Jun 15, 2013

The Persistence of Street Justice in Nigeria

Even in traditional African cultures, there have been standard and acceptable legal procedures in addition to cases of persons taking the law into their hands which the culture also frowned against. This is because every African community had a judicial council where legal matters are heard and judgment passed. Thus if any form of justice was administered outside of the accepted legal council, it amounted to taking the law into one’s hands. The problem in Africa however, was how to draw a conspicuous line between accepted legal procedure and what was not acceptable. In addition to this, the heads of traditional African courts were kings who were autocratic. There were also no rooms for appeals. Most often, what was paid as fine belonged to the king. As a result, punitive measures were often disproportionate and selfish. These shortcomings were the weaknesses the modern legal practice was supposed fix.

The line between guilt and innocence is so obvious that even a two-year old can see it. It explains why even toddlers fight. However, the line between who should and who should not establish guilt and pass judgment is, sadly, hazy. As a consequence, the result has been acrimoniously, far-reaching. Thousands have been either maimed or killed and possessions in the order of billions of naira have been lost.

In October 2012, four students of the University of Port Harcourt were walked completely nude and eventually burnt alive in a neighboring village on suspicion of being armed bandits. As it turned out, the students were innocent.
Street justice is not new in Nigeria. When a petty thief is arrested in northern Nigeria he is beaten to death except where a policeman arrives fast to save him or a respected individual pleads with the mob. In the south the thief is beaten and then set ablaze while still alive. The case at the University of Port Harcourt drew a lot of attention because it turned out to be a high profile scenario at a time when internet accessibility became widespread thereby allowing other parts of the world to see something that is bizarre in the context of their own cultures.

In April this year,  a previously unknown cult group by the name Ombatse demonstrated the highest degree of street justice when it killed more than thirty policemen in the Nigeria’s central state of Nassarawa. The cult has been going around coercing people to become members. The police learnt about it and set out to arrest its leder for questioning. The group learnt about it and waylaid the police. The group ‘justified’ its action with the statement that they have been conducting their activities without bordering the police and wondered why the police should be concerned about its own business.

The problem of citizens taking the laws into their own hands has become a culture in Nigeria. From its persistence, one can conclude that authorities have failed to notice its gravity in terms of creating a dire atmosphere of chaos. It is the reason why nothing has been done with the aim of ending it. Thus when people join the police or any military organization, they transfer the culture into the force and explains why the police and members of the Nigerian army are not left out in the execution of parallel justice. We have seen high profile examples in Odi in Bayelsa State and Zakibiam in Benue State during the Obasanjo administration. Under the same administration, little known Islamic groups in the north of the country were crushed by the use of force rather than in court rooms. Some of those groups survived to become Boko Haram.

Apparently, many Nigerians across the many lines of diversity have failed to respect the establishment of guilt and passing of judgment as the exclusive mandate of legally constituted authorities. The National Orientation Agency, NOA, is shouldered with the task of educating Nigerians on the policies of government the citizens are ignorant of. The Director of NOA in Plateau State, Mr. Musa K Chantu said the dimension of the problem of street justice in Nigeria is so big that it transcends the limit of the resources of his agency. The root of the problem, according to Mr. Chantu, may not just be ignorance of the demands of the law. Chantu said that their job at NOA is based, largely, on budgets and what the budget for a particular year is meant to address. Currently, he says, the budget of the agency is meant to finance awareness programs on the Freedom of Information bill that has just been passed into law.

It is easy to see the credibility of the clarification by Chantu when he says the enormity of problem exceeds the resources of his agency and that the root of the problem may not just be ignorance of the law. Where all these cases of the usurpation of the duties of the judiciary have continued, it has been seen that the law has been, largely, inactive. 

People should be arrested, tried and sentenced where they take the law into their own hands. It is the only way the people can be properly and effectively warned against doing so in future. Sometimes cases of usurpation of the law are a result of frustration over a dormant judiciary. Hence where the police make arrests and hands criminals over to the courts, the dispensation of justice should be seen to be speedy. Anything contrary to this could lead to frustration among the citizens and the police who then resort to doing what the courts have failed to do.

Newly recruited members of the police go through basic training prior to commencement work. It is expected that during such training, he must be taught that his mandate as a police officer should not go beyond investigation and arrest of criminals. He should also be taught that should he go past the limit of his mandate, he himself would have become a criminal and will be treated as such.

Truly, the root of the problem of administration of justice by the wrong persons in Nigeria can be largely traced to frustration from a dormant judiciary. Nigerians should not just be told what the law says but should be made to see what the law can do when it is disobeyed.

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