent People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu and former NSA, Sambo Dasuki. We should also talk about Buhari’s tacit endorsement of the death of the Shiites who stood in the way of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Tukur Buratai. About 350 of them were buried in a mass grave. What about the death of the pro-Biafra protesters who were cut down by police bullets as they ran for their lives? Like Pontius Pilate, the rest of us – including voices in the civil society who used to be active right up until the last administration – simply wash the blood from our conscience.
From Buhari, we should move on to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission whose idea of justice now is largely hunting down people, subjecting them to public ridicule, and quietly letting them go afterwards. Right from the time Buhari became President, the EFCC has spent more time entertaining us with confession narratives coming out of their gulag and little else in the actual fight against corruption. We are expected to simply lap it all up like those who use their phones to record lynching. Afterwards, they send us on our way, tense with our aborted pleasure of witnessing justice done. With such level of erosion of public confidence in judicial institutions, making more laws to combat jungle justice is disingenuous.
These days, being tried in the “court of public opinion” is the closest we get to see justice done in the anti-corruption fight. We can take it for granted that much of the hoopla about arresting people, detaining them, and granting them bail is a cycle that is meant to merely make us dizzy. Yet, there are people out there who hail this ugly development; they further beg for the constitution to be suspended so the President can “properly” fight crime. If the so-called educated people consider the law as an encumbrance to their idea of justice, why would those on the streets who are quick to lynch feel any differently?
Tackling jungle justice or any of its variants will do well to catch those in government who use extrajudicial means to overcome what they consider the shortcomings of the legal systems.
The proponents of the bill may have good intentions but they cannot circumvent the reality: mob justice is not merely about the spectacle of public lynching; it goes all the way to up to the leadership. The Senate should do more than merely munch on facts in a parliamentary session, they need to properly address the lapses of administrative infrastructure that make even the state resort to jungle justice.