“Ole, ole!” (thief, thief!) is all that needs to be shouted in Nigeria before large crowds gather to beat, and often burn, the accused to death. Although there are no official statistics on the prevalence of mob lynching in Nigeria – referred to as jungle justice – media reports suggest it’s a regular occurrence. A 2014 survey revealed that 43% of Nigerians had personally witnessed a lynch mob attack.
Despite some Nigerian vigilante groups holding the potential for success, execution style jungle justice clearly poses a threat to the rule of law and due process. The brutality of the methods used, and the fact that victims may be innocent and merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, has led to widespread condemnation. But the perpetrators are rarely arrested and prosecuted. In fact, security officials themselves are sometimes implicated in extrajudicial killings.
A new bill being put through the Nigerian parliament aims to change this. The anti-mob lynching act recently passed its second reading in the Senate. It now needs to clear a third reading before being signed off and passed into law. This is expected to happen in the new year.
The extent of jungle justice
Alleged offences that draw mob lynching in Nigeria range from serious crimes such as murder, armed robbery, rape and kidnapping, to petty theft, homosexuality, blasphemy and even witchcraft.
A case that shocked the country involved the necklacing of four male students from the University of Port Harcourt - known as the Aluu four - in 2012. After being falsely accused of theft, the four had tyres doused in gasoline thrown around them and set on fire. The incident took place in Aluu, Rivers State in south Nigeria.
The brutal attack was filmed and circulated on social media, drawing widespread condemnation from the public. This led to the arrest of 12 people, and three, including a police officer, were subsequently sentenced to death.
More recently, in 2016, a homosexual was beaten to death in the south west Ondo State, and nine people were burnt alive in Zamfara State in the north west for insulting Prophet Muhammad. A man was lynched in Ebonyi State, south east Nigeria, over the theft of a motorcycle.
Mob lynchings have continued to appear in the news this year. Lagos has been featured regularly, with several incidents linked to alleged theft and kidnapping. Widespread fear over the Badoo cult saw numerous accusations of witchcraft resulting in deadly jungle justice.
Children are not excluded from the horrors of mob lynching. In 2015, a child said to be as young as 7 was necklaced, again in Lagos, for attempting to steal garri (cassava flour) from a trader. Young children accused of witchcraft are also often targeted, sometimes by their own families.
This is not a complete list; Nigerians often resort to mob lynching as they view the police and judicial system as corrupt and inefficient.
So what does the new bill aim to do?
The nature of mob violence can make it difficult to charge offenders under the laws that cover murder and assault. The new bill seeks to change that. It defines lynching as:
Three or more persons acting in concert for the purpose of depriving any person of his life without authority of law as a punishment for or to prevent the commission of some actual or supposed public offence.
Alongside lynching, the bill covers mob action that results in severe bodily harm, and riotous assembly causing destruction of property. A person found guilty of instigating any of these three criminal offences will be punished by imprisonment for life or not less than 25 years.
The bill stipulates that a security officer who fails to make reasonable efforts to prevent an attack, or to apprehend a perpetrator, will be punished by up to five years imprisonment or face a fine of up to N500,000 (USD$1400). A security officer who takes part in, or conspires to an extrajudicial attack, would be guilty of a capital offence. Those who have failed at prevention would be subject to dismissal and 15 years imprisonment.
These punishments could act as an excellent deterrent. However, the success of the bill will depend on police and judicial implementation. A legal system unable to deal with crime resulting in jungle justice may be unable or unwilling to prosecute the latter.
Nevertheless, the emphasis on security officer complicity is promising, and formal recognition will allow tracking and prevention.
A global problem
Mob lynching is not unique to Nigeria, nor to Africa. Nigeria is also not the first country to try and pass an anti-lynching bill.
Up until the mid-1900’s, African-Americans were commonly lynched in southern USA. Attempts were made to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, but it was always halted by Southern congressmen in the Senate. In 2005, the Senate formally apologised for this failure.
More recently, after a spate of vigilantism in India, the country has pushed for an a new Protection from Lynching Act, referred to as MaSuKa. This would make lynching a specific, non-bailable offence, punishable by a maximum of life imprisonment and a fine of 5 lakh (USD$7770).
The MaSuKa also compels security officers to preemptively identify attacks and to intervene without delay. Failure to do so would result in discharge and punishment for dereliction of duty. When a lynching does happen, a charge must be laid within three months or a review committee will investigate, and the respective state must compensate the victim’s family.
Although the proposed new law has support from 11 of India’s political parties, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has complicated its passing in parliament.
Conversely, there is little doubt that Nigeria’s anti-mob lynching bill will be passed. With police and judicial support, it could provide an important precedent for countries struggling with mob lynching and official indifference.