Last week closed with two shocking incidents that captured national attention. In Kano, Bridget Agbaheme, 75, was lynched by a mob allegedly for blasphemy; while in Umuahia, the Department of State Services arrested four cult gang members that had murdered three students of the Abia State University who were members of a rival gang, decapitating two and using their heads as goalposts right outside the university gates.
Because of how Nigerian public discourse has been structured by an ambulance-chasing commentariat and a cynically mercantilist media, there has been a familiar eruption of justifiable outrage, as well as the predictable regurgitation of stale clichés and tropes about Islam and the North ad infinitum. The tragic murder of Mrs. Agbaheme dredges up bitter memories of Gideon Akaluka, Christianah Oluwasesin and other victims of religiously-inspired mob violence in Northern Nigeria.
However, the way in which this particular incident has been reported highlights larger problems. News of the killings in Abia met with muted reaction and editorial equivocation. A photograph of a mob brandishing a woman’s severed head has made the rounds online. Mike Agbaheme, the husband of the deceased, has since said that his wife was not decapitated but beaten to death by the mob. But news of the decapitation has since become the reigning narrative, with a photograph of dubious origins adding fuel to the fire of fevered commentary. There are sinister forces that have a vested interest in inflaming our fault lines and their powers have only been amplified by the rise of new media and the failure of even mainstream media practitioners to authenticate reports before uploading them onto the virtual firmament.
The disparity in the way decapitations in Aba have been reported as against the decapitation in Kano that did not actually happen requires closer interrogation. That news of Northern Muslims killing a Southern Christian woman commands more attention than news of Southern Christians killing each other is no longer surprising. The latter event clearly offers a greater opportunity for self-gratifying and crowd-pleasing disquisitions on Muslim violence and “Northern bestiality”, and it hews more closely to the North-South culture clash prism through which Nigerian issues are discussed. This approach is grossly inadequate.
The Sociology of Violence
An iron law of the sociology of violence is that violence wears the garments of cultural convenience. In Northern Nigeria where religion is traditionally the organising principle of society, politics and violence typically appropriate religious symbols and syntax. In the South, where ethnicity is a more salient identifier, politics and violence customarily assume ethnicist overtones. Political populism and social unrest in the North tend to adopt religious hues while in the South, they wear ethnicist colours.
Secondly, violence is not a cultural phenomenon but a universal phenomenon because it transcends our cultural taxonomies and often defies the narrow parameters of material causation that we often reach for. Deprivation can and often does lead to depravity but not everyone is depraved because they are deprived. Sometimes, people perpetrate depravity because they are depraved. If the mob that lynched a woman on account of alleged blasphemy did so because they were poor and illiterate, what can be said for the campus cultists – denizens of a higher institution – who decapitated their victims and used their heads as trophies?
Abia State Governor Okezie Ikpeazu said that the cultists “represent everything that is evil in society.” It is the mandate of the state to restrain and punish the manifestations of evil – chiefly, crime – in the social order under the terms of the social contract. It is the state’s task to secure the citizenry and where that security is breached by antisocial elements to ensure that justice is done. But how competently does the Nigerian state restrain and punish evil?
Crime and Punishment
In fact, lynchings happen and are condoned all over Nigeria. The practice of “necklacing” – drenching victims in fuel, placing tyres around their necks before setting them ablaze – is very popular in Lagos and its immediate environs. The “Aluu 4” were lynched in Rivers. Summary executions and lynchings were the stock-in-trade of the Bakassi Boys, the ultraviolent vigilante cult that enjoyed the endorsement of the then Anambra Governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju, and which murdered over 3,000 people in the early 2000s. People suspected of witchcraft and homosexuality are at risk of being lynched anywhere in Nigeria to considerable public approval. In the past two years, in Bauchi and Borno, women have been lynched on suspicion of being suicide bombers. In February last year, Ahmed Falaki, an agriculture professor at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria was lynched in Kibiya, Kano, on suspicion of being a terrorist. Falaki was murdered right in front of a police station with the officers present watching in the belief that they were lynching a Boko Haram kingpin. Not one of these cases has led to a conviction of the guilty parties.
Nigeria does not merely have a problem with religious or ethnic strife; it is plagued by a culture of violence fostered by decades of criminal impunity and the dereliction of duty by dysfunctional institutions and inept politicians. The state has no record of aggressively prosecuting the perpetrators of the carnivals of violent crime that we prefer to describe with malign understatement as “ethno-religious violence”.
Crimes such as the lynching of Mrs. Agbaheme occur because the prospects of punishment are non-existent. Warped theology, extremist preachments, sectarian dog-whistling, hate-filled rhetoric and naked bigotry are all undeniably factors in serial violence but the recurrence of certain crimes, above all else, stems directly from the abject lack of deterrence and the fact that the Nigerian state has no serious record of punishing evildoing of this order.
Every country has its reservoir of people possessed by psychotic malice and misanthropy. What restrains them from full and unfettered manifestation is the knowledge that certain punishment awaits them and that a rendezvous with justice is almost inevitable. In contrast, the Nigerian state’s slack-handed approach to crime and punishment actually emboldens and incentivises misanthropes and psychopaths.
The Buhari administration’s response to serial mass murders by armed herdsmen was almost a fortnight of silence followed by proposals to establish grazing reserves. This response is akin to pacifying a child molester by plying him with more children. An intelligent official response would have summoned the urgent language of criminal justice rather than the appeasing prattle about agricultural policy. This is how murderous impunity is indulged by a negligent officialdom.
It may be politically and emotionally gratifying now to lampoon Buhari for his response, but this is actually how the Nigerian state responds to these sorts of tragedies – indifference and inertia punctuated by perfunctory half-hearted condemnation. Under Buhari’s successors, the Nigerian government did not react to such crimes with greater intelligence or alacrity. The disappointment with Buhari is that his government has not been a radical departure from the state’s habitual dereliction of its duty of care to all citizens. Nigeria’s governing elites do not seem to realise how grossly damaging to civic solidarity these crimes are.
Apprehending syndromes is more important than engaging in histrionics over symptoms. These acts of violence that have been routinised and banalised are symptoms of the syndrome of impunity. The same pathology of impunity that enables the state’s massacre of more than 300 members of the Shia community in Zaria and the killing of pro-Biafra supporters in the South-East also enables the lynching of the Aluu 4, the murder of Mrs. Agbaheme, the atrocities of terrorist herdsmen and the use of severed heads as goalposts by a cult gang in broad daylight.
We are witnessing a collision between the impunity of the powerless and that of the powerful; the vigilantism of the rabble meeting with that of the ruling elite. The ultimate question that we are struggling to answer is that of the worth of a Nigerian life. The constitutionally-enshrined right to life is being abbreviated by state and non-state actors operating with equal disregard for the rule of law.
Religion, Conscience and Coercion
A subset of the problem certainly revolves around the issue of religious tolerance in a plural society but reducing this incident to a discourse of Islamic theology or even appealing to clerics and traditional rulers to call the faithful to order actually minimises the scale of the problem. Clerics and traditional rulers are non-state actors that do not control the instruments of legitimate coercion, and appealing to their offices in many ways smacks of buck-passing and an official abdication of responsibility. The fact is that millions of Nigerian Muslims nurse no obsessive compulsion to lynch anyone but we all live in a society that is highly permissive of vigilantism from North to South. Like the late Professor Falaki, the Aluu 4 were also lynched while police officers present watched.
Serial violence in Nigeria stems less from a failure of religion than a failure of the state. No society relies solely or even mainly on one hundred percent public compliance with ethical or religious precepts to sustain law and order. And no society even attains anything remotely close to that scale of ethical compliance. Law and order does require people to be of good conscience but relies more on the state’s judicious use of its monopoly of coercion to keep people’s primal and feral impulses in check. A state that fails to punish bad behaviour will invite anarchy, regardless of the number of churches, mosques and shrines on its territory. Public order depends upon the immediacy of earthly reckoning rather than the prospect of divine retribution in the afterlife.
The real revolution in criminal justice will occur when murderers and mass murderers are defined and treated as such, not as “Muslims”, “Christians”, “herdsmen” or “Militants” and certainly not as representatives of larger constituencies.
By all means, there should be public enlightenment, more education and more countering of radicalising ideologies. But let us not for a moment believe that this tide of impunity and lawlessness can be stemmed merely by motivational pep talks and pre-emptive therapy. The Buhari administration can and should enact robust legislation on hate speech, incitement to violence and hate crimes. Merchants of hate whether they be preachers or politicians and all those that thrive on manipulating religious passions must be punished. However, wrongdoing of this magnitude requires and respects only the terrible certainty of unerringly swift, proportionate and inescapable punishment.
The real revolution in criminal justice will occur when murderers and mass murderers are defined and treated as such, not as “Muslims”, “Christians”, “herdsmen” or “Militants” and certainly not as representatives of larger constituencies. Only by demonstrating a zero tolerance for heinous crimes can the Nigerian state truly begin to combat the culture of violence. The unfailing execution of Mrs. Agbaheme’s murderers for first degree murder will do far more to curb the practice of lynching than any amount of sermonising by clerics or traditional rulers.
Your Headhunters are Maniacs; Ours are Just Misguided
If the state has been derelict in its duty, civil society has also been complicit in the devaluation of Nigerian life. We have spent days inveighing against the decapitation of a Christian Igbo woman by a Muslim mob when, in fact, she was not decapitated. But she was murdered all the same and for this her killers must pay the supreme penalty.
However, since January, there have been no less than a dozen decapitations in Rivers State alone, apart from the aforementioned case in Abia State. These decapitations are a feature of a reign of terror by cult gangs in the state with one group, the Icelanders, vowing at the beginning of the year to avenge the death of their leader by decapitating fifty people.
By the laws of journalistic coverage, Igbos killing Igbos, Niger Deltans killing Niger Deltans and Northern Muslims killing Northern Muslims is of no consequence to the media elite. Evidently, our distaste for decapitations is not absolute; it depends upon who is doing the beheading and who is being beheaded. Our disapproval of lynching is not absolute; it depends on who is being lynched.
These atrocities are apparently insufficiently melodramatic, unworthy of hashtag activism or even feigned outrage. Typically, any incident that can be configured to fit our popular dichotomies – Muslim vs. Christian; Igbo vs. Hausa; Yoruba vs. Fulani, etc – no matter how tangentially makes good copy. But the carnage wrought by warring cult gangs in the Niger Delta and the South-East which has claimed scores of lives does not fit into the prefabricated, more commercially-viable narratives of a nation split right down the middle. Furthermore, it nullifies the argument that grotesque savagery is the cultural property of one section of the country.
By the laws of journalistic coverage, Igbos killing Igbos, Niger Deltans killing Niger Deltans and Northern Muslims killing Northern Muslims is of no consequence to the media elite. Evidently, our distaste for decapitations is not absolute; it depends upon who is doing the beheading and who is being beheaded. Our disapproval of lynching is not absolute; it depends on who is being lynched. There are many who oppose the lynching of a Christian woman by Muslims that have no problem with the lynching of witches and gays. We all have our pet preys.
This is important. Boko Haram’s epic slaughters occurred against the backdrop of stupid bickering in the public square. While we argued over whether the terrorists were killing Christians or Muslims, the group simply escalated its extermination of human beings, while reveling in our inability to arrive at so elementary a principle as a consensus on the value of human life.
Bridget Agbaheme’s family must get justice but not because she was an Igbo Christian brutally murdered by Muslims; but because she was a human being and her murder degrades all of us as Nigerians – including the depraved perpetrators and cynical celebrants. She need not be posthumously conscripted as the mascot of any parochial self-serving agenda. These incidents of violence demean us and the unedifying polemics that we create around them further devalues our existence. It is time for us to make the protection of human life a core value of the state and society.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.