I was nearly lynched in Nigeria. Here’s how I survived

What makes my story rare is that I survived. Such is the nature of mob justice in Nigeria that few do.

A protester walks past burning tyres while biting a lighter during a rally against fuel subsidy removal on Ikorodu road in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos January 3, 2012. Hundreds of demonstrators in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos shut petrol stations, formed human barriers along motorways and hijacked buses on Tuesday in protest against the shock doubling of fuel prices after a government subsidy was removed. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye (NIGERIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS ENERGY)
A protester walks past burning tyres with a lighter held in his teeth during a rally against fuel price hikes in Lagos, Nigeria, on January 3, 2012. These tools, common sights in protests, are also weapons used in lynchings in Nigeria [Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters]

A few months ago, I survived a lynching: This is how I remember it.

I was out on a walk with a friend in Uyo, one of Southern Nigeria’s fastest-growing cities, when four young men accosted us. They first accused us of being homosexuals – as it happens, we are not, but same-sex relations of any kind are punishable by law in Nigeria.

They then demanded that we surrender our phones. When we tried to defuse the situation by trying to talk to them, the men began to attack us with machetes. My friend escaped, but I wasn’t as lucky.

What unfolded next was a long-dreaded nightmare. The young men attacked me with a barrage of machete strikes, punches, slaps and kicks. Within minutes, my face swelled up, bloodied. As a crowd gathered and people asked questions, the young men lied, claiming that I was a paedophile. I wasn’t surprised. Now that we were out in the open, it made sense to accuse me of something in order to justify this insane attack, this robbery.

‘Funny scene’

The next morning, a local journalist who had witnessed the incident would recount it on Facebook: “Yesterday, I witnessed a very funny scene…A guy was being beaten and manhandled by several other guys in the middle of the road and it caused a traffic gridlock.”

Public brawls are fairly common in Nigeria, so it’s possible for onlookers to observe, bemused, from a distance. But there was nothing funny about the incident.

At the height of the attack, my assailants quickly sought out tyres, a cigarette lighter and diesel – the familiar tools of jungle justice. Here’s how the script usually plays out in such situations: After accused victims have been thrashed, bloodied and perhaps even stripped naked, a large tyre is placed around their body to limit movement – this act is called “necklacing”. Then the victims get a baptism of petrol or diesel and a lit match is thrown at them.

When one of the men charged towards me with a can of diesel, I broke away and tried to latch onto a moving tricycle. It was a recklessly futile effort. The men dragged me down and I fell hard on the road. I was already bleeding from the knees when one of them yanked me up and hit my face hard (my right eye would hurt for weeks after this). He had tripped and fallen after pulling me off the tricycle and was clearly infuriated.

“You’ve wounded me, right?” he said. “I will make sure you die tonight.”

I believed him.

Fire and blood

Central to Nigeria’s context of jungle justice is the role of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings in creating this unfettered monster. When Nigeria was under military rule, executions of thieves by firing squad would be broadcast into living rooms. Meanwhile, the military increasingly acted with impunity away from the cameras, corruption was rampant and soon it was known that those who wanted justice had to bid for it.

Though democracy returned in 1999, justice didn’t.

In the early 2000s, state governors were unable to curb crime in Nigeriaʼs southeast region. So they hired a brutal vigilante group called the Bakassi Boys and gave them free rein to violently fight crimes, leading to a reign of terror marked by the public lynching of criminal suspects.

As faith in the law wilted, people channelled their hateful frustration towards low-level criminals. Scenes of flaming bodies ringed by frenzied mobs slowly became normal. In 2005, a short video of a 12-year-old boyʼs lynching circulated, shocking Nigerians.

Then on October 5, 2012, four students of the University of Port Harcourt, all between 18 and 20 years old, were lynched in an obscure southern village called Aluu. The young men, who tragically became known as the “Aluu 4”, constantly pleaded for mercy and stated their innocence, even as they were being tortured.

Gory videos of this attack went viral globally. The boys, it turns out, were not thieves as the mob had alleged – they had been set up by a debtor whom they had confronted to pay up. And most importantly, their names became known: Chiadika Biringa, Ugonna Obuzor, Lloyd Toku, and Tekena Elkanah. Outraged over their deaths, students of the University of Port Harcourt attacked local homes in Aluu.

Like many others, I was permanently scarred by the Aluu lynchings.

Defenders of jungle justice in Nigeria often say, “If we don’t beat and kill these criminals, they will bribe the police, go scot-free and return to deal with us. These people are dangerous!”

It is for this reason that survivors of lynching attempts are rare.

Nothing has changed

In March 2022, US President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that now makes lynching a federal hate crime within the United States. The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was welcomed for its historic significance, although most Americans saw it as long overdue. Some even asked if lynchings were “still a thing”.

In Nigeria, they definitely are.

A survey in 2014 revealed that 43 percent of Nigerians had witnessed mob violence. According to a report by SB Morgen Intelligence, a Nigerian think tank, at least 391 persons were killed by mobs in the country between January 2019 and May 2022.

Often, I see headlines and social media posts arguing that Nigeria is descending into “chaos and anarchy”. While that might be true, such words serve only to mask the failure of the rule of law that is at the root of the country’s jungle justice – a problem so endemic that only a total overhaul of the present system will solve it. Nigerians are not inherently violent. They have merely lost so much faith in the law that mob action appears more effective.

After the Aluu 4 lynching, an anti-lynching bill was proposed in Nigeriaʼs legislature but fizzled out while it was being deliberated. You see, mob actions rarely ever ruffle the wealthy and powerful.

Now, as the economy plunges and crime rates soar, it is expected that mob justice will increase too.

Perhaps one needs to remind Nigeriaʼs political elite that if they don’t take this seriously, the poor might soon tire of killing each other and turn their focus upon those who steal much more than mobile phones.

Rigorous sensitisation campaigns, an urgent reform of Nigeria’s correctional systems and an emphasis on restitution – not death – as the endpoint of criminal justice are some of the changes Nigeria needs.

At the centre of a mob on that cold July night, I knew better than to beg for mercy. Towards the end of my ordeal, a dark police patrol truck with tinted windows passed by, its occupants unfazed, even when it was clear that something was terribly wrong. The law did not help. The only thing I could do was to keep on asserting my innocence. I told anyone who would hear that I was simply the victim of plain armed robbery. Silently though, I prayed.

Somehow, I was able to convince a few people, until a brave stranger rescued me. Somehow, I survived, and for weeks afterwards, I slowly recovered.

I think of families whose loved ones have been murdered by this strangest and most elusive of killers: a mob that pounces, murders brutally and disappears into thin air. And for what? Because no one trusts the law any longer, because life itself has little value here.

Many people have told me that it was a miracle I made it home alive that night. I agree, even though I am aware that my survival has a dark underside – I can never fully recover.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.