Thoughts on Jungle Justice in Nigeria

By Segun Ogunlade

In the evening of June 9, 2020, I was at Bodija market. On my way back, I noticed a mammoth of crowd that were not there before on one side of the road. Usually, I am not the type to bother about what was happening. But for a split second, I decided to go near the crowd and see what they were looking at. As I moved closer, I saw a man on the ground, badly beaten and wounded. Blood was gushing out from one side of his face and he laid there helpless. There was no police in sight. From available information, the man had tried to steal from a shop in the neighbourhood. Somehow, his intended victims, who were fairly younger than he was, were smart enough to know he was intent on stealing from them in a broad daylight and called on older people who accosted the man and gave him the beating of his life.

Well, such treatment of people suspected to be criminals is not uncommon in Nigeria. Whenever the mob tried a suspected criminal and pronounced judgement by killing or beating on same that is what is called jungle justice. This week, it was reported that a Lagos businessman was stoned to death because he hit a man who was partially blind. But that wasn’t the only case in recent time. There are more cases of mob killing and punishments than these ones. The most worrisome thing about these events is that they happened in front of local people and with their full support. Unfortunately, some recorded the events with their phones as they join others to say ‘Die! Die! Die!’

The most gruesome one I have seen in my adult life was the ALUU 4 killings that involved four undergraduate students of University of Port-Harcourt who were lynched by the mob for stealing in October 2012. They were beaten and later burned to death. Their accuser only shouted ‘robber’ and the people pounce on them without trial of any kind. It was discovered later that the accuser had raised a false alarm because he didn’t want to pay his debt. But the killing could not be reversed.

Sometimes after that, a 7-year old boy was beaten and burnt to death in Lagos for allegedly stealing garri. People watched on as the young boy was burnt to death and there was nobody to save him. In the same Lagos, men who were suspected to be commercial motorbike operators and touts battered to death the Zonal Head of the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) in December 2016 because one of the agency’s vans allegedly knocked down and killed a motor boy when officials of LASTMA were chasing some violators of the Lagos state traffic rule.

For a country that is the poverty capital of the world, this type of violence is not unexpected. Poverty makes people aggressive especially when they see their political leaders living in affluence. And when people are aggressive, violent acts are inevitable. This is not to justify jungle justice or any other form of violence such as rape and banditry. It is to say that when poverty is prevalent in a land, the aggression makes people commit different crimes. People call it the expression of anger. But as it is now, jungle justice and other crimes are fast becoming facts of life in Nigeria.

Besides this, jungle justice has refused to go away because citizens do not trust the country’s social justice system. They have seen how justice is perverted and denied in court. They have seen proven criminals stroll out of court and watch people who commit institutionalised crimes got shielded by people in government. All these tell the people that the government could not be trusted to make the right decision when it comes to criminal matters. Besides, since the government has failed in one of its primary duties of safeguarding lives and properties of the people, the people want to make sure criminals get ridden off so they could live better. But all what jungle justice has been able to achieve is to give the country a bad name. Each case of illegal killing and punishment is arbitrary and remain unjustified on no grounds.

But what I have noticed is that most of the victims of justice killings are civilians who otherwise have no form of protection from the mob. The only thing that differentiated them from other civilians is that they are thought to be culpable of one crime or the other. Many times, the offences they committed fall under Ordinary Decent Crimes (OCDs) which in most cases it is stealing. Other cases such as the one involving Akinnifesi Olubunmi who was burnt to death by a mob in Ondo state after he was adjudged to be a homosexual and the killing of the LASTMA Zonal Head in Lagos are one of the few whose killing by the mob were not related to stealing.

Perpetrators of serious crimes such as terrorism now enjoy government grace. When it was clear that terrorists don’t have regard for human lives and would stop at nothing to kill innocent citizens, the Federal Government thought it wise to send any of them that seized by the military to rehabilitation centres. Afterwards, they are released for reintegration into the society which its members they had sought to exterminate. The citizens are seeing all this acts of injustice and maladministration by the government. They are seeing how people that commit serious crimes only got a slap on the wrist for what they done and how people that steal garri or goat from the market are condemned to incarceration.

What is baffling is how many of the people that are quick to lynch people on the street for stealing are reticent when it comes to politicians that steal money in millions and billions but chose to worship them instead. In 2016 when Chief James Ibori, a former governor of Delta state was released from prison where he had been for embezzlement of state funds, his kinsmen organised a welcome party for him. He was celebrated for going to prison and coming back alive. That made it look as if he was right to steal state funds and go to prison for it. It is why people in government continue to steal mindlessly. At the end of the day, they would be given chieftaincy title for their exploits.

The people that celebrated Chief James Ibori did not care about the number of hospitals that could have been built, the number of schools that could have been renovated and the number of roads that could have been constructed by the money he stole. There was no attempt to cast a single stone at him or incinerate him by the people he betrayed while in office as governor. Yet, in the same Delta state a suspected thief called Emma-B in Warri was beaten and burnt to death by local vigilantes some months after the release of Chief James Ibori from prison for the same offense. This shows the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of jungle justice by people that take delight in it.

Inasmuch as we could blame the social justice system in Nigeria, one cogent point that the citizenry don’t often understand is that there are many technicalities in the prosecution of criminal justice. In law, lawyers care about the law but not in the same degree at which they do about the rules. So, when Uzor Kalu was freed from prison after he had been convicted by a competent court of law, it was not due to the law but the rules. According to the law, he was guilty. But he was freed because one of the rules was overlooked. The lawyers knew he was indeed corrupt but they extol the rule over the law. That is also why many cases filed by Economic and Financial Crimes Commission were dismissed by the court. These technicalities surrounding the law profession affect the way justice is perceived.

When people think that justice is perverted in some cases, it is it is often because the lawyers are trying to maintain the rule. So, when people kill one of theirs either because he was caught in the act or he was suspected to have committed an act, they are no less different from the person that was killed. As they say, two wrongs cannot make a right. Taking law into one’s hand is a recipe for anarchy. Jungle justice as it were is an infringement on the individual rights and it is unfair to anyone under all circumstances. No man has the right to take the life of another when he doesn’t have the jurisdiction.

That is why the people that are involved in the prosecution of criminal justice such as lawyers and the police need to do more in orientating the citizenry about the need for proper investigation in criminal cases. It is true that the criminal justice system in Nigeria is faulty and people need assurance that people in charge of justice are capable of doing the right thing when it comes to how criminal cases are handled. But no man deserves to die simply because he was suspected to have done something and never given the right to fair trial. Jungle justice is illegal and also criminal. It is not the best way of meting out justice. As a matter of fact, jungle justice is a denial of justice.