Nigeria is light years away from being governed by the rule of law, evinced by the fresh cases of mob killings.
Over the past few months, the act of setting crime suspects ablaze, euphemistically called “jungle justice,” has seized the landscape. Gruesomely, many persons accused of crime have been lynched in gory ways in Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Lagos, Delta, Kwara, Benue, Imo and Cross River states. Execution-style jungle justice clearly poses a threat to the rule of law and due process.
Modern society is distinguished by the rule of law, but this seems to have totally broken down in Nigeria. Instead, the current situation mimics Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, as the mobs exploit any opportunity to burn people alive.
A few days ago, a mob descended on suspected thieves in Mowe, Ogun State. Without trial, they beat three of the five suspects to death before setting them on fire.
The state police command accused commercial motorcycle riders of perpetrating the arson, alleging that they (the riders) commit such brazen brutalities at the slightest sign of offence. Under the law, even a suspect caught red-handed is deemed innocent until tried and convicted by a court of law.
Yet, this trend replicates itself around the country. In Osun State, five accused persons were given this bestial treatment by mobs in Ile-Ife and Iwo this December. Two persons accused of snatching a motorcycle, were given the chase from one point to another in Ile-Ife, and burnt alive.
A few days on, a mob burnt another person for allegedly trying to snatch a motorcycle in the Ilode area of the city. In Iwo, a mob burnt two women alive on suspicion of kidnapping.
In nearby Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, a rabble inflicted a maximum sentence of burning without trial on a robber, who reportedly shot d**d a commercial motorcycle operator in an attempt to snatch his bike.
Moreover, a violent crowd razed the police division in Igboukwu, Aguata LGA of Anambra State. Their anger was inflamed when the police, who were enforcing the 9pm curfew on commercial motorcyclists, shot an operator d**d at a checkpoint.
In Edunabon, Osun State, irate youths burnt down the palace of the traditional ruler, both in the past week. This is sinister, and mobs have carried out these callous killings in Makurdi, Benue State, and Ughelli in Delta State and Calabar in Cross River State.
Terrifyingly, the police take the back seat when the perpetrators go on the rampage. Noticeably, the police might have adopted a detached attitude as officers too suffered from the mobs during the #EndSARS violence in October.
Apart from burning down 205 police stations, the hoodlums who hijacked the peaceful rallies against police brutalities murdered at least 22 officers, the Inspector-General of Police, Muhammed Adamu, said. The deadly gangs stormed different prisons, releasing about 2,000 inmates.
Mob action has a long history in Nigeria. Between March and April 2001, irate crowds lynched 12 persons in Osogbo, Ilesa and Ile-Ife, all in Osun State on the accusations of “missing” private organs. In Oyo State, mobs also lynched six others on the same allegation.
The truth is that some of these victims might have been innocent because mobs often act based on mass hysteria with no substantial evidence to prove their suspicions.
One shocking case was the lynching of four undergraduates of the University of Port Harcourt, Choba in 2012. Known as the Aluu Four – the four friends only went to collect a debt, but the alleged debtor raised the alarm, accusing them of stealing mobile phones and laptops after which they were lynched.
For a measure of true justice, four of the 12 arrested for the acts of murder were sentenced to death by a Rivers court in 2017. Another horrific case happened in Lagos in 2015. A child said to be as young as seven was neck-laced for attempting to steal garri (cassava flour) from a trader.
Foreigners say jungle justice confirms the worst prejudices they have about life in Nigeria. Yet, mob justice is not unique to Nigeria and it would be unfair to characterise it as such. Lynching is common in many contemporary societies, particularly in countries with high crime rates such as Brazil, Guatemala and South Africa.
According to the CNN, one infamous lynching in particular shocked the world and helped to spark the civil rights movement in the United States. In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten, his eyes gouged and shot in the head. His body was then thrown in the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin tied around his neck with barbed wire.
His crime? He allegedly whistled at a white woman. A shameful part of the US past, the Senate acknowledged its failure to enact legislation that might have put a stop to the extrajudicial killings of African-Americans at the hands of racist lynch mobs during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Regrettably, Nigeria’s security agencies set the stage for extrajudicial killings. Amnesty International says in a report that the Nigeria Police Force is responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial executions, other unlawful killings and enforced disappearances every year.
“The majority of cases go un-investigated and unpunished. The families of the victims usually have no recourse to justice or redress. Many do not even get to find out what exactly happened to their loved ones.” This captures how cheap human life is in Nigeria.
To curb this nuisance, the police should see mob action as a serious crime. As far back as the 17th century, witch-hunting had been eradicated in Europe. That is progress. In India’s case, where superstition is still strong, the police move against lynch mobs swiftly.
For this, police arrested eight people after four elderly people were lynched by a mob in Jharkhand after being accused of practising witchcraft in July 2019. The police should be complemented by the judiciary, as the Aluu Four case showed, by imposing a maximum penalty on offenders.
Lynching is a perverse effort at crime prevention. The judicial system, from policing to the Supreme Court, is brutally corrupt, attending only to those with the resources to pay for service or the right connections at the right places..
As it is in most societies where non-racial lynching is notorious, crime rates are surging in Nigeria as the economy spirals downward, making the poor vulnerable to criminal predation. To tame the scourge, the media and civil society organisations should campaign against it while the justice system, especially the police, is purged and sanitised.