In the wake of the gruesome extrajudicial murder of the four young men who have since come to be known as the “Aluu4”, author Okechukwu Ofili drafted a bill against mob justice and began an online campaign to support the passage of the bill into law. As the act of a concerned citizen not merely contented with wringing his hands and lamenting the abyss that Nigeria is inching towards, it is an act that must be commended. However, if we put the good intentions of Mr Ofili and his supporters aside and examine the substance of the petition and the bill itself, we will find that it actually isn’t as punchy as its enthusiasts believe.
The petition begins with the misconception that mob justice is not a crime in Nigeria. Several tweets were sent out along the lines of “[Counterfeiting stamps] is an offence in Nigeria but mob justice isn’t. Sign the petition and say ‘Never Again’ to mob justice!” I say ‘misconception’ because there is absolutely nothing about “mob justice” (or ochlocracy, as Teju Cole explains) that is legal, even in the international backwater that we frequently agree is Nigeria. After all, mob justice is the colloquial term given to the actions of a group of people taking laws into their own hands and assuming the positions of judge, jury and executioner over persons suspected of committing a crime.
What are the acts that constitute “mob justice”? Typically, the Nigerian “mob” sets on the suspects, strips them naked, beats them senseless and very often murders them by setting them on fire. To say that mob justice is not a crime is to suggest that each of these heinous acts is perfectly legal. Clearly, this position is absolutely untenable.
Before we even venture into the Criminal Code, let us examine the supreme legal document in the land – the 1999 Constitution. Chapter IV of the constitution states the fundamental rights of each and every Nigerian citizen.
Section 33(1) tells us 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.” Section 34(1)(a) says “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly no person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman and degrading treatment.” Section 36 guarantees the right to “a fair hearing within a reasonable time by a court or other tribunal established by law and constituted in such manner as to secure its independence and impartiality.”
It is clear that nothing that happened in Aluu is “not a crime in Nigeria”, going by the Constitution.
But what about the Criminal Code? Section 315 provides that “[A]ny person who unlawfully kills another is guilty of an offence which is called murder or manslaughter, according to the circumstances of the case.” Sections 351-356 clearly state what constitutes assault. Chapter 54 tells us that it is a criminal offence to conspire with other persons to commit a crime. Grievous harm (i.e. “ bodily hurt which seriously or permanently injures health, or which is likely so to injure health, or which extends to permanent disfigurement or to any permanent or serious injury to any external or internal organ, member, or sense)is also an offence under the criminal code. On the parties to an offence, Section 7 of the Criminal Code is very clear and I reproduce the pertinent part below:
“When an offence is committed, each of the following persons is deemed to have taken part in committing the offence and to be guilty of the offence, and may be charged with actually committing it, that is to say-
(a) every person who actually does the act or makes the omission which constitutes the offence;
(b) every person who does or omits to do any act for the purpose of enabling or aiding another person to commit the offence;
(c) every person who aids another person in committing the offence;
(d) any person who counsels or procures any other person to commit the offence.”
It is therefore also clear that nothing that happened in Aluu is “not a crime in Nigeria”, going by the Criminal Code. Not even standing by or cheering on the murderers.
For me, therefore, the entire campaign was based on an entirely false premise. I was unable to bring myself to retweet or advocate for support for it. The truth is that the so-called “Mob Justice Bill” does not and will not change the law. Mob justice is already illegal. If it wasn’t, there would be no basis for charging the persons who have now been arraigned for the crime that was committed in Aluu.
Is there a bigger implication for social media advocacy? Yes. We cannot sit on our technological high horses and accuse the government of profligacy or inefficiency and engage in conduct that encourages the very same things. If we intend to be taken seriously at the very highest levels, we need to ensure that our actions are not only sentimentally sound but that they are also valid under the rule of law.
There is even a more potentially dangerous side of which we must all be aware. In law school, we are taught that criminal law is the easiest aspect of law for newly qualified lawyers to get into. This is because offences are broken down into separate components and once a lawyer can show that even one component of, say, a five component offence is absent, his client walks. Laws that would create crimes must be mindful of this “flip side”.
Again, we must separate the intentions of the “Mob Justice Bill” advocates from the obviously unintended outcome of their actions. We cannot deny that the Bill was borne out of the desire to make a change and the intention of the promoters of the Bill should be acknowledged.
Finally, does this piece mean that we should all sit down in our comfort zones and do nothing about unlawful killings and extrajudicial justice? By no means. Like most things that are fundamentally wrong with Nigeria, strengthening [democratic and judicial] institutions is the key to progress. The faith of the common man in the justice system must be restored. To achieve this, there must be police and judicial reform. Extensive work has already been done on a framework for the reform of the Nigerian police and can be found here. Turnaround time must be reduced in the judiciary and advocacy that would achieve an end to mob justice would be better channelled, in my opinion, along these lines.