On Friday 5 October 2012, the Allu Community in Rivers State acquired for itself the dubious distinction in Nigeria's history of playing host to one of the most brutal examples of butchery that this country has experienced. It is now common knowledge that some of the villagers, in large numbers, killed 4 students of the University of Port Harcourt allegedly for stealing phones and lap tops from an off campus hostel of the institution. In a sustained attack that lasted several hours involving a large number of participants, 4 young men lost their lives in circumstances that were indescribably horrific.
Most Nigerians who became aware of this incident disseminated by the social media where first dumbfounded into shock, soon replaced by the intensity of anger and bitterness. The revulsion showed as Nigerians, in one voice, collectively rejected its occurrence and raised the profile of its disgust such that the usually docile enforcement authorities swung, unpredictably quickly, into action.
This is the most recent in a series of outrageous, jungle-justice type of vigilante law enforcement the likes of which Nigeria has not seen since the 1980's pre-democracy periods when armed robberies pervaded every state in the country. In those times, for those with slightly longer memories, Nigerians sometimes resorted to self-help, ostensibly to cleanse a society overwhelmed by the ease with which armed and violent robberies occurred, often resulting in the mindless demise of innocent people and, even worse, remaining both unchecked and undetected in huge proportions. This happened largely out of a sense of exasperation given the failings, at the time of the law enforcement agencies in arresting violent crime that was spiraling out of control in geometric proportions.
Putting aside any historical anecdotes, what happened in Allu represents a most savage, shocking and incomprehensible response to a situation in which the perpetrators, bystanders and any other type of participants stood woefully, legally, morally and spiritually guilty of the most profane kind of ill conceived and misguided assumption of the duty to enforce justice. Whatever concocted criminal persuasion convinced the participants to act as they did, the real facts have demonstrated that these conclusions were scandalously wrong, morbidly distorted and driven by nothing other than a vampire-like, undisguised – and misplaced – thirst for blood. As it was, it has now been established that the deceased's antecedents were anything other than that their assailants twisted minds thought they were, making this situation even more indigestible. Sliced anyway, there is no rationale that can support this action and Nigeria, in one voice, roundly deprecated this tragedy whilst commiserating with the families of the deceased.
Unfortunately, ours is a society where high levels of violence has led to the consideration, in some quarters, of self help violence as a sort of response to high crime. Security structures in the country have, over the years, failed to provide the peace and serenity that should positively influence a better appreciation of the balance between crime and punishment. The sustained prevalence of increasing crimes of violence against innocent Nigerians compounded by poor protection by the law enforcement agencies; poor medical facilities for post-incident treatment and non-existent post-incident support all combine to imbue Nigerians with a high sense of anxiety. This belief, heightened by limited crime detection encouragement, has made Nigerians less receptive to the traditional methods of crime solving such that many consider that the actual process lets more criminals escape than are penalized. Many consider that the path to criminal justice is slow, riddled with corruption and, thus, entirely ineffectual in combating crime. This, sadly, is supported by visible evidence, unfortunately borne out even by the fact that this incident ran such a long course without disruption even by law enforcement agencies as it is understood to have lasted over 4 hours!
For all that is said, Nigerians of the sort that participated in this lynching are in the considerable minority. That this exists at all is a depressing acknowledgment that this warped minority retain the capacity to cause the kind of enduring mayhem which serves as a continuous reminder of the need for leadership to ceaselessly prioritize and pursue the security of its citizens as a sine qua non to its governance obligations
Whatever lack of confidence we have in the capacity of our security paraphernalia to offer us protection from crime, this very depressing incident will remain a painful reminder of exactly why many countries have abolished the death penalty. Digressing slightly, the penalty of death for criminal activity has its roots in both historical and religious antiquity but its benefit in the punishment value chain has so diminished that there now is, in many parts of the world, no sustainable justification for its continued retention, even for the most gruesome crimes. Nate Sullivan aptly summarises the actual current situation in the western world. Challenging the appropriateness of the death penalty, he observes that "...while most cultures of the world have historically used capital punishment, many countries, particularly Western and democratic ones, have moved, or are moving, away from the application of this punishment. The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights recommended that the death penalty be abolished in European nations or restricted to times of war. This has been ratified within European Union member countries over the following decades, so that capital punishment is now no longer practiced in Europe. The United Kingdom abolished the death penalty for virtually all offenses in 1969 (although it still remained an available sentence for treason until 1998). In December 2007 the United Nations General Assembly approved a moratorium on the death penalty, which calls for a worldwide suspension (not necessarily abolition) of capital punishment. The moratorium is not binding, but established an international consensus against the death penalty. In the United States, moratorium was placed on executions by the Supreme Court in 1972, not because capital punishment itself was ruled unconstitutional, but because of perceived procedural flaws. Executions resumed in 1976 after these were "ironed out." The death penalty is largely an issue left for American states rather than the federal government...". Most commonly, in the US, the death as a penalty is challenged as a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which says that the U.S. cannot use "cruel and unusual" punishment. Opponents of the death penalty point out that there is a possibility of wrongly executing an innocent man. Of course, there is a possibility of wrongly sending an innocent man to prison, or wrongly fining an innocent man, but they contend that because of the finality and severity of the death penalty, the consequences of wrongly executing an innocent person are much more wrong. On that day at Allu, the deceased were not even afforded audience not to mention opportunity to offer an explanation. As it turned out, they did nothing wrong. Therein lies the flaw in this most crude form of jungle justice. If there is a more compelling case for the exclusion of self-help vigilante justice, such an example does not exist in our country.
Where do we go from here? Justice will and should take its course. Those responsible must be quickly and completely apprehended, tried and punished within the laws of the land though they, themselves, would stand guilty of the most heinous crime of impunity. But profit from a social order they refused to uphold. The penalties, when guilt is determined, must be significant and deterring, exemplary and designed, for the future, to ensure that participation for others is diminished or extinguished. True, this will offer limited consolation to the families of the deceased but it will, at the very least, demonstrate that ours is not an entirely lawless and hopeless society. As far as is possible, various responsible authorities must provide direct support and counselling to the parties not just temporarily but over time. In a piecemeal fashion, the security structures must be reviewed, revamped and reorganised to ensure earlier responses to crisis spots like this because, clearly, the gestation period of these mob-lynching incidents usually afford sufficient time from the formation of the common purpose to its implementation for law enforcement intervention to occur. More generally, there are huge gaps in the provision of security in Nigeria that must constrain leadership to actively review service delivery objectives and issues starting from the grassroots levels. Inadequacies of internal security – terrorism apart – of the enforcement structures like poor service conditions, underfunding, obsolete law enforcement techniques, poor technical support and corruption must be confronted more purposefully and determinedly.
On any view, vigilante justice is plainly wrong. For all that may be urged in its support, it could never be properly motivated. Frequently dictated by instant, red-mist anger, this usually quickly mutates into mob action. Generally uncoordinated and irrational, it seeks to replace a social order system of justice – however deficient – with a more unsuitable barbaric response that is usually hijacked by individuals with deep-seated vicarious anger. In truth, it solves nothing other than quenching a blood-seeking, usually temporary thirst for reprisals for distant crimes. The price, when this rationale is wrong is way too much to pay or consider. This must never happen again.
ANDREW OBINNA ONYEARU writes from Abuja