“H ow long have you being doing it?” “Is this your first time?” “Is this a mistake?” “Is it the devil?” Those were the questions, as contained in a series of short video clips, uploaded on social media by a popular Nigerian blogger, for a man allegedly “caught in the act” stealing from co-travelers who boarded the same plane with him. The video, and a few other videos and comments that followed, tried to highlight how the alleged crimes were committed. It also showed how the alleged criminals were handed over to security men at the airport upon the plane’s touchdown. Security tips were also offered to prospective air travelers on how they can save themselves from falling victim to such crimes. The usually very intelligent, well-articulated and highly respected blogger made no efforts to shield the identity of the accused. That alone despite all other supposedly good intents of the videos, infringed on the rights of the accused to presumption of innocence.
“What yeye rights?” “That serves him right jare!” “All these criminals, hope this will serve as a deterrent to others?” That, unfortunately, is the stance of a lot of people – including the elites. But let us pause for a minute to deeply introspect that disposition. There is a reason our constitution and other extant laws of the land guarantee the rights of even an accused person. It empowered only one body – the courts – to take away those rights strictly under thorough and well defined procedures. But then, the other argument arises that the system is unjust and flawed. Given, our criminal justice system is not perfect and desperately needs to cleanse itself, but the mob justice system is terribly worse. The quest to replace established institutions, in the administration of criminal justice, for any reason, is a misplaced anger. The energy should be channeled to strengthening our institutions, and not replacing them with an often erratic mob justice system.
I just reread what later emerged of the Aluu four incident. A quick refresher. The story revolves around four University undergraduates; Ugonna Obuzor, Toku Lloyd, Chiadika Birirnga, and Tekena Elkanah – all first sons of their respective parents. They were killed, in a gruesome manner, by angry mobs on October 5, 2012 in Aluu Community, Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Their crime? They were accused by a debtor to one of them, who claimed, on their arrival to demand the settlement of the debt, that they were in the community to steal laptops and mobile phones. They were later to be found innocent of the alleged crimes but the findings did not profit them that much. They’ve been killed, and irreparably so! For the few lucky victims of mob actions who come out of it alive, regardless of whether they are later acquitted by properly constituted courts, the damages done are huge, and mostly irreparable.
Statistics say Nigeria is grossly under policed. This loosely implies that the first responders to crime alerts, especially when the accused criminals are not armed, are usually civilians. Out of ignorance, overzealousness, groupthink, lack of trust in our criminal justice system, sheer impunity and at times, plain mischief, these first responders sometimes go beyond apprehending the suspects and handing them over to constituted authorities, which is the ideal and constitutional thing to do. At such times, they tend to take laws into their hands by becoming self-appointed judges, trying the accused in the court of public opinion, and meting out punishments to the accused. The punishment could be vary from publishing an “is it the devil?” video of the accused person online, to an end, as tragic as Aluu four, Mrs. Bridget Agbahime or the young lad who was allegedly set ablaze in Lagos. Mobs always apply themselves to only one guiding principle – their prevailing mood.
I have studied quite a lot of literature on mob justice in Nigeria – whether it be scholarly articles, op-ed pieces, editorials, reports, documentaries, social media posts. There is an almost unanimous judgment of mobs as bloodthirsty and devilish sadists. I beg to differ. And yes, I saw all the gory images and the graphic videos of the atrocities committed by these angry mobs but I ask “could there be any benefit whatsoever in having their anger tamed and having them restructured?”
It is indisputable that Nigeria, by all standards, is grossly under policed. It is therefore wise that the opportunities presented by these sets of otherwise patriotic, concerned and security conscious citizens who go out of their way to “help” our overstretched security agencies do their jobs be harnessed. All that needs to be done is to tame their anger by educating and fiercely communicating the limits of their involvement in such adhoc security interventions. Such fierce communications may include ensuring that actions – mob actions – sure have consequences.
Another indisputable fact is that CCTV cameras are, for now, luxuries of select streets and premises. But Nigeria, according to Statista, currently has about 18 million smartphone users, and many have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to freely capture data. There is nothing wrong with enlisting their help. They can provide actionable tips that will help the security agencies do their jobs more efficiently and also ensure that the long legs of justice catch up with criminals. All that needs to be done is to provide a portal where they upload videos or photographs of such scenery and then update our laws to manage that data mining and also discourage careless pre-trial broadcasts which sometimes loosely translate to an online equivalence of street mobs.
But none of these can happen in an environment where the security agencies are, more often, the ones who advance the cruelest forms of mob justice. Don’t get me wrong. These agencies are noble institutions, but the repeated ignominy of some of their officers and men, and their denial and seeming kid gloves treatment of such have brought a lot of discredit. Whether you are looking at the Military’s infamous corporal punishments and sometimes arbitral execution of suspects or the Nigeria Police’s extra-constitutional pre-trial parade of suspects, or the extra-legal dumping of suspects in cells and prisons without enough commitment to press charges and secure convictions or EFCC’s brazen media strategy of naming and shaming suspects without enough evidence to substantiate such claims in courts, mob justice is what it is – mob justice. Nigeria’s security agencies, and the whole gamut of our criminal justice system must therefore initiate a soul-cleansing protocol. It is only when they have done so that they can reach out to, connect with and restructure the mobs in the media, their ilk in the streets, and the ones online.
Chima is a public policy analyst who writes from Nnewi, Anambra State. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter via @ChimaCChristian .