IT BEGAN WITH WATCHING A VIDEO OF MOB JUSTICE ONE MONDAY AFTERNOON in October 2012. Later, I would come to discover how paranoid this video made me, and how skeptical I became about the Nigeria Police Force. I was sixteen when I watched this video in class, and now that I am twenty-four, I am overwhelmed with shame that at the age when my classmates knew what mob justice was, I had no idea that such a thing existed.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in an estate in Lagos. It was not one of those rich estates whose buildings had creamed walls and beautiful corrugated roofs, where one has to pass uniformed security guards who love to demonstrate their petty powers. Ours, even though it was called an estate, was really a collection of streets full of one-story buildings and a few duplexes sitting side-by-side, separated only by barbed wire fences. It was an estate with many middle-class people, and a few rich ones. We did not have security guards who love asking questions in an aggressive and authoritative manner as though every visitor is a criminal: “Who did you come to see?” “Who are you looking for?” But we did have security guards who patrolled the estate from 12-5 a.m., blowing whistles to show that they were doing their jobs, that they were not sleeping.
The estate was peaceful and quiet in the daytime except for the noise of speeding cars or the mechanics repairing cars who were quick to yell out insults in rapid Yoruba. I loved to call the estate a blend of species: we had different Nigerian ethnic groups living in different flats, and Indians who, on weekends, dressed in their bright saris, salwar kameez, and kurta pajamas as they visited other Indian neighbors, carrying flowery trays that held baked cookies wrapped with cellophane or decorative paper. I think it is this peaceful atmosphere that prevented me from knowing what mob justice was, that sheltered me from learning what would make me cringe in the future, what would pressure my effeminate body to be what it is not.
Or maybe not.
Maybe it was the strict household where I was raised that prevented me from knowing mob justice. Growing up, my guardians rarely allowed my cousins and me to go out and play. And when we did get permission to go downstairs to play, it did not last for an hour. My uncle was a banker and my aunt a nurse. Of course, they did not stay home throughout the day; we had weekdays to visit our neighbors. Holidays did not give us an opportunity to visit friends because we always had a visiting relative who would give reports at the end of the day: who did this and who did that. And so, on weekends when my guardians were at home or on long holidays when any of them took leave from work, my cousins and I stayed in the room we shared and watched the world from the window, wishing to be like the children running down the street, chasing each other. We wished we could have freedom like them. We passed the time by looking for interesting stories in the thick, hardcover Reader’s Digest books my uncle owned. I remember going to the balcony whenever I heard the kids in the compound playing, or whenever I saw a friend I wanted to speak to from the window of our room. I would throw down one of the washed clothes we spread on the rail of the balcony and run inside to announce that a cloth had fallen downstairs and I needed to fetch it. This gave me an escape from the boredom at home.
Perhaps it was all this—the peaceful estate, and the strict security I grew up in—that shielded me from knowing what mob justice was. When I came to discover it, I had started preparing for my Senior School Certificate Examination which was coming up the following year. Because I was afraid of failing, I devoted myself to studying one subject each month and testing myself with old exam questions. I remember I was in the school library that afternoon, studying the diagram of plant and animal cells from my biology textbook. When I walked out of the library, I was grounded in knowledge; I could draw both plant and animal cells and point out where the mitochondria was or how the cell walls functioned. The air was humid, and the school compound was heavy with the noise of students waiting for the closing bell to ring.
All I wanted to do that day was to show off this knowledge as I walked to the senior block. I swayed my hips radically, hoping my biology teacher would notice me from the biology lab that served as her office and call out my middle name: “Egwu, go and read. Your WAEC is coming up next year.” She did this to any of my classmates she saw walking about, and we learned to always carry books whenever we left the class so she would know we were studying hard. Perhaps if she had called me that afternoon, I would have gently gone to her and poured out my new knowledge, and watched her nod and smile, and this would have prevented me from meeting my classmates watching the video. But she did not notice me that afternoon as she busied herself eating. I walked past two students devouring bread on the stairs. “Senior boy-girl,” they giggled when I walked past them. The name, boy-girl, is one of the names given to feminine men. I had earned mine when I was in junior class, after I did a catwalk during a fashion parade, sashaying to P-Square’s “Roll It.”
I was surprised by the dead silence when I entered the class; you don’t find such quietness when a teacher is not in class. My classmates were crammed together at one desk, watching a video. I could not hear the sound, but I knew it was a video. Nothing brought both the boys and girls together if it was not a video, an interesting comedy video. Videos on football matches brought demarcation: the boys would gather at the back of the class (though they loved sitting at the back anyway), demonstrating how Rooney or Messi or Ronaldo scored a goal, and sometimes they shouted goal, even though it was not a live match, even though it was one they had already seen. A video of a football match would have made the girls gather at another classmate’s desk, trading stories about a celebrity or a teacher or random things, like their favorite contestants in MTN’s Project Fame or any reality TV show.
I would have joined the girls that afternoon had it been a football match; I don’t like football. But I walked towards my classmates after dropping my textbook on my desk. There was tension in the way they stood still like statues. No movement. No giggling. No complaints of who was breathing too much into another person’s ear, or who was resting his entire body on who. I walked hurriedly, almost running, when my classmate Jumoke ran to the window and spat, as though she wanted to throw out what her eyes had seen. “Disgusting,” she kept saying. I took Jumoke’s place. I craned my neck to see what they were watching on the Blackberry phone. The air around us was wet with the heat emanating from our bodies, dense with the smell of perfume and sweat.
In the video, four young men, perhaps in their early twenties, were naked. Three of them lay on the muddy floor, writhing. The other one sitting on the ground was breathing slowly. They looked so weak, almost lifeless, and tires encircled their necks. At first, I thought it was a movie scene. Although Nollywood movies would never show someone naked. Then, I thought it must be Gollywood. Only in Ghanaian movies would you see a scene featuring someone naked. But I was more interested in the crowd that had gathered, videoing with their phones. They had formed a ring around the four men. I wanted to laugh because I imagined how those videoing would go home and tell friends and family members in a proud way that they featured in a movie. The recorded video would be used as evidence.
I had planned to tell my classmates when we watched the video to the end that each of the four men was going to receive one million naira or Ghanaian cedis, depending on the country they shot the movie. My cousin once told me that people who go naked in movies get paid millions or billions, and I wanted to bless others with my knowledge. I also wanted to point out to my classmates how the director made the crowd participate fully in the scene, without them looking at the camera. It is common in Nollywood movies, especially in scenes set in public places, to find people stopping whatever they were doing just to stare at the camera and smile.
I stared at the man sitting on the ground, concerned about the slow way his chest rose and fell. A man walked towards him and dropped a cement block on his head. I first saw the cement block land on his head, then it broke into two, before I saw a milky white substance pop out of his head. I screamed as I watched the slow way the young man fell back. My classmates screamed. The crowd was screaming, too. I ran towards one of the windows, and I spat out as much as I could.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, “what kind of nonsense movie is this?” I refused to go close to where my classmates gathered. I leaned on the window and clutched my stomach. For a few minutes, I found it hard to speak again, and even though the sun came through the window, my body felt cold. I realize now that I was traumatized. “What kind of movie is this?” I asked again after collecting myself.
One of my classmates, I think it was Felix, tapped another classmate’s shoulder and said, “This one talk say na movie.” They laughed, mocking my ignorance or naiveté. I think of them now, and I wonder why they were not as shocked as I was. Had they seen it often?
I did not go close to my classmates after the video ended. But I joined them when Michael, a classmate from my science class, began narrating the story of what had happened. I listened to Michael because he was the weird kid who knew every story, who had solutions or ideas for everything. The lynching, he said, happened the previous Friday in Port Harcourt. Four undergraduates from the University of Port Harcourt had gone to a nearby village called Aluu, to collect debt from a man named Coxson Lucky. According to my classmate, they seized some items belonging to the debtor. This is a common practice in Nigeria, seizing a debtor’s property if he had not made a payment. But in this case, Lucky raised an alarm that the students were thieves. A crowd gathered immediately, and the students were accused of stealing laptops and phones. They were stripped naked, beaten with sticks, paraded through the town with tires around their necks, before they were set ablaze. Hours after their deaths, the real story emerged that they were not criminals.
“Na true,” one of my classmates said when Michael ended the story. “I heard my neighbors discussing it during the weekend.” Other classmates who had heard the story or read it in the newspaper narrated the same story, but they added other details: the courses they were studying, and which of them had already released a song. There was a little argument about whether it was Lucky that raised the false alarm, or if it was a neighbor.
“But they should have reported it to the police. They should have taken them to the police,” I said, interrupting a classmate. My tone was full of empathy because I was caught up with the question of the lives they left behind.
“Look at this one,” a classmate said. “A policeman was part of the people beating the students. It is jungle justice.” At this point of the story I walked away. Or maybe they rang the closing bell. I found it impossible to believe that a policeman would participate in such an evil act. But I learned a new word: jungle justice; a prejudicial act that is used to determine the destiny of those accused of pickpocketing or kidnapping or armed robbery.
Three years later, in my first year at the university, on the day I witnessed my first live mob justice, a roommate told me, “This is jungle justice.” I asked why they did not take the person accused of stealing to the police. My roommate’s statement reminded me of the same thing my classmate said in secondary school. It was as if jungle justice was a valid form of punishment that was written into the Nigerian constitution.
The event that led to our conversation happened this way: one morning I woke up to the noise of footsteps on the corridor, and the voices of undergraduates shouting, “Thief! Thief! Hold am! Thief!” My roommates who were awake rushed out of the room to help in the chase. The thief was caught and brought to the field where the boys play football. I stood along the corridor, and watched as other students rushed out of their rooms with belts and buckets, shouting at the top of their voices as they descended on the accused thief: Na you steal my laptop. Na you steal my phone. Na you steal my clothes. They passed out the grievances of whatever was stolen from them in the past on the thief. There was no interrogation of what he had stolen or from which room he had stolen. Someone just branded him a thief, and everyone believed it. I thought of the four University of Port Harcourt students, and I wondered if this was the same ordeal they endured. It was as though history was repeating itself.
“This thing is not fair,” I told my roommates minutes after the men from the security department whisked the thief away in a Hilux pickup. Pictures of the thief had started circulating on WhatsApp with the caption: Caught in Alvan Ikoku boys’ hostel for stealing. In the picture, the thief was lying weak in the trunk of the Hilux as though he was dead. He was wearing a pair of blue shorts stained with the blood running from his head.
“He could be innocent,” I told my roommates. “It’s better to take people accused of crimes to the police for justice.”
My roommate, Elvis, laughed. “Be very careful, Chibuike,” he warned, pulling his ears. He dragged the word careful. “This is jungle justice. They didn’t tell you that police don’t involve themselves in anything that has to do with jungle justice. They just leave people to carry out the act. Don’t ever go where there is jungle justice and mention police o. Even though you know the person, leave that place or pretend you don’t know the person. In Aba, if the person points at you and says he knows you, the mob will tie you and the accused thief together, and set you guys ablaze.”
I wanted to ask questions. I wanted to know why people carry out mob justice, why the police leave citizens to do it, why people do not hand criminals to police. I wanted to talk about politicians who embezzled the nation’s wealth but never got caught. Why don’t they channel that anger towards politicians? But I did not, because a roommate laughed at how ignorant I was.
Two years after the incident at my university, I, who once trusted the police force, became the kind of Nigerian who did not believe in the Nigeria Police Force for protection and justice. I joined that league of Nigerians who are often quick to say, with a tone so full of disgust and anger, “Anything that has to do with the Nigeria Police Force, forget it. The police is not your friend. There is no need to report things to them. Leave vengeance for God.”
I think my perception of the police changed because I belong to the LGBTQ community. The Nigeria legislature has criminalized homosexuality with a penalty of 14 years imprisonment for those caught in same-sex intercourse; there is a penalty of 10 years for those caught in gay clubs or organizations or found making a public show of same-sex relationships or participating in the solemnization of same-sex marriage. Social media has become a space where LGBTQ members create groups to discuss issues affecting them, find support, and also seek other community members for hookups. Unfortunately, hungry policemen and women often invade these groups, pretending to be homosexuals. They add gay men and women for hookups and end up arresting them. They threaten to charge them in court if they do not pay an outrageous amount of money. They threaten to use their chats, video call recordings, or nude pictures as evidence. This has become a lucrative business for the police force and has sometimes led to LGBTQ people being outed to their family members. Many end up traumatized or are rejected by their family.
I think, too, that my perception about the police changed because of the stories friends told, insisting that feminine men like me are always the target of police. They are often stopped on the road by the police officers for harassment, and their phones get searched. They get arrested because of a chat or a picture of them in makeup. Then they are taken to the police station and forced to write false statements that they were caught in a homosexual act. They get threatened to be taken to court if they do not pay.
These stories make me cringe whenever I see police officers on the road. I smile extravagantly at them whenever I am aboard a vehicle that they stop, and they busy themselves searching the small bags we could not put in the trunk.
“What is in your bag?” they ask me in an authoritative way. I smile and force my feminine voice to become deep. I stifle my hands to prevent them from fluttering in the air while I speak. Sometimes, when they search the passengers’ phones whom they suspect to be fraudsters because of their dreadlocks, or fully bearded faces, or elegant dress, I pray silently that they don’t search mine: I have pictures of me in makeup and wigs because I love them, and I want to keep them. I panic that they will easily brand me a homosexual responsible for the nation’s problems if they search my phone, and I might be made to pay an outrageous amount of money. But a miracle always happens when the driver squeezes money into their hands, and they let us go. In the bus, as the driver speeds off, my body begins to itch. I have come to realize that this happens whenever I have not been myself or said what I wanted to say. I am unhappy throughout the day. I wait for when I am alone, so I can cry.
There are also days when I become uncomfortable while walking because I get a lot of stares. I fear that a homophobic person will raise an alarm that I am gay, and people will dash toward me, without asking questions, just the way they do to people accused of stealing. I worry that they will descend on me because I walk like a girl, the same way they beat a friend in school because of his feminine mannerisms. I fear they will put an old tire on my neck and set me ablaze. Of course, they will feel justified for their actions; they will proclaim that they are cleansing Nigeria of homosexuals. I fear too, that a police officer who should protect me, might see them carrying out the act and ignore me. Once, a friend of mine who had gone for a hookup discovered too late that the man he was meeting had set him up. He ran out of the man’s compound. The man and his friends chased after him, and just then, my friend saw a policeman in uniform on the street. He ran to him for help, but his abductors met the police, and told him my friend was a homosexual. The officer gave my friend to his abductors; he walked away. They did not kill my friend, but they emptied his bank account and took his phone.
THIS HAS MADE ME learn to protect myself in places that look unsafe to me: to bounce like a man when walking, and to speak with a deep voice when I speak to strangers. Each time I do this, I feel as though I deny myself a certain dignity, that I crush my true existence. I go to bed at night feeling tormented, wishing I could turn back the hands of the clock and be my truer self. There is an abiding air of grace that comes with being oneself: a contented peace that is more than peace. A comfort that is more than comfort. “I want to sleep well at night.” I say this to myself each time I feel that pressure to perform, to deny my true existence. I begin to sway my hips while walking, my chin held high, and feel warmth spread over me as people stare. It surprises me when someone tells me “I like your voice” whenever I speak in public places or engage a stranger in a conversation. It surprises me too that I could command attention in public places or events, especially when I give a lady-like pose when taking pictures: my hands on my waist as I turn my head this way and that way, pouting. People watch in awe. People want to be friends with me. Now I am wondering if this is how people react when someone dares societal norms.
In the early days of taking baby-steps in being myself, I felt guilty and sad when someone would glare at me or scream faggot or homo. These days I feel powerful that I could make someone writhe in hate because of my existence. Sometimes I am tempted to sashay to that man or group of boys glaring at me and fling my imaginary hair at their faces. But one needs to act properly in public places, so I will catwalk more and watch them walk away with their hate. Fierce, my feminine friends have come to call me, and they often joke about my habit of telling them: “I want to sleep well at night.” “You see that handsome guy over there,” one would say whenever we walked on the road, “Go and get him. You need a man, so that you will sleep well tonight.” We lean on each other, all three of us, laughing joyously, aware that people are watching us. Although we feel a trembling fear within us, we try to quell it with laughter.
I never realized that the lynching of the four University of Port Harcourt students had made me paranoid, not until earlier this year, when a Facebook friend shared a news link from the Vanguard Newspaper. It was titled: Aluu Four: Justice at last. I read it slowly. It occurred to me that the lynching had a name: Aluu Four. I began to cry. I did not know why. It had been eight years since the lynching happened, yet the memory was fresh, an old, open wound. There was a tightness in my chest and a weakness that trapped me on the couch I lay on, reading. For a moment, I felt the world stopped; I could not hear the voices of the kids playing in the compound. Everything became still.
Perhaps I cried because justice was served: the three people who participated in the act were sentenced to death. Or it could be the pain of betrayal I felt when I read that a policeman was one of the three people sentenced to death. Or that the witnesses who testified to the court said that security operatives got to the scene but failed to stop the mob. I remembered that classmate in secondary school whose story I dismissed when he told me on that day we watched the video in class, “A policeman was part of the people beating the students.” I thought of how lucky he was to have learned early that the Nigeria Police can never protect people.
Perhaps I cried because I remembered that humid afternoon, me swaying my hips while walking to class, unaware of the world and its injustice and evil. Perhaps I longed for that old me: walking freely, being myself, without any pressure to perform, or the fear of harassment, my dignity still intact. Perhaps I cried because grief, tinged with nostalgia, enveloped me.
- What First Made You Cringe at the World? - December 19, 2021