Published on November 1, 2016
“It is the duty of every good citizen not to encourage Guilt of mob-riotous proceedings” (Sir John Hay Athole Macdonald, Lord Kingsburgh KCB, PC ‘A Practical Treatise on the Criminal law of Scotland’).
Mob justice is a populist distortion of the accepted rules and social norms which hold societies together. This contempt for the rule of law occurs when person(s) disobey the laws of the land, by taking it unto themselves to deliver their own partisan interpretation of what they believe justice should entail. To be clear, this is a direct obstruction to the execution of public law and an affront to the judicial process. It is something rightly feared. Whilst this form of retribution is by no means unique to Nigeria – brutal incarnations of autonomous citizenship are well documented around the world – the failure of Nigeria’s criminal justice system to prevent its occurrence and punish those who engage in it, has served to project this attack on constitutional democracy as something akin to an acceptable public space anomaly.
An indirect (yet illustrative) example of the de-facto authorisation of (or at the very least incompetence in dealing with) such crimes can be seen in the absence of an incidence database. Without a systematic information-gathering system, accurate quantifiable analysis of the prevalence of mob justice is impeded. This is the real anomaly, and it operates against present and future victims. To date, the scale of these extra-judicial crimes can only be gauged by that which is reported in the media. Lynchings and burnings of alleged criminals have become commonplace in the written and televised media.
The range of alleged offences for which mobs have exerted punishment in Nigeria is wide. On one end of the spectrum are violent criminal offences such as murder, assault, armed robbery, rape, kidnapping; on the other are offences against property – theft, fraud and misappropriation. Other classes of offences for which mobs have punished suspects include accusations of pick pocketing, robbery, fraud, witchcraft, magical theft of genitals, blasphemy and violating religious texts, violation of local customs and taboos (by no means a criminal act), non-observance of religious and cult rites, among others. Much is dependent upon the ‘mood’ of the mob. The so-called ‘justice’ meted out is disproportionate to the offence, as some of these acts are hardly crimes malum in se; much less ones that warrant violent and fatal retribution.
The execution of mob justice is often spontaneous, triggered by bystanders who witness a perceived violation of social mores and then initiate the process of violence in remedy of the perceived wrong. The administrators of mob justice then deliver it in the form of sticks, stones, combustible fluids; they are judge, jury and executioner. In light of the operational scope of mob justice (if nothing else) it must be asked: what is just in a system that allocates the same punishment for stealing a tuber of yam as it does for murder? In fact, it is not uncommon for people to join a mob to punish someone accused of a crime, without knowing the particular offence the victim is alleged to have committed.
The Nigerian Constitution and criminal legislation explicitly outlaw the instant longing for redress without recourse to the established channels. Section 36(1) of the Nigerian constitution guarantees in all instances the right to fair hearing; section 33(1) assures every citizen the ‘right to life’ and punitively prohibits the deprivation of life except in execution of a court sentence. Sections 252 and 253 of the Criminal Code outlaws assault in all its forms.
The efficacy of legal guarantees is not just a matter of detailed institutional design; it is also a question of an interconnected cluster of values that underpin formal institutions. Moreover, the success of a law or legal policy rests squarely on a number of extra-legal circumstances: in particular, on public perception and a system of cultural values. There is a correlation between the effectiveness of law and the social milieu within which it operates, and that makes public perception of the performance of the criminal justice system crucial to its success.
Mob justice is a key consequence of failures within the Nigerian criminal justice system to process and deal efficiently with those suspected of criminal activity. There is an unmistakable low public confidence in the capacity of the security services and the courts to fairly and independently punish crime in accordance with the Criminal Code. A particularly tragic case reported this year in Ikorodu (a city within Lagos State) highlights this point in a brutal fashion. An alleged serial rapist and murderer (known as Baddo) was apprehended by members of the public, and at some point he was taken into the custody of the security services. Days after his release it was alleged that he had sexually assaulted a minor; members of the community apprehended Baddo and set the ‘accused’ on fire. This incidence forms one of the mosaics on the tableau of systemic incompetence and mob justice in Nigeria.
The frightening fatal swiftness and arbitrariness of the process of mob justice in Nigeria makes it particularly susceptible to abuse and settling scores. It can thus be manipulated for personal gain. The ‘Aluu-4’ episode underscores this fact; four university students, who allegedly went to recover a debt, were set up by the supposed debtor and were lynched in the most gruesome manner. The ‘Aluu-4’ tragedy is not a one-off incident and it highlights the vulnerability of citizens to the vagaries of the practice of mob justice in Nigeria, and the low value it places on human life.
The siren call of mob justice for instantaneous punishment of criminal acts is injurious to social order. It undermines the rule of law (of which it is thought, somewhat worryingly, to encompass fair/impartial adjudication), increases uncertainty and risk, undermines social communication and reason, discourages the alternative dispute resolution processes, undercuts property rights and risks plunging Nigeria into a state of anomy.
Even in cases where mob justice seems alluringly appropriate, its flaw can be highlighted by an appeal to self-preservation. “Do you want to be that next hapless victim, who was never given a fair hearing?” There are and must always be two sides to the same coin. The state must take a stand against this tragic situation so as to restore order and prevent the loss of life and property.
According to a Yoruba proverb, “the one who listens to just one side in adjudicating is a super villain; any system that punishes a man without appropriately hearing out the suspect is unjust, unfair and indecent.” The mobs of Nigeria would do well to heed this advice.
Tosin Osasona is a Research Associate at the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives, Lagos, Nigeria. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org