I woke up this morning and they were gone. Vanished at the break of dawn as is common to nocturnal animals. That is what they are after all, nocturnal beings recruited solely for the purpose of instilling fear in the neighbourhood.
It had been a quiet night. No generators huffing and puffing late into the night, struggling, hours after their owners have slept, to provide what the nations’ leaders had failed to give. Having the generators on meant the owners, I included, would gladly give up a quiet night of no sleep in exchange for a noisy night of sleep. Yes, the heat of Lagos was powerful enough to inform that decision.
It had rained earlier on in the day, and the weather was cool, and so the generators were off. I looked forward to sleeping and was grateful for the rain, if only I knew what was to happen in the early hours of the morning.
It started out as a conversation, wafting in through the open windows, relentlessly plaguing my ears. I sunk into my pillow, kept my ears shut and refused to be woken up so rudely from the adventurous dream I was having. The voices grew louder, more stern and demanding in tone. I woke up, didn’t move a muscle, but strained my ears towards the window, trying to decipher the source of the disturbance without getting out of bed.
The voices grew even louder, menacing and threatening. It was coming from the streets, just outside the gate of the house. I knew immediately that I would not fall back asleep without finding out more. I listened with rapt attention, eager to unravel the mystery.
They were at least 5 in number, 5 men, 5 angry men. They spoke to each other in the dark, in the language of the street, Yoruba heavily ladened with slangs and taunts. They were excited and angry at the same time. I got up and peeped out of the window. It was a little after 3am. I saw them, dark forms pacing back and forth on the street, sharpening their machetes randomly against the coal tarred road. I thought it was just a show of muscle, or ego, or both, as is common with their kind, the neighbourhood vigilante. I rubbed my eyes and yawned, thinking that perhaps they had consumed more than their usual dose of drugs and alcohol, it being a weekend and all.
I hissed in anger and prepared to turn around and go back to bed when I caught movement from elsewhere on the road. There was a sixth form lying down on the road, a few feet away from the others. Suddenly, the scene became clear. The 5 men were not randomly pacing the street, they were actually standing in a loose circle around the 6th. At that moment, he cried out for mercy and I felt fear make a cold path down my spine.
Jungle justice is rampant in Nigeria. Hundreds have been mercilessly murdered by road passers or villagers having been labelled thieves or rapists or killers. It was deemed justice as long as the victims have been “accused” of committing a crime. The police who are present in some instances, turn a blind eye to the dastardly act, sometimes in fear of being lynched themselves for interfering.
I have read about these acts and always resented the blood thirsty nature of the masses, always questioned why no one from the crowd of onlookers would plead that the victims be handed over to the police. I swallowed saliva in fear and lied to myself that I was no hypocrite. This situation was different. I was looking from my bedroom window across the street, separated from moral responsibility by 2 storeys and walls of concrete. I would not speak out. I watched as they circled him like predators zoning in onto prey, raining abuses and curses on him, brandishing their machetes above their heads.
Neighbourhood vigilante are employed by residents in the vicinity to provide another thing our leaders failed to give – security. Gates are mounted on streets, manned by vigilante who during the day are jobless hustlers, living on drugs and alcohol. It is a last resort which is fairly successful to the point that I sometimes wonder if it is the robber themselves who have been employed and thus given a reason not to rob.
“Ose ma gba abe gate koja?” (why will you pass underneath the gate), they asked him. He had not committed an offence by attempting to sneak across the street, neither was he a robber. The crime here was that he had undermined the authority of the vigilante, ignored their existence, held no regard for the power they wielded and could not be bothered to beg them to open the gate for him.
For several minutes, I watched as they sharpened their machetes on the road while deliberating what punishment he deserved. I watched in horror, tongue dried up and stuck in my throat. I began to pray silently. I was not ready to witness murder, neither was I ready to go out on the street at 3am to be the voice of reason. Why would he pass underneath the gate?!
They made up their minds and two of them walked closer to the form on the ground, machetes raised up. I I held my breath as my heart began to pound in my chest. “Lie still or we’ll make it worse,” they shouted. The machetes came flying down and I shut my eyes, fearing the worst had happened. I heard the smack sound again and again as metal met flesh, I heard the tortured gasps of pain from the helpless body on the floor. I opened my eyes as my curiosity overcame fear. Why wasn’t he shouting and screaming? And then I knew why. They were not chopping him into bits, they were smacking him with the flat sides of their machetes. Inflicting pain, but far less than I had imagined.
I heaved a sigh of relief. They eventually tired and let him go, limping but alive. I knew that I was not the only one watching. The vigilante put up the show to remind the neighbourhood of their existence, to rekindle fear in the hearts of potential thieves and perhaps in those of their employers.
I laid down and closed my eyes, grateful that the ordeal was over, grateful that I had not witnessed murder, grateful that I had been spared the moral decision of speaking out against jungle justice. Or had
Article by Peju Lawson