'Perplexed ... Perplexed': On Mob Justice in Nigeria

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Why is lynching so common in the West African country?

Teju-Mob-Violence-Banner.jpgWikimedia/J.J. Gould

On Friday October 5, 2012, four students at the University of Port Harcourt, in southern Nigeria, went to the nearby village of Aluu. They had gone to collect a debt from a man named Coxson Lucky. The students were young men, all in their teens or early twenties. At Aluu, they tried to shake down Lucky (how aggressively, no one really knows); it seems they also seized some items belonging to him. Lucky raised an alarm, a crowd gathered, and the students found themselves accused of stealing laptops and phones. They were immediately set upon by the mob, stripped, paraded through town, and beaten with sticks. They began to plead for their lives and, even as they did so, were weighed down with tires and set alight. All four of them -- Chiadika Biringa, Ugonna Obuzor, Lloyd Toku, and Tekena Elkanah -- died there, in the mud of Aluu village.

It takes 10 seconds, more or less, for the mob to decide whether to administer its brand of justice.

Lynching is common in Nigeria. Extrajudicial killing is often the fate of those accused of kidnapping and armed robbery, but also of those suspected of minor crimes like pickpocketing. These incidents, if reported at all, get one or two paragraphs in the newspapers and are forgotten. Nevertheless, the killings of the Aluu 4, as they have come to be known, touched a nerve in Nigeria. This was in large part because the murders were filmed and uploaded to YouTube and, soon after, seen by many among Nigeria's huge population of internet-savvy youths. In the days that followed, there was a pained and horrified discussion across Nigerian social media. How could this happen? What sort of society had we become? Would the guilty be caught and punished?

I could not watch the video. I was still haunted by a clip I saw years ago of another lynching. Two men had been set on fire, and were being whipped. The skin came off their bodies in oily red strips, and their tormentors urged each other to slow down and let them suffer. I could bear only to look at the stills from this new video. But I found the response to the incident among the Nigerian public interesting. The outrage was loud and long. It was as though this were the first time such a thing had ever happened, as though Nigerian society were not already mired in frequent and almost orgiastic spates of violence. Somehow, this incident had differentiated itself from the terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, the endless killings by "unknown gunmen," the carnage on the roads, the armed robberies, the dispiriting catalogue of crimes in places high and low.

What was the cause of this soul searching? What made the Aluu 4 different from dozens of others killed by mobs in the past few years? What innocence had been destroyed by this particular spontaneous instance of murder?

* * *

One evening in September 2010, the  lawyer and poet Tade Ipadeola was driving home in Dugbe, Ibadan, in southwestern Nigeria. It was a drizzly night. Visibility was poor. From his car, a white sedan, he saw a speeding motorcyclist ahead of him collide with another motorcyclist. The motorcycle that was hit wobbled slightly and went on its way. The one that caused the collision was slewed across the road. The male motorcyclist and his female passenger lay prone on the asphalt. The man wore no helmet and blood from his cracked skull pooled on the road. The woman writhed in pain. Ipadeola parked some 15 meters from the scene of the crime, left his engine idling, his beams on, and hurried to help the accident victims. He was the first on the scene, but very soon after, other cars had parked, and so had other motorcycles. Someone from the gathering crowd suddenly said, "The white car hit them." At this announcement, a sudden fear coursed through Ipadeola. That was his car that had been mentioned. His guilt was established by his mere presence at the scene.

"Jungle justice": The term seems to confirm the worst prejudices that outsiders might have about life in Nigeria.

"It takes 10 seconds, more or less, for the mob to decide whether to administer their brand of justice," Ipadeola said, in recounting the incident to me. "The diabolical compression of time was the most frightening part." Everyone looked at him menacingly. Especially dangerous was the assembled brotherhood of motorcyclists, who are always to be found defending their own in such situations. There were only two possible outcomes once guilt was established: They either burned the car, or they burned the car and its driver. But on this night, another voice spoke out of the crowd claiming that, no, it was the man bleeding on the road who had hit another motorcycle. Some section of the crowd seemed to believe this, and Ipadeola walked back to his car, shaking, hoping that the tide which had suddenly turned in his favor wouldn't suddenly turn again. He made it home alive that night. He lived to tell the tale.

* * *

One of the chief characteristics of a mob is its quickness. It is sudden. It pounces. In Ikeja, Lagos, in 2011, two men, Alaba and Samuel were severely beaten and very nearly killed for eating human flesh. Closer investigation showed that what they'd been chewing on was, in fact, beef. By this time, their punishers had long dispersed into the city. In Nigeria, we sometimes call these mob actions "jungle justice." Most people are not opposed to them on principle. As a sweet-natured aunt of mine said a few years ago, referring to my question about thieves who had been killed by vigilantes, "Why do we need such people in the society anyway? It's better to just get rid of them." She was expressing the pain that many feel about the violent crimes, and their desire for instant restitution.

Teju-Mob-Violence-1.jpg

"Jungle justice": The term is uncomfortable in the way it seems to confirm the worst prejudices that outsiders might have about daily life in Nigeria. Won't the expression make people think that Nigeria is a savage place? Certainly, from the experience of the people I know who barely escaped being lynched by an irate mob, who experienced that sudden, startling, and almost fatal diminishment of self that occurs when hostile strangers close in on you, no term is too strong or too angry to characterize what mobs do. Jungle justice is not the half of it. But we should be fair enough to set Nigerian street justice in its various contexts.

Mob rule -- or to give it its technical name, "ochlocracy" -- was not invented in Nigeria. Theories of the mob predate ancient Rome. Extrajudicial murders litter the post-Civil War history of the American South, all the way to, and beyond, the story of James Byrd, Jr., in 1998. Punitive murder by the police and by vigilantes has existed in all societies at some point, and probably still exists in most. In cosmopolitan centers like New York and Paris, until at least the early years of the 20th century, lynchings were reported in the newspapers. Félix Fénéon, writing faits divers -- brief news items, usually of a peculiar or violent nature -- in Le Matin in 1906, recorded several instances of people being set upon by mobs. For instance one reads (in a translaton by Luc Sante): "Near Brioude, a bear was smothering a child. Some peasants shot the beast and nearly lynched its exhibitor."

While working on a project I call "small fates," modeled closely on Fénéon's faits divers, I found several similar instances in the New York of a hundred years ago. Lynching in the U.S. is so closely tied to racial violence that we forget that it often featured in incidents where race was not at issue. In one story, a man on East Houston Street, who had attacked his lover with a razor, nearly lost his life to a mob. There were other incidents of lynchings or near-lynchings: After a jailbreak, when people attacked a driver who hit a child, and so on. More recently, there has been a rise in such spontaneous acts of violence in places such as Jamaica, Pakistan, and Kenya.

What many of these societies have in common is a crisis of modernity. People, finding themselves surrounded by newly complex circumstances, and finding themselves sharing space with neighbors whom they do not know and with whom they don't necessarily share traditions, defend themselves in terrible new ways. The old customs have passed away, and the new, less reassuring, less traditional modes of life are struggling to be born. Mobs arise out of this crisis. They are a form of impatience.

The investiture of legal power in the hands of the state evolved as a way to stem endless vendettas, blood feuds and unauthorized violence. In countries with a properly functioning legal system, the mob continues to exist, but it is rarely called upon to mete out capital punishment. The right to take human life belongs to the state. Not so in societies where weak courts and poor law enforcement are combined with intractable structural injustices. The mob flows into that vacuum, and looks for whom to kill. A mob is not, as is so often said, mindless. A mob is single-minded.

* * *

In 2011, in Gusau, a town in the northern state of Zamfara, Saminu Ibrahim, a journalist, went to a local branch of Skye Bank to withdraw some money. While he was there, one of the bank staff, Idowu Olatunji, suddenly experienced a hysterical episode in which he felt his penis had vanished. This peculiar form of anxiety, which happens with some regularity in public places in Nigeria, is usually followed by the accusation that someone nearby "stole" the penis. A crowd gathers and rarely is there any kind of examination of the accuser's body. His word is simply taken for it, and a beating of the accused, sometimes fatal, follows.

What many societies characterized by lynching have in common is a crisis of modernity. Mobs arise out of this crisis. They are a form of impatience.

Within its highly particularized context, this bizarre sequence of events makes a perverse sort of sense. It might even be interpreted as no more perverse than some things that pass for the normal abnormality in other societies, such as those in American culture, "alcohol and drug abuse, major depression, dysthymia, mania, hypomania, panic disorder, social and specific phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder," a list presented by Frank Bures in his extraordinarily nuanced Harper's essay on penis theft in Nigeria, "A Mind Dismembered" (subscription required). Bures, struggling to understand the psychological context for this kind of anxiety, notes that "every culture has its own logic, its own beliefs, its own stresses."

That day in Gusau, the banker Olatunji accused the journalist Ibrahim of penis theft. All of a sudden, Ibrahim found himself in mortal danger from a crowd. They closed in on him with murderous intent, and only the presence of quick-thinking policemen saved him from a grisly death. But what made this case truly unusual, and makes it a textbook case of Nigeria's neuroses and its perplexed modernity, was that Ibrahim later sued Olatunji in a court of law for defamation and false accusation. His response to this intolerable threat to his life was the formalized idea of the law guaranteed by the state. He answered jungle justice with civil justice. And it was at this point that the story dropped out of the public view.

* * *

Crowds are attractive because of their egalitarian promise. The mob is a form of utopia. Justice arrives now, to right what has for too long been wrong with the world. As Elias Canetti wrote in his masterful psychological study, Crowds and Power, "All who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal." In this sudden equality is part of the appeal of a lynching. But, it is a spurious appeal. As Canetti says of the equality that mobs feel, "it is based on an illusion; the people who suddenly feel equal have not really become equal; nor will they feel equal forever."

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When I asked my Nigerian friends to tell me about their own close calls with mob violence, I was surprised, and a little dismayed, by how many of them actually had stories to tell. Eghosa Imasuen, a sharp-minded and witty novelist, told me about his experience at Alaba, the main electronics market in Lagos. This was in 2003, and the salesboy, who had opened the cardboard box of a television, wishing to force a sale, began to loudly allege theft. It was a hustle. He had done it before. As Imasuen put it, "An expletive-filled denial saved me. It was scary. I had received a few slaps before the crowd noticed that my friend and I were too angry to be thieves." The crowd turned on the accuser instead, and gave him a severe beating before taking him to the chairman of the market, who in turn handed him to police.

In the case of Akin Ajayi, who writes on arts and culture for Nigerian and international publications, it happened one day when he was fifteen, playing truant from the elite boys boarding school, King's College. He had snuck off campus, in Obalende, on Lagos Island, to buy some suya, the spicy grilled meat popular all over the country. A misunderstanding over change, or perhaps, again, a deliberate hustle, from the suya seller, led to Ajayi being suddenly surrounded by violent merchants. He felt the danger, and broke into a run. For a hundred yards, he was pursued by them. It frightens him still, to think of that day.

Elnathan John, who is also a journalist and satirist for Nigerian newspapers, had been taking photos of a government raid on an illegal market in Abuja. The government officers, though armed, were beaten back; the situation became dangerous all of a sudden, even for onlookers. One man, a black-marketer of petroleum products, objected to John's camera, and tried to chase him down and hand him over to the angry crowd of traders. John was just barely able to run around a corner, jump into his car, and speed off. The memories are fresh in his mind: It happened just this year.

* * *

Those of us who have lived a long time in Nigeria have heard, in the market places, the cries of, "Thief, thief!" We have seen chases that won't end well for the person being chased. We have all seen, at the very least, in some market square or busy intersection, the charred remains of what used to be a human being, what used to be some mother's son, some child's hapless father. Many of us remember hearing of how a boy of 11, accused of kidnapping a baby, was burned alive near the National Stadium in Lagos in 2005. In that case, as in the case of the Aluu 4, a video recording was made of the incident and circulated; part of it was broadcast on television. There can be little doubt that before the current year is through, several more people will be lynched in Nigeria, for petty crimes or on the basis of false accusations.

A mob is not, as is so often said, mindless. A mob is single-minded.

When I'm in Nigeria, I find myself looking at the passive, placid faces of the people standing at the bus stops. They are tired after a day's work, and thinking perhaps of the long commute back home, or of what to make for dinner. I wonder to myself how these people, who surely love life, who surely love their own families, their own children, could be ready in an instant to exact a fatal violence on strangers. And even though I know that lynchings would largely disappear in a Nigeria with rule of law and strong institutions -- just as they have largely disappeared in other places where they were once common -- I still wonder what extreme traumas have brought us to this peculiar pass. I suppose it must be a blood knot, one that involves all the restless ghosts of our history-maddened country: the gap between rich and poor, the current corruption of the ruling class, the recent military dictatorships, the butchery of the Civil War in the late '60s, the humiliations of British colonialism, the internecine battles of the 19th century, and the horrors of the slaving past. We have, by means of a long steeping, been dyed all the way through with callousness.

* * *

I was frightened out of my skin one Sunday morning last November. In Surulere, near the National Stadium in Lagos -- in other words, close to where the 11-year-old boy was lynched in 2005 -- I saw a van accidentally hit a motorcycle. Neither the motorcyclist nor his passenger appeared to be seriously injured, but the driver of the van, possessed by a sudden panic, didn't stop. He drove off in an attempt to escape. A cadre of motorcycles gave immediate chase, and there was no doubt that they would bring him to a rough form of justice. "They'll catch him," a man said loudly. "They'll certainly catch him." Already, I could see that the driver would soon run into traffic and have to face his tormentors. I was appalled, but not especially surprised. I understood well that this was part of what passed for normal in the troubled street life of present-day Nigeria.

The Inspector General of Police made a statement vowing to capture the culprits in the murder of the University of Port Harcourt students. A heavy police presence descended on Aluu, and a large number of people have now been arrested, including the traditional ruler of Aluu and a police sergeant who apparently helped the crowd. A manhunt is underway for Lucky, the debtor who is believed to have incited the violence and is now being called, in a bit of wishful thinking, the "mastermind" of the murders.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that, in addition to the shock of actually seeing the murders on video, the concern being expressed here by the government -- in response to a public outcry that began online -- has other, unspoken, elements. These young men are "us" in a way that is not comfortable to confront, in ways that might seem trivial. The contrast between the photos released by their friends -- polo shirts, sunshades, jeans, clear skin, jaunty caps worn just so -- and the awful sight of their bloodied and naked bodies in the mud is sickening. They are, or were, close to the world of many other cool young Nigerians. Their presence on social media brings them even closer: Ugonna was active on Twitter, and was nicknamed "Tipsy." With Lloyd, AKA "Big L," he was a hip-hop enthusiast. They had recorded a track together, and this song was widely shared on Nigerian networks. In this sense, they were in the same class as many of the young Nigerian people on Twitter, somewhere along the imprecise continuum that constitutes the Nigerian middle class. They had some access to material resources; they had educated and somewhat well-to-do parents; one or more of them had been overseas; they were technologically savvy; and they had a sense of the world beyond Nigeria. The Aluu 4 are in all these ways just like the young Nigerians who lamented them on Twitter and other social networks, the ones who helped push the police response to the killings, and began a petition to have a bill passed criminalizing mob violence. The Aluu 4 were also, in this material and cultural sense, more like us than they were like the poor villagers who killed them; the violence was probably not disconnected from the terrible income gaps that are a fact of Nigerian life, and the explosive resentments those gaps can create.

I know that lynchings would largely disappear in a Nigeria with rule of law, but I still wonder what extreme traumas have brought us to this peculiar pass.

It is startling to consider that another atrocity had occurred in north-eastern Nigeria four days earlier, at the Federal Polytechnic Mubi, when gunmen had lined up and shot no fewer than 26 college students. Some reports put the number of dead as high as 40. The response to the Mubi killings was stunned, but much quieter. That incident has essentially dropped out of the public discussion now. We do not know the names of the dead students, nor do we know if they recorded hip-hop music in their spare time, or had Twitter accounts, or traveled overseas. They seem to have been from more modest backgrounds than the Port Harcourt students. The Mubi killings also seem to have some element of the incessant religious conflict that is ripping the north of the country apart. Boko Haram might have been involved. The conflict in the north frightens many privileged southern Nigerians, but rarely touches them directly. Places like Borno, Bauchi, and Adamawa are far way from the world inhabited by most educated, cosmopolitan Nigerians. The Boko Haram conflict and the various incidences of religious violence in the north are exceedingly complex, and have come with a shockingly high death toll. Nevertheless, many who heard the news of the Mubi massacre would simply have surmised that, although the dead were our fellow citizens, they were not really "us," not in the discomfiting way the Aluu 4 were.

But even if it is true that there is an element of class loyalty and regional identity in the attention being paid to the murders in Aluu, Nigerians now have a chance to think about a subject too long considered just a part of life. The outrage could lead to legislation. The very slow process of making Nigerians understand that ochlocracy is murder might gain some traction.

Tade Ipadeola, the lawyer who described mobs as a "diabolical compression of time," had also added: "And to think that we all complain that normal court proceedings are inordinately long in Nigeria." In a country where the rich commit crimes with impunity, and where the majority of the people in prison are awaiting trial, it is sad, but no great wonder, that citizens so often opt for the false utopia of the mob. But no Nigerian can now shake the feeling that it could be any of us falling afoul of the hive mind. No one really believes that there's just one mastermind in the case of a mob killing. It was always our problem, but in a destabilizing new way, it really is our problem now.

I took a look at eighteen-year-old Ugonna Obuzor's Twitter account (@tipsy_tipsy), which he last updated on October 3, two days before he was lynched alongside his three friends. His timeline isn't wordy, but it's fairly opaque, written mostly in the terse, quasi-American argot familiar to anyone who reads young Nigerians. There are a few messages in which he seems distressed about some unexplained event. Perhaps he was going through a romantic breakup (some of his retweets support this reading) or some other personal disappointment, but in light of his sudden death, the messages have taken on a decidedly different cast. On September 14, he wrote, "Its a shame buh it is wat it is...its real as this.." and, six days later, on the 20th of September, "It breaks my heart evrytym I tink abt it...still can't beliv it.." I scrolled down further down. On August 21, Ugonna had written, simply: "Perplexed." And on the day following, on August 21, 2012, the same single, haunting word again: "Perplexed."



Images: Wikimedia/J.J. Gould

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Teju Cole is the author of Open City, which won the 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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