Last week, someone was lynched somewhere in Nigeria. Some reports say that it was a 7-year-old boy who had allegedly stolen garri. Other reports say it was a young man who was allegedly part of a gang that had been terrorising citizens around a particular bus stop in Lagos. The incident was captured on video and apparently circulated online. I still have not recovered from the trauma of watching images of the four young men brutalised and killed in Aluu in 2012. I do not want to add to my nightmares but the thought alone that one more person was tried, judged and executed by a mob in a matter of minutes is giving me sleepless nights.
What is it about our society that inures us to such violence and allows us to detach ourselves from the sanctity of life? The Nigerian Constitution in section 31(1) guarantees that “(e)very person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria” (emphasis added). Section 31(2) goes on to allow the extinguishing of a life caused by lawful use of force to defend another person or property; to lawfully arrest or detain a person; or to suppress a riot, insurrection or mutiny. Section 36 provides for the right to a fair hearing, which includes that a person accused of a criminal offence will be tried in public, will have an opportunity to defend himself and will be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The judicial process might be slow, but it exists for a reason. Presumably, our society does not take the extinguishing of a life lightly, which is why even people who are sentenced to die by a trial court are not handed over to the hangman the day after their sentence. They are still given an opportunity to appeal their case to the highest court in the land because we want to be sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they are guilty of the offence, and have had a fair opportunity to state their case. Take for instance the case of Chukwuemeka Ezeugo (Reverend King) who was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in 2007. Just this year, almost 10 years after the initial verdict that he should be hanged as punishment for his offences, the Supreme Court gave the final verdict, denying his appeal. This has taken almost ten years, but some people are able to carry on their conscience the fact that they can extinguish a life in the most brutal manner in less than ten minutes.
Nigerians are a very religious people but generally, our religiosity does not translate into the way we treat each other nor does it translate into a moral guide especially for those who are in positions of authority. There is no empathy. We seem able to dissociate our humanity from the consequences of the actions we take against fellow citizens. As a crowd gathers to watch a lynching in progress, the thought that any one of us could be the victim or the parent of the victim in that situation escapes the participants.
Sadly, in a system where we have institutional justice through the courts, vigilante and mob justice still takes place. I am inclined to believe that there may be some historical background to explain why those accused of theft on the streets are summarily burned to death. And if that is the case, it could be explained either by custom or by the fact that institutional justice did not exist and society needed a way to punish criminals and deter crime. Imperfect and inadequate as our institutional justice system seems, we are all bound to act within the confines of this system in which there is no legal justification for this kind of behaviour.
In my opinion, the present situation is a failure of all arms of government: the judiciary, the executive and the legislature. There is a lack of confidence in the judiciary and the judicial system which could explain why there is a reluctance to allow justice to take its course through the system. The executive under which law enforcement falls probably should carry the weight of this failure. The police structure and how it operates is an executive function. Our police force is plagued with several challenges that make law enforcement ineffective: officers are hindered by a lack of resources, lack of training, lack of oversight and accountability for actions that fall outside the boundaries of law enforcement, and apathy within the police force. Human rights organisations have also documented the problem of extrajudicial killings by the police in Nigeria. The police are also part of the problem. In 2012, there was a police officer who stood by and did nothing while the lives of the young men in Aluu were being extinguished. Unlike other onlookers of the crime, he had a duty to act but did not. He was dismissed from the police force but I do not know if there was any action beyond that. It is the duty of the State to investigate and prosecute criminal offences, and vindicate the constitutional rights of citizens.
When the fundamental rights of citizens are not a priority, it is evident in the way that the executive allocates its resources. As the details of corruption by members of the executive are revealed, one wonders why or how it is that conscience of people in caretaker positions over our commonwealth is not touched when they divert, misappropriate and convert to personal use what should be used for the good of all. Finally, although one argument against Good Samaritan laws is that the role of criminal law is not to instil moral values but to punish crime, I think that it is time for the legislature to step in and impose some kind of duty on witnesses to such mob actions. Surely, if you are present at the scene and feel safe enough to pull out a phone to record the crime in progress, then maybe a duty ought to be imposed on you to call emergency and law enforcement authorities before you hit the record button on your phone. At the very least, on-scene recorders should assist in the investigation and prosecution of such crimes.
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