Last week Sunday, I was in the village. I attended the 8.00 am Mass that day. As I arrived the Church at exactly 7.55am, I saw a throng of club-wielding youths and angry youngsters marching along the road adjacent to the Church. On instinct, I went closer to find out what was going on. The angry youths mixed with other attendants of the Church to form a very huge crowd that surged all over the Church compound, to the road. Getting closer, I saw three young men, stripped completely naked being marched down probably to the market square nearby. I was confused. I asked what the issue was and was told the three youths were caught stealing various goods from houses and shops in the community the previous night. I saw the three culprits who were from the community but didn’t recognize any of them. The culprits were beaten and shoved from one spot to the other by the youths who were variously armed with clubs, matches, sticks and stones.

On further enquiry, I gathered that the youths had, for some time, been terrorizing the community, breaking into homes, shops, offices with ease and engaged in consistent stealing which had put the community on edge. I also gathered that the youths had been arrested severally and released by the police. It was reported that as soon as the gangsters were released by the police, they engaged in further stealing and this has so exasperated the villagers that their case had left the community frustrated. I also learnt that the errant youths returned from police custody that same week. It was that bad and this is said to be consistent with their unceasing subjection of the entire community to relentless stealing and terror. Again, I heard that the robbers had several cases pending in various courts and before this mob action, the community had grown weary and tired on how to deal with their nuisance.

Meanwhile, the angry mob passed the Church, I went to Mass. The gospel reading for that Sunday’s Mass recounted the case of the woman caught committing adultery and how Jesus saved her from imminent death by asking any of her accusers who had not sinned to cast the stone on her and none did. This experience resonated with the incidence that preceded the Mass and this did not escape the priest-homilist who, though laid emphasis on this, as it pertains the robbers but said that the persistence of the alleged robbers had made pleading for them very difficult though he did not relent in pleading for mercy. But the mob was not in Church, they were elsewhere meting crude justice to the apprehended robbers.

Mass over, we heard that one of the robbers was exonerated by the mob because he did not participate in the particular case in hand. The two others were set ablaze but they did not die there but were left to flee to their houses. Later in the day, we heard that one of them had died and was quickly buried. The other one was reported to have died at dawn the following day. Both of them died in their houses.

For those who know my community, the incident was strange. This was the first time robbers would be set ablaze in my community. Not that robbers from my community hadn’t been killed elsewhere. Many have either been burnt or killed outside my community. In fact, there is a belief that robbers from my community don’t live long and over the years, we have seen this play out to the letter. But none had been killed in my community before last Sunday. My community is deeply religious and well educated and this has lent a toga of softness on the people that many outside my community believed we were incapable of setting people ablaze or killing anybody no matter the heinousness of the crime. Even the robbers knew this which was why they ceaselessly tormented the people. But this changed with the case of the two culprits and rewrote a history of civility which my community had basked in. What was remarkable in this case however was that the two robbers were from the community and those that caught and set them ablaze in broad daylight were their brothers and sisters, mates, kits and kins and even included their fellow partners in crime! What more, their killing elicited great joy among the members of my community. What more, it was reported that the father of one of the culprits lit the matchstick and set his son ablaze! 

The entire incident got me thinking; what could have made an otherwise peaceful, enlightened, well-educated and deeply-religious community resort to such self-help in dealing with their errant sons? What could have made a father take the very tough decision of incinerating his son alive? My search for answers led me to observe that not even a single member of the community made a case for the alleged robbers, which shows that they were indeed guilty and deserved the punishment they got but then, that was not the right way to deal with criminality. That was not the justiciable way to deal with criminality. That was not the best way to deal with the pain in the ass which I gathered the slain robbers have become to their own community. That was not the legally approved way to settle such cases. Fact remains that mob action or jungle justice is on the rise to deal with incidences of criminality and this doesn’t speak well of the justice system in Nigeria. 

But, I gave up in helplessness because the entire justice and law enforcement sectors have failed my community and indeed the entire country. My community relished the incineration of their members because the police and the courts have proved grossly inept in giving the people justice. What could prove this assertion better than that the slain ruffians have series of court cases for criminality before the courts and had made consistent rounds to the police stations but only ended up getting emboldened each time they return? In fact, the robbers, even the one that was let off, were said to have returned from police detention for armed robbery that very week and had dates with the courts the Monday after they were killed? Nothing could be as frustrating and defeating as criminals pooing and mocking the justice system as is the case in Nigeria. It was alleged that the slain robbers and their other cohorts had engaged in mocking the courts and the police and the best way to show this mockery is engaging in fresh robberies as soon as they return from either the courts and the police stations.

As I said earlier, even with the palpable justification people give for mob action, it cuttingly is not the best way to foreclose criminal or other cases. Even as justified and angry as the mob may be, it doesn’t offer justiciable solution to an issue. The mob is ruled by the anger of the moment. The mob is irrational and as long as it operates on the wavelength of its present anger, it would refuse to be reasonable until its anger is fully given satiation. In the course of this anger, which always rule the mob, certain wrong decisions could be taken, many innocent lives could be lost. This is the reason mobs are not the best determinants of right or wrong. It is just an emotionally-driven movement that often end up taking rash and wrong decisions. Shakespeare best captures the irrationality of the mob in Julius Caesar when, the Roman mob, having been worked to a frenzy by Mark Anthony after the assassination of Julius Caesar, went out searching for the conspirators that murdered Caesar. In the course of the mob action against the conspirators, they ran into Cinna, the poet. They apprehended him and questioned him because one of the conspirators was named Cinna so anybody bearing that name was game. But Cinna the poet protested frantically that he was not Cinna the conspirator but Cinna the poet but that mattered little to the bloodshot mob and one of them rather retorted that Cinna’s protest about not being the conspirator mattered little and advised that he should be killed, have his name plucked from his heart and let going! That is the way of the mob and often regrets follow mob actions as reasons return after the acts.

So, why are Nigerians resorting to mob actions in the face of the existence of institutions for restitution? It is because the police and courts have failed Nigerians in dealing with not just criminal cases but other cases they are constitutionally vested to deal with. Often, the police have been alleged to compromise justice and have been very shoddy in investigating and prosecuting criminal cases and these have rather made criminals feel invincible and prefer to end up with the police. The courts have often been lethargic in adjudicating in cases and this has allowed criminal cases to linger forever. Often, when finally, the cases are settled, they had ended up to the favour of criminals who heavily invest in the time-wasting delays of the courts to escape justice. Often they have gotten mere slap in the wrist by the courts and in many cases, mere cosmetic victories have been given the complainants in the form of pyrrhic victories that rubbish the essence of justice. All these work to the favour of the criminals who remain undeterred in criminality to the frustration of law abiding victims of their criminality.

So, for the rising cases of mob actions against alleged criminals, the police and the courts have to take responsibility and must do something urgent to not only put away criminals speedily but re-assure the people that criminals apprehended would be dealt with in a manner that deters them from continuing in crime. fact is that the people have lost total confidence in the police and the courts to deal with criminals hence the resort to self-help becomes very attractive. In the case in my community last week, it was reported that a police patrol team came before the robbers were set ablaze but that the angry mob chased them away. This should not be the case when the people trust the police to do the needful with apprehended criminals.

So, let the courts and the police work very hard to regain the confidence of the people in dealing with criminal issues. They need to take urgent steps to work out a system where criminals are not only appropriately punished but expeditiously put away than the present state where they escape barely after being apprehended to continue tormenting the people. That way, they would save not only those who are wrong targets of mob actions but also ensure that the proper thing is done always. The country’s criminal justice system needs quick and urgent strengthening to arm the justice system and tame the rising cases of jungle justice all over the country.

 

Peter Claver Oparah

Ikeja, Lagos.

E-mail: [email protected]

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