Criminality of jungle justice, trial by ordeal and imperative of swift punishment for offenders
The practice of lynching suspected offenders by angry mob, also known as jungle justice, is as old as the advent of communities during dark ages, when in the state of nature, life was short, nasty and brutish.
But as organised societies emerged, such obnoxious conduct was criminalised in various legislations. Yet, the practice appears intractable as aggrieved citizens often descend on suspects and lynch them without fear of the consequences or the consideration of the equitable doctrine of fair hearing enshrined in the Constitution.
Just few weeks ago, specifically April 10, 2023, Olorunfemi Tope, 35, suspected of being a ‘Yahoo boy’, was lynched by a mob for allegedly crushing two persons to death in Ijoka area of Akure, the Ondo State capital in a car accident. Tope was driving a Toyota car along the road when he suddenly skidded off his lane and rammed into people who rode on commercial motorcycles also known as okada.
Witnesses said sympathisers, who rushed to rescue the driver, allegedly found some “fetish items” inside the vehicle and raised their suspicion that the driver was into rituals, otherwise known as ‘yahoo plus’.
Provoked by the “fetish items” allegedly found inside the car, the sympathisers descended on the driver and beat him to death. It later emerged that the deceased was actually a ride-hailing driver.
A day after the incident on April 11, 2023, the unthinkable happened with another jungle justice in the most unlikely environment. Okolie Arinze, a 500-level Civil Engineering student of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife was beaten to death by his co-students at the university hostel after he was accused of cell phone theft without the opportunity of defending himself in the court of law.
Before these incidents, there was the infamous lynching of four students of the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers state on October 12, 2012 in Aluu community, Obio/Akpor local government area over alleged robbery.
In May last year, Deborah Emmanuel, a student of Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, was also murdered by her co-students over alleged blasphemy. The occurrence of jungle justice is becoming too frequent in Nigeria with perpetrators hardly getting swift punishment.
Lawyers, who spoke to The Guardian about the issue, were unanimous in condemning it and called for stricter punishment for offenders to serve as deterrent.
“Mob lynching or trial by ordeal is tantamount to self-help, which is anathema to all civilised societies. It is barbaric, and against the law, particularly our Criminal Code and Penal Code.
“It also infringes the fundamental rights and civil liberties provisions of the Constitution, the African Charter and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically the right to life and to fair hearing (to be tried before an impartial tribunal),” Abubakar Sani, a Kano-based lawyer said.
Whoever engages in it, he stated, should not be spared. According to him, those involved should be made to face the full wrath of the law, as otherwise it will encourage others, thereby eroding respect for the rule of law and, ultimately, leading to anarchy.
Also, Principal Partner at Whiteboard Partners, Oluwaseun John Ojeleye, explained that by virtue of Section 33 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, every person has a right to life and no one shall be deprived of the same, except as approved by law.
He said: “The same section of that Constitution provides instances whereby the life of a person shall be deprived, which is by execution of the judgment of a court for a criminal offence, when a suspect has been found guilty.
“By reasonable use of force to self defence, suppression of riot and effecting a lawful arrest or to prevent anyone lawfully arrested from escaping are part of the exceptions.
“It is evident from our law that trial by ordeal or mob lynching is not permitted and such practice must be discouraged and condemned in its totality.” Ojeleye emphasised that the legal consequence of allowing trial by ordeal or mob lynching to thrive in the society is a call to anarchy and disorderliness, which subsequently will hinder growth and economic stability.
Such conduct, he said, is like trying to use criminality to checkmate criminality, which is an absolute deviation from the rule of law and principles of natural justice.
Theophilus Orumor, also a lawyer, said the concept of trial by ordeal is conceptually explained as a judicial practice by which guilt or innocence of the accused person is determined by subjecting him to an unpleasant, usually dangerous experience believed to be under supernatural or divine control. He said: “Classically, the test is one of life and death and the proof of innocence is survival. In some cases, the accused is considered innocent if he escapes injury or if the injury heals.
“The law frowns against trial by ordeal, Sections 127-129 of the Criminal Law of Lagos 2015 clearly outlaws trial by ordeal as follows:
“The trial by ordeal of any person by any means, which is likely to result in death or bodily harm to any party to the proceedings is unlawful. The Commissioner may by order prohibit the worship or invocation of any juju, which appears to him to involve or tend towards the commission of any crime or breach of peace, or to the spread of any infectious or contagious disease.
“Any person, who directs, controls or presides at any trial by ordeal commits a felony and – (a) when the trial results in the death of any party to the proceeding, the offender is liable on conviction to life imprisonment; and (b) in every other case, to imprisonment for 10 years. Any person who: – (a) is present at or takes part in any trial by ordeal; or (b) makes, sells or assists or takes part in making or selling, or has in his possession for sale or use any poison or thing which is intended to be used for the purpose of any trial by ordeal, commits a misdemeanour and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for one year.”
Orumor also cited Sections 207-202 of the Criminal Code to drive home his point. A mob, he said, is defined as a riotous or disorderly crowd of people. “See Omah vs State (2017) LPELR 42745. A mob action against a victim is the instant pronouncement of a death sentence and immediate execution on an alleged offender (who most times turns out to be innocent) by a self righteous but mostly faceless mob or gathering of persons more than three.
“A mob action or jungle justice has no place under the law or in any sane clime. Mob action represents the barbaric nature of man where man still believes in brute force synonymous with Hobbesian theory of the state of nature of man.
“In my view, the acts of mob action/jungle justice constitute serious offences contrary to Sections 44, 45, 168, 213, 215, 221 and 227 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State or the corresponding sections of the Criminal Code, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria. The law specifically criminalises unlawful killing of anyone,” he stated.
The lawyer added that the punishment for unlawful killing by virtue of Sections 219 and 221 of the law is death. This, he declared, is the fate that awaits the actual people that kill another person in like manner.
Orumor further explained that the other mobs, who conspire to cheer on the act, could be punished for conspiracy to murder, which punishment is 14 years imprisonment under the law.
“In either case, both trial by ordeal and or mob action/jungle justice constitute a gross violation of the fundamental rights of the victims of such acts, which fundamental rights are constitutionally guaranteed under the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended),” he declared.
For Deji Ajare, human rights lawyer, trial by ordeal is a traditional practice in Nigeria and other parts of Africa that involves subjecting an accused person to physical ordeals such as drinking a poisonous substance, walking on hot coals, or being immersed in water.
The belief, he said, is that if the accused person survives the ordeal, they are innocent, and if they do not, they are guilty.
“Mob lynching (also called jungle justice) on the other hand is a heinous act of extrajudicial killing of a person suspected to have committed a crime, carried out by a group of people without legal authority or due process.
“Both mob lynching and trial by ordeal are illegal in Nigeria, and anyone who engages in them can be charged with a criminal offence. Trial by ordeal is prohibited and criminalised under Chapter 20 (Section 207 to 213) of the Criminal Code and Chapter 17 (Section 214) of the Penal Code, which create a series of offences relating to trial by ordeal. On the other hand, mob lynching is prohibited under Section 306, 316 and 319 of the Criminal Code,” he explained.
Ajare stressed that trial by ordeal and mob lynching violates the fundamental human rights of the accused person. According to him, Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution guarantees the right to a fair trial, including the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
“Neither trial by ordeal nor mob lynching provide a fair trial and are not based on evidence or due process,” he emphasised. He said: “Trial by ordeal and mob lynching are not recognised as legal means of determining guilt or innocence in Nigeria. The Nigerian Criminal and Penal Code prohibit the use of trial by ordeal and mob lynching, and any person who administers or participates in it can be charged with a criminal offence.
“The use of trial by ordeal can lead to wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice. The outcome of the ordeal is not reliable evidence and can be influenced by various factors such as the strength of the accused person’s immune system, the preparation of the substance used, and the skill of the person administering the ordeal.
“Understandably, many Nigerians are frustrated by the failure of the Nigerian justice system to effectively and timeously deliver justice, however we must refrain from taking the laws into our hands by resorting to such barbaric acts as trial by ordeal and mob action to punish suspects, as that in itself will be a way of further subverting the already weak justice system.
“The use of such methods undermine the rule of law and promote a culture of impunity. It sends a message that individuals can take the law into their hands and carry out extrajudicial killings without facing the consequences of their actions. This has serious implications for the justice system and the rule of law in Nigeria.
“They inadvertently contribute to insecurity in the country. Creating an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness and undermining efforts to maintain law and order. They may also lead to reprisal attacks and contribute to the escalation of violence in communities.”
However, Benin-based lawyer, President Aigbokhan, said legal consequence of trial by ordeal or mob action is life imprisonment, depending on the gravity of the offence or action.
“Remember, trial by ordeal or mob action does not illuminate the truth, proof burden enunciated in our laws of evidence does. Proof burdens come with their own weight, which is candidly becoming too weighty to bear.
“Practically, to shoot a man who is positioned in your compound to rob you and shoot you is justified. Although legal pundits will say it is manslaughter and thereby deny you the right to decide on your life threatening position.
“I think the removal of the threat distinctively is positive in this circumstance. Nevertheless, for victims, they must console themselves that unearned suffering is redemptive,” he submitted.
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