I am afraid. I am deeply afraid. You see, when you are young, somewhere in your teen years, the world allows you a level of ignorance, a level of naïveté in most things. The world is this big house into which you are born blind. And in this house, you move around by feeling your way around. Shapes and objects are first perceived through teeny hands and budding senses. Luckily, as you grow, so does your VISION: Absolute darkness become hazy, fuzzy pictures, which, in turn, translate into visions of details. Now well into my late twenties, I this week lost an instance of such ignorance. A hazy picture went 3D in a matter of minutes.
Growing up in Nigeria, there was no escaping the hardship that gripped the air and stifled breath. It was everywhere you went: handicapped countrymen begging for alms, young boys and girls selling pouches of water and everything else thinkable, old men trudging along on walking sticks, wives and mothers hustling on roadsides for daily sustenance. This was (and still is) the topography of the land. A people left to themselves, to whom government is a caricature of what it is in decent lands, often found itself assuming the dual role of government and citizen. Alas, out of this morass, a menace woulld emerge. They call it Jungle Justice.
As a teenager, I would walk through a busy section of Lagos; some commercial hub called Oshodi, and see the remains of burned tire as a crowd has just dispersed. Witnesses would speak of how a market thief, snatching an item from a kiosk and running away, was caught, beaten within an inch of his life, had a tire thrown on him and set ablaze on the spot. Public mob executions were fast and vicious in Nigeria. In a society were law and order had broken down and economic hardship the rule, these instances of summary judgments were meant to serve as deterrent to would-be offenders. But I always missed these events. Never was I in a place as it happened; or when I chanced to come across such mayhem, an accused, once caught, was serendipitously rescued by a skeletal unit of what remains of the Nigerian police force. These were my teen years—I sympathized with the rationale of the mob.
However, in my adult years, I have come to realize the madness of the mob. But nothing, and I mean nothing, prepares one for what I saw a few days ago. It was a video that lasted about three minutes and change. The ignorance the world lent me at birth, which I’ve borne all this while, was instantaneously recalled. I was face to face with the horror of the mob and the agony I felt was deep and visceral.
Four young university students in the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt were being viciously hit with planks and other materials. The students, no more than 22 years of age, had been accused of stealing a Blackberry phone and a laptop. The mob was merciless and possessed. One student was visibly dead as he no longer responded to the blows being dealt to his head. The other three, lying naked in a muddy ground, blood soaking their faces, brain matter protruding from their skulls, and their genitals visibly in the crossfire, had me excruciatingly question the existence of a God. Looking into the eyes of one of the boys there on the ground, helpless, struggling to keep his eyes open, I was overcome with a terrifying sense of my own hopelessness and helplessness. This could easily have been me; brutalized thus on mere accusation. Some minutes later, the mob would set the boys on fire.
Goodness! How did we get here? A place where a nation that consistently ranks as one of the most religious on earth exhibits such high wickedness that the devil can’t but nod in admiration. You can hardly walk a block or two in Nigerian towns and cities without stumbling upon a church or a mosque. Yet, this nation of ours seem a nation possessed. It is obvious, this population is frustrated. As the Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote in his treatise “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus”: “the ultimate aim of government is to free every man from fear, that he may live in all possible security.” Regrettably, this security [economic, physical, and social] has evaded Nigeria for many generations; many will say since birth.
And in a nation where over two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, and government is a business venture where a state governor can steal in excess of $250 million without jail time, one would expect that frustration will lead Nigerians to demand government provide order and opportunities. No, we have become cowards and hypocrites. Petty thieves get burnt alive in the public square while kleptocratic politicians and officials live like Pharaohs with no fear for their personal safety.
I am afraid. I am deeply afraid. We know this sort of brutality has been happening for a LONG time. But many like me had ignorance as our shield. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras and social media has now changed that. We now see our evils in real time. A bigger tragedy in the murder of these students is that many Nigerians do not expect justice to be done. Many will not take to the streets in feats of anger and compassion to demand decency for these neighbors. The president has yet to come out and openly condemn the murderers, neither has the governor of the state, where the boys were killed, made any substantiative effort toward justice. I fear we have now gone somewhere even Darwin couldn’t have predicted. We have reverted to a primal state of being where individual survival is all that matters. We have become savages. Savages living in an animal kingdom and jungle justice is a consequential feature of this ethos.