'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."

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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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