The death sentence on the murderers is a poignant challenge to impunity

Last Monday, the families of the University of Port Harcourt undergraduates who were murdered in a most gruesome manner about five years ago got a sort of relief. The Rivers State High Court sitting in Port Harcourt convicted ex-Sergeant Lucky Orji, Mr. Ikechukwu Louis Amadi (aka Kapoon) and Mr. Chinasa David Ogbada for their active involvement in the murder. And the three men were sentenced to death by Justice Letam Nyordee.

We recall with sadness that on October 5, 2012, four young Nigerians (Ugonna Ibuzor, Lloyd Michael, Chidiaka Biringa and Tekenna Erikanah)–three of them undergraduates at the University of Port-Harcourt–were brutally murdered by a mob from Aluu community at Omuokiri village, in Rivers State. Painfully, the video clips of the gruesome application of jungle justice were circulated on the internet and the traumatised parents of the victims even watched it.

As it was later revealed, the students met their unfortunate death following attempts to collect money from a debtor who instigated the mob against them on the allegation that they were there to steal phones and laptops. And without seeking proof of culpability, the mob stripped the four young men naked, dragged them through mud, had car tyres wrapped around their necks before setting them ablaze with petrol.

In a letter to the Senate following the tragic incident, Mrs. Chinwe Biringa, mother to one of the slain students, wrote: “We have been subjected to several gory videos and pictures on the internet. This shows that someone filmed the whole barbarism from beginning to the end. My son and his friends were savagely beaten and burnt to death while villagers at Aluu watched. All this has been caught on film! To waylay them and beat them with planks until they died like chicken is the most savage thing one can witness in Nigeria of 2012. Justice is the only thing that can assuage the pains and emotional traumas consuming us and clear the name of our son so that he can rest in peace. Again, and for emphasis, the film shows everything in clear view and all the perpetrators must answer for their crimes.”

While it is soothing that those who killed the innocent students will indeed pay for their crimes, it is nonetheless worrisome that Nigerians now find it easy to take the law into their hands. Ordinarily, mere suspicion does not constitute an offence or grounds for lynching that has become a common practice in our country. Persons accused of any crime are expected to be charged to court if not for anything, at least to avoid a miscarriage of justice. Yet in Nigeria today, all it takes to be declared a thief is for someone to make the accusation in the public and the mob will instantly dispense “justice.”

In all civilised societies, disagreements and accusation of crimes are settled through the judicial process. That is essentially because the rule of law, as opposed to that of the jungle, presupposes that anybody accused of a crime, however heinous, is entitled to a fair trial before punishment could be meted if found guilty. But as more and more Nigerians shun the instrumentality of the law in the settlement of disputes, many people, including innocent ones, are getting maimed and killed.

However, we are not unmindful of the fact that due to its own contradictions, our judiciary does not seem capable of administering impartial justice and many people are gradually losing faith. Yet under the rule of law, it is the sacred duty of the judiciary to safeguard the rights and liberty of the citizens. Respecting such rights forms the bedrock upon which the society lays claim to civilisation. And the right to life is the ultimate measure of all rights.

It is therefore important that Nigerians rein in all impulses to violence, self-help, jungle justice or any other form of extra-judicial killings in the settlement of disputes or prosecution of crime. While our society will forever carry the bloody stigma of the unfortunate incident at Aluu, we should all resolve that such a tragedy must never happen again.

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The rule of law, as opposed to that of the jungle, presupposes that anybody accused of a crime, however heinous, is entitled to a fair trial before punishment could be meted if found guilty