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How not to Feign Shock over Mob Justice in Nigeria

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Those four young victims of mob justice in Port Harcourt could easily have been people next door. No, they were not the typical distant faces of desperate poverty often plastered over newsprint, or flashed across your television screen, who had been

rounded up and bludgeoned to death in the light of the day for one alleged crime or the other. [Such execution would be no less revolting in nature, by the way].

Instead these were persons whose appearances are very familiar, in the sense that they could easily have been your young brothers, cousins, nephews or sons. Or, the sons of neighbors down the road. Like their peers anywhere in the world, the faces of those young victims captured all the traits of their youth as seen everywhere in the media and their Facebook pages: the exuberance, the mischief, the intelligence, the laughter embedded in their eyes along with the relative innocence that often leads them to err so terribly, causing their loved ones acute embarrassment and, worst of all, profound grief.

According to written, pictorial and video narratives of the despicably graphic incident now widely available on the world wide web, the four young men, students of the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers State, Nigeria, were nabbed after they were allegedly found with stolen items as mobile phones and laptop computers. The young men were thereafter stripped naked by their captives who later grew into an angry, bloodthirsty mob that subjected the men to the worst forms of animal brutality, dousing them with gasoline and setting them alight with disused tires on their necks.

The brutal nature of their public execution has caused many Nigerians [whom the late ace journalist Dele Giwa said had crossed the Rubicon into a state of unshockability] to recoil with shock horror. In the pages of newspapers, on television, blogs and social media, the topic took a life of its own. Even the federal legislature in Abuja took time off its self-serving squabbles to wade into the raging topic, calling for the arrest and prosecution of those who masterminded the public execution of those Nigerians, by fellow Nigerians who apparently are immune to the gore of such acts.

The expression of shock and revulsion by Nigerians is annoyingly belated. For far too long, these brutal acts of mob justice had gone on almost everywhere in the country. It doesn't matter if it is at the epicenter of 'Boko Haram' justice in Maiduguri, or the flashpoints of mindless bloodletting across Nigeria over the years, including the Ife-Modakeke brutalities and the cocoon of seasonal bloodbaths in the Plateaus of middle-belt Nigeria.

Brutality, under one excuse or the other, has been part and parcel of the Nigerian experience over the last few decades, such that many are now virtually immune to gore and violence. Military dictatorship contributed its own quota to the psyche of violence, as you are now more likely to see the average Nigerian bark his way through his daily experience, often employing the threat of physical violence to have his way. Courtesy and respect are niceties reserved mostly for foreigners; you are less likely to find Nigerians show one another courtesy than Nigerians showing foreigners same. There is indeed a growing desensitization of the Nigerian from being decent to being crude.

Yet is true of man in general: severally termed as the most destructive and violent of the species, he would naturally revert to his basest instincts in any instance of lawlessness. It doesn't matter where he is; whether in the most advanced or 'civilized' enclaves or the most backward communities of the world, man's basest instincts will naturally awaken in a state of lawlessness. There you will see that the nice neighbor, who smiles and nods respectfully at you on his daily egress and ingress, would as easily grab a machete in your pursuit, especially in a state of war where civil law becomes virtually inexistent.

And that is why, beyond every other excuse made for the prevalence of mob justice in Nigeria, the apparent absence of the rule of law is the most direct cause. The behemoth that is the Nigeria Police - the federal law enforcement body that supposedly exists to maintain law and order in Nigeria - does more to protect the interest of the State [and its politicians and agents alike] than it does to mind the interest of the everyday people that it is meant to serve. It is not surprising therefore that a far larger majority of politicians in power oppose the scrapping of the national police as we know it, to be replaced with far more lithe or   responsive police apparatuses run by state governments, peopled by local personnel who understand their communities, and care for their communities, far better than a northern police conscript knows or care for a southern community, and vice-versa.

It is sickening to see images of people bludgeoning already bloodied, naked suspects while onlookers stood idly by, many of them clutching mobile devices as they recorded the ongoing animal brutality before them, and barely registering any form of discomfort whatsoever over the animal brutality before them. It was a stark reminder of similar images captured of America's Jim Crow era, when institutional segregation directly or indirectly encouraged the often brutal persecution of African-Americans. The images of black men hanging from trees, sometimes with bonfires at their feet while young and old white people look on with glee, still haunt.

It is a matter of regret that what others consider as shameful, and struggle to forget for its associated stigma, is the same thing that has more or less become commonplace in Nigeria. Yet Nigeria is hardly in a state of war. When such happens, - when Nigerians deploy such brutal solution to common challenges as theft and harassment - it becomes difficult to handle the case of the Nigerian who was maltreated on a British Airways flight in London, or the Nigerian who was brutally manhandled and died aboard a deportation flight from, say, Stockholm, back to his home country. Both cases no doubt will and should awaken ones fighting spirit for equity and justice. But how do you defend the honor and integrity and the rights of a freeborn Nigerian in the hands of others, when Nigerians are doing worse to one another?

Beyond lamenting over spilt milk, or expressing anguish over the prevalence of mob brutality in Nigeria, is the need to do something about it. Anybody can lament or complain about any problem. What separates the doers from the talkers is action. Granted, one isn't in a position to personally turn the tide for instant result. But at least one can join an active, focused and determined campaign to end a pattern of mob justice, not just in Nigeria, but wherever else such exists.

Doing something about the kind of mob justice seen in Port Harcourt last week is the only way that one can convince oneself, much less anyone else, that he is truly revolted by the act. 1982 was the first time I personally heard of such persecution of alleged criminals - that anyone caught stealing, among other crimes, is often beaten and doused with inflammable liquid with a ring of tire placed on his neck, before being set afire. Thirty years later, it appears the practice has taken on a mainstream dimension. Even lower animals should never be subject to such gory barbarism, much less humans. You, the reader, can do something about it. You can start by signing this petition.

By Folabi Ogunleye