We’ve learnt the art of pain. We’ve known from a young age that it would be a part of us forever. This, as much as we do not want to hear it, has numbed us to the point where we do not feel enough for ourselves before we feel for anyone else. The Nigerian experience is built on struggle and pain and the average Nigerian thrives on the idea that hustling makes you a better person. We become so edgy and caught up in our own lives that we do not show concern for the things around us.
I remember the first time I experienced jungle justice, something in me died. To this day, I’m not able to tell you whether it was the faint love I had for Nigerian resilience or my faith in humanity. I was in school, close to the taps at my hostel and about to perform ablution, when I heard a commotion from outside the hostel walls.
I went into my room to look out the window and found a large number of boys, some in their underwear running out of their hostels. The security personnel had taken a thief out of the boys’ hostel and they were enraged because they wanted to beat him up. Later that night as I went out to read, I saw them. The anger and ferocity oozing from them as they approached made me shift. I didn’t see the thief but later on, I would watch a video a friend recorded and I saw when the security had locked him up in a room to prevent him from being beaten. But as they led him into a van, the students started stoning the vehicle. I was anguished as one of those stones hit the boy across his face.
He looked so small and skinny and was probably hungry because one classmate told me the phone he stole was so cheap he didn’t know why anyone would consider stealing it. But where does this instinct to beat up a thief come from? And with so much intensity among students in an academic institution. My campus has only two faculties: Law and Administration. They were future Lawyers and Administrators trying to beat up a little boy who had stolen a phone like a bunch of touts in a motor park.
I was mortified when my mother told me how she watched a boy bleed to death in front of her hostel while she was at university. The boy had been beaten up because he stole a girl’s underwear. It’s ridiculous that he was killed for something so insignificant; but regardless of the environment, when Nigerians see a thief, it becomes an avenue to channel what I think is deep-seated rage. They lash out. Many times, people would catch someone stealing inexpensive items like garri, milk, sugar and would set them ablaze or beat them to a pulp ㅡ situations where it was obvious these people stole because they were starving. But we do not care. As far as we are concerned, a thief is a thief and should die no matter what they stole.
I can go on listing how many times I saw videos on the internet of people stripped naked and humiliated because they stole but I think that would take forever. This kind of behaviour shows that the Nigerian resilience, as much as it is a beautiful and wonderful phenomenon, is able to turn into a brutal animalistic thing. We pour ourselves into our hustle and basically every other problem being Nigerian throws at us as and it takes away our empathy. People who humiliate and maim thieves forget that this is another human being and this human being deserves to be treated like one regardless of what they are accused of.
One day, while in class, a girl who sat behind me had an asthma attack and no one said a word. Everyone turned to her and continued listening to the lecturer as though nothing happened I turned many times and felt my heart beating so fast, I was scared she would die, and I waited for the person next to her to do something. Fortunately, she did but rather slowly. Weirdly, she went to the lecturer to seek permission; but then when he started talking it was as if he woke people up. “It’s true,” they said, like someone would actually fake an asthma attack in a class with over a hundred students and roll on the dirty terrazzo floors. When we left class, my friend commented that she didn’t get help in time because of how she has behaved and that people considered her a rude snub; but then are we supposed to save someone only when they’re good?
Nigeria and Cameroon are the countries with the highest rates of jungle justice in Africa. We aren’t talking about the ritual killings that are a normal occurrence at the end of the year or the excesses of SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) or how badly children are treated in military boarding schools by soldiers and normal boarding schools by their seniors. Jungle justice has become so normal I could be in a market, see a mob beating a boy up, and simply walk past. It is how we are raised; we are fed so much numbing medicine from a young age through the happenings around us.
Growing up in Nigeria is to face poverty, horrible social amenities if you’re in the middle class, and the problems from unequipped schools and substandard teachers, before we can even deal with our personal problems. Many are depressed without even knowing it and that’s why we do not even care about anything until we can relate to it. Sympathy is something we have abandoned; our resilience has crushed our humanity.
It starts with the children, the solution. We need to start teaching them to care about people, to treat people the way they want to be treated, and separating this from religious punishments like going to hell or being punished by God. We need to teach children that telling lies and doing things that would harm other people breaks trust and is unfair to the other person. If Nigerians learn this from a young age, we would have fewer people who are ready to lynch thieves on the most unreasonable grounds. When we put ourselves in the shoes of others, it would help us not be so cold and numb to everything.
By day, Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a Law student at ABU, Zaria, and a poet and writer at all times. She is the 2019 winner of the Professor Andrew Nok prize for poetry and has her works published by syncity.ng and Creative Writers Club, and Kongo’s Anthology. She is a youth activist who hopes to use her law degree to fight for women and children’s rights; when she’s not buried neck-deep in handouts and law textbooks she enjoys reading poetry, Egyptian mythology, and stroking cats. She lives with her parents and three brothers.