Phone Robbery And The Perils Of Vigilante Justice -By Abdurrahman Muhammad Nasir

Many of us have undoubtedly noticed the alarming increase in phone-snatching cases in Kano metropolis over the past few months. However, in recent weeks, a concerning shift has occurred. We are now witnessing more audacious attacks that have resulted in the loss of several lives. It appears that some of the criminals have abandoned their usual tactic of targeting victims who refuse to surrender their phones and have adopted a new strategy of incapacitating victims from the start before making off with their phones and valuables. The police have also released images showing the growing sophistication of the criminals’ custom-made weapons, which inflict severe injuries and can lead to the quick demise of the unfortunate victims.

Following the reports of numerous deaths resulting from these incidents in recent weeks, a groundswell of calls for action has emerged on social media. However, it has become evident that the authorities responsible for addressing this problem are woefully ineffective in fulfilling their mandate and instilling a sense of security in the terrified populace. This call for action was not directed at them, but rather at ordinary people who have grown weary of the escalating terror and pervasive uncertainty accompanying each new case. It is a plea for individuals to take matters into their own hands and administer punishment to the culprits as they see fit, through acts of vigilante justice and mob action.

I do not intend to delve into the underlying criminal motives of these hoodlums and the terror they have inflicted upon our minds, as that has been exhaustively discussed and understood by many. Instead, I would like to address the legitimacy, extent, and extremes of the resulting extrajudicial punishments meted out by the public.

As theorized by Max Weber, the state holds a monopoly on violence. In exchange for relinquishing their right to inflict harm upon each other, individuals entrust the government with the responsibility of maintaining sustainable peace and order through the imposition of laws and legitimate use of force (incarceration, penalties, etc.). When the state fails to uphold its end of the social contract, individuals resort to taking up arms to protect themselves.

Regarding the legitimacy of such actions, I recall writing about the case of Deborah’s blasphemy and subsequent lynching, and I still firmly maintain my view on the illegitimacy of jungle justice. According to Islamic and Nigerian legal provisions, dispensing justice without legal authority is a grave offense. However, there is a crucial distinction between the original crimes committed in the two cases (Deborah’s blasphemy and phone snatching): the threat to life. In the latter case, the victims face a potentially lethal assault, whereas the former case represents an affront to the collective conscience of the Muslim faithfuls.

The permissibility of self-defense against a threat to one’s life is not the point of contention; logic and law permit the defense of one’s life when under attack. The critical issue here is determining the limit of self-defense and when a retaliatory attack exceeds the boundaries of self-defense.

There is a significant difference between a victim of theft who harms or kills their assailant in self-defense and a mob that ruthlessly lynches the assailant after the fact. While amputation or physical punishment, as seen in some cases, is gruesome, it is still preferable to murder and serves the same intended lesson. Under Sharia provisions, a victim of an attack is only permitted to retaliate with the necessary force to protect themselves and repel the assault. For example, it would be wrong to respond with a forceful blow to an attack that could be dispelled with a simple slap.

Therefore, it is both understandable and alarming to witness people advocating for the outright murder of anyone caught stealing a phone. Some individuals are explicitly advocating for the “slaughtering” of the culprits upon capture. This raises concerns about the kind of person who would consciously attempt to take another human life, even if the victim had committed an offense deserving of punishment. How would such an act affect (or corrupt) their conscience in the long run? Wouldn’t entrusting justice solely to the masses, without the necessary checks and limits, spiral out of control and harm innocent individuals?

Yes, I agree that the current trend of mob action will likely deter the hoodlums and reduce the recurrence of such incidents, as we are witnessing today. However, what happens when people are emboldened to take physical action against any perceived wrongdoing? Do we possess enough moral rectitude to prevent ourselves from crossing reasonable boundaries in our frenzy?

The government has the responsibility to safeguard our lives, property, and conscience by taking decisive action against these hoodlums. Such action would serve as a powerful deterrent to potential offenders, discourage criminal attempts, and spare the masses from the traumatic ordeal of violent mob action.

While the act of jungle justice in this instance may yield short-term positive results where the obligated authority has failed, I believe that ultimately, restoring that power to the hands of the state would serve us better. Destroying the walls of legal fortification and moral conscience may come back to haunt us in the future. I fear that when the monster we are currently encouraging has no more prey to pounce upon, it may turn its salivating jaws toward us, now that we have stripped away the protections provided by the very walls we ourselves dismantled.

In conclusion, the rise of phone robbery and the subsequent resort to extrajudicial punishment highlight the failures of the authorities in ensuring the safety and security of the populace. While the public’s frustration is understandable, we must be cautious about the extent and extremes of vigilante justice. We should strive to hold the government accountable and demand effective measures to combat crime, ensuring a fair and just society for all.

(Abdurrahman MN writes from Kano and can be reached via email: [email protected])

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