I saw jungle justice for the first time in secondary school. I was 14. I did not help the victim.

It was early in my second year of senior secondary school, and we were mostly in the 14 – 16 year old range. But the victim, a classmate, was obviously too old for the class we were in. More importantly, he had once shared a dorm locker with me, and been friendly off and on. His name was Kools (not real name).

Kools was at least 19 years old when we met. He had a proper beard, shaved every day, and knew things no one else did. He also seemed to have known the most senior boys in a previous setting. He always told us some of the senior boys were his boys. He had, for a period, also schooled at the Ghanaian Military Academy, which was very cool.

It may have been one of Kools’s genius moments which light bulb-ed him into a ‘life of crime’, because on a debate day, during the primer session, a general question was asked: how do you carry a lantern in a room, such that you can see everyone in the room, but not be seen? I don’t think anyone knew the answer, except Kools, who answered that if you put the light on your head, you will see and not be seen.

When Kools was caught weeks later, on a Sunday night, we was lifting other boys’ property, with a lantern on his head, and had been doing so for weeks.

It wasn’t long before I learned that the school tradition forbade stealing and any breach of that code of honour resulted in “Jungle Justice.” Jungle Justice was served that Monday morning. I returned from breakfast to meet Kools dancing naked before a mob of boys, some who had been his friends, receiving a godless beating. Everyone gathered was cheering – thieves were a dorm menace, and one being caught was an exciting event. The gathering was arranged just so that the naked man in the middle could be seen all the way from the girls’ dorm. I was appalled at the violence and the ‘whips’ they used, which were an assortment of sticks, planks, cutlasses, and ‘scorpions’, which were hardened whips made out of cloth, and twisted till they were as hard as wood.

I was also of two minds. I was shaken by the beating Kools was receiving, especially from boys who had once been his friends, and ashamed that he had once been my friend. I hid away from the path of the mob, so no one would identify me as his friend. At that moment, I felt like Peter, denying his Christ. I hung my head in a corner and stared at my toes.

My head was still hung in the assembly hall, when Kools was brought in to face the staff row. The school Principal, preaching from his podium, lectured the students on the school’s zero tolerance for criminal activity; the school will never let herself become a breeding ground for criminals. Just before pronouncing Kools’s suspension, the principal made the most shocking pronouncement of the day: the school does not condone jungle justice!

Kools was suspended that day. As he walked out of the hall, alone, his back was a bloody mess of blood and sweat. He never returned to school. I met him years later, on two different occasions, and could not look him in the eye.

How do I understand jungle justice? There’s a part of me which wanted to say that I was not in any way involved in the humiliation of Kools – but my conscience could never let that be. The feeling of guilt was very distinct, and shame too, whenever I walked past that locker that we once shared. Maybe I was too young, too powerless to do anything, but so were each of those boys who mobbed him, except bound together as we were, in that dorm, we became a savage mob of monsters, each innocent child become a tool in bizarre system of heartless wickedness, including the ones who did nothing but stare in shame.

So what is the attraction to jungle justice, and why does it pervade our society so? If ‘innocent’ children could not be grossed out by the sight of blood, drawn by their savage scourging from the body of a boy they knew and lived with, does it not pass a dark sentence of guilt on our collective sense of humanity, or lack thereof?

Maybe this savagery and lack of human kindness is something we are born with, or buried deep inside of us. Else, why would kids in secondary schools engage in jungle justice, which could easily have taken the life of another? Why would children be so numbed against cruelty, and not see past a misdemeanor to the humanity of the victims?

Jungle justice is in our towns, in our markets, in our churches. Jungle justice is promoted in our homes, through Nollywood. I knew thieves in Uyo were burned with tyres, long before I knew the meaning of the words “ole ole,” which could get you mobbed on Lagos streets.

Maybe it’s something deeper than a numbing of nerves and the absence of law. Maybe it’s planted deep in our psyche, because many who vilified the Aluu community, including the students who rioted afterwards in protest, and indeed many of us, have jungle justice back in our towns and villages as part of our culture. Remember that thief who was caught in the village, and made to walk naked with the item he stole? Remember the kid who was beaten in the market for stealing food?

What about the little witch? Or that old witch?

I didn’t have an old witch, but I knew a man who did. Or who was told he did. My next experience with jungle justice was the most gruesome, despicable, barbaric thing I have ever seen. It was Eket, in 1999. When I saw it, I didn’t see the depth of evil before my eyes. I was told witches were being shown justice – I couldn’t help those victims, I was far too young, but I asked no questions either.

Before I became a free spirited humanist, I was raised in a deeply spiritual home. I was raised to believe in God, in Jesus and His holy church, and witches. Besides praying for improvements in the lives of church members, witches took a disproportionate amount of prayer time in my parents’ local church, and those of their friends. In those days, I knew the devil had dark powers, but he had nothing on the power of witches and wizards, because the devil was just one guy, but witches, they were everywhere, openly and under camouflage. They were the known ones, like that wrinkly old woman in church no one spoke to, because everyone knew she was a witch, or those unknown ones who may even be living with you. Then there were those ones who usually happened to be relatives, or house helps, or those people who’s faces just weren’t beautiful enough.

Whatever forms witches came in, the fact was irrevocable: they were everywhere, and they were wreaking havoc in everyone’s homes. We all wanted them gone, but it didn’t seem we prayed enough, and they kept limiting progress in all homes. There seemed no way to stop the witches, until one day, a holy army came to town, charged with the mission to wipe every witch from the surface of the earth. This army, on a holy mission descended into town, from where, we didn’t know yet, armed with a list vetted by trusted prophets, a list of witches and wizards who’s days had come. They were fearless; they were invincible. They were called Ukan

Ukan was a vigilante group, which seemingly influenced and supported by uber-spiritual leaders, came to power as a no-nonsense group of warriors, who’s primary brief was to rid towns and villages of their witches. Weeks before, we had heard snippets of their exploits – the routine was simple: a great prophet made a list of witches in town, and Ukan came in, took them out to an open field and beat them to death. From the discussions I overheard in town, it didn’t seem people could wait for it to be their town’s turn to welcome the crusaders. After all, didn’t the Bible say “suffer not the witch to live?”

I cannot remember what day of the week it was, but I think it was my dad’s voice that woke us up. He was in an animated conversation with someone on our porch, and it didn’t take long to realize from his conversation, that Ukan had arrived in our neck of the woods. The person my dad was speaking with had come to tell him, and they quickly drove out.

My dad’s accounts later, of what he had seen was laced with a lot of drama, as my dad often tells his stories, but the simple facts were that people, who had been confirmed witches and wizards by a prophet were simply rounded up, some chased down, and taken to an open field, where they were currently being beaten till they die. According to my dad, there was a huge crowd, cheering.

Later that day, we walked down the road, about half a mile to the scene of the lynching. There was a large crowd, scattered around a general area covered by thick grass, forming a circle roughly three hundred feet wide. In the middle of this circle were about 20 young men, sweaty and covered with sprays of blood and pieces of flesh. They had planks, sticks, whips, batons and cutlasses, and scattered on the ground were men, woman, boys and girls, the targets of an indescribable assault. They were all covered with blood. We could tell that some of them were still alive, because we could hear horrible howls and grunts whenever they were hit, but none of them was moving. We had reached the clearing at about 5pm, which meant those poor souls had endured over 12 hours of deadly violence. Many had died already.

Every now and then, the leader of the Ukan boys would walk around with a bottle of local gin, gargle on the gin for a moment, and blow a huge spray in the direction of the mutilated bodies on the ground. A ghoulish cry rent the air as the stinging alcohol made contact with the fresh, open wounds. It was a scene to much to bear. We retreated.

When I left the clearing after 15 minutes of untainted wickedness, I cannot say I felt very sorry for the men and women who were being murdered.  I could not bring myself to watch the violent beatings with machetes and planks, and indeed closed my eyes so I could not see, but I did not feel sorry for the victims. I couldn’t watch their suffering, but my heart suffered no pains as to why they were being murdered.  I had been told that these people were witches and wizards.

The dead by that public lynching, the ‘witches’, did not deserve the decency of burial, so many who tried to collect the bodies of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters were made to go through shameful processes, in order to do so, besides the monies they had to pay to Ukan as a collection fee.

I knew a man in my church, who’s aged mother, that woman no one spoke to because ‘everyone knew’, was killed. Another man in church lost his father. His brother had also been listed and beaten up, but the teenager was lucky that one of the senior Ukan boys was friends with a cousin of his, who arranged for his release, having parted with N10,000 cash. I can’t remember any witches drawn from any of the high income oil workers’ homes.

Everybody was happy that the witches and wizards were gone. I remember my dad encouraging his friend from church, who had lost his father, to “cheer up that things will get better”. The other things he said, I cannot bring myself to put down, but realized later, were the most inhumane, inconsiderate kinds of words one could ever speak to another man. Even sadder still, they were honest words of encouragement – my dad truly believed witches and wizards had been killed that day. For the sake of perspective, my dad received his Masters Degree in 1983, and I remember clearly, he was driving our green Mercedes that day.

Over the next couple of weeks, more lists were compiled, this time from a wider selection of families (still none from the witch-free high income families), and people’s parents started to disappear, rumoured to have left town to avoid being lynched.

Everyone was happy that holy justice was come to town. Everyone but the people who lost their relatives in the first public lynching. Rumours started flying that the bereaved families were helping the police identify Ukan members. People reported to the church to caution their members who had lost relatives, to desist from obstructing the holy crusade. It wasn’t long before the police moved from clandestine operations to full on mass arrests. Within weeks, the almighty, invincible Ukan was destroyed, leaving behind rather ordinary young men in police cells.

Rumours also said people who could bail their sons were able to get them out of the police cells, but the ones who could not faced an uncertain wait, for no action had yet been decided for the arrested ex-crusaders. I still do not know what happened to them.

I heard the story of the Aluu4 late, but when I did, I made every effort to ensure I do not see the graphic images. Over the last 12 years, I had grown quite sensitive, and have refused my eyes to see any bloody violence, even in films. I was going to keep my ‘innocent’ detachment undefiled by refusing to see either the images or the video of that murderous mob. I was successful until Wednesday evening.

I was reading a YNaija article, and was scrolling to the bottom of the page, when I saw it. It took a moment to settle, but when I finally realized what I was looking at, it was too late and the image was stuck in my head. At that moment, I began to remember.  It was about 14 years ago, when I walked through the crowd at the Ukan killing field, but over the years, I had grown quite sophisticated and non-violent. My worldview had become quite mature and civilized, and I, very principled in my stance towards violence. And I had forgotten.

In the wake of the Aluu murders, my Twitter timeline was overflowing with condemnation of the senseless, heartless violence against the innocent young men. The recurring phrase on social networks was that Aluu was cursed, the worst community in the entire country. I was overcome with grief too. I could not understand why we could be so mean and heartless, or why we couldn’t let the authorities do their job, if indeed the boys had committed criminal offences (It turned out they hadn’t stolen anything). Most of all, I felt a great sadness and anger at the people who had the nerve to support the lynching, because the community had been a routine victim of armed robbery. How on earth could people be so barbaric?

My response to Aluu was true and righteous, until the moment I saw those pictures and my heart tore away at my memories. But why are we so violent? Why are we so drawn to public humiliation and murder? Where did this murderous trait come from, and how did it become entrenched in our schools, communities and religious doctrine. We cannot deny that our communities are a foundation for mob justice. Most communities have traditions which support mob justice, or walking criminals through public places stripped of their dignity and humanity. We cannot deny either, that our places of worship have actively supported mob action and murder, in the name of ‘cleansing’, killing witches and wizards.

Because our communities are the beds from which these seeds of violence germinated, we are all guilty. Every one of us, whose community walks people through the streets for theft, kills witches, and drives evil people out of the community, every one of us is guilty of the crime at Aluu. We all are.

But guilt is easier to share behind the anonymity of community. So I will face my shame, the I too, am guilty. Not the broad guilt of a public rhetoric, but actual guilt for mob violence I must bear responsibility for.

It was my final year in secondary school. I was 15. My mum had met this boy who was a year my junior, in church, and handed him an envelope to bring back to me. Inside was a letter and a few thousand naira.  I cannot remember how much the money was, or if I had sent this boy (who was a friend’s cousin) to pick the package from my mum, but I do remember that it was about two weeks later that I heard from my mum that she had sent the package. When I confronted the boy, he admitted the package had indeed been given to him but he’d forgotten at home. He was one of those boys who went home every weekend, so we just agreed for him to bring it back the next weekend.

Over the next three weeks, I endured countless excuses, which hurt because my mum not only sent cash, but a letter. In the end, I decided I would go with him to his home, to get my package. I did go with him to his house, but when we got there, he asked me to wait outside while he goes in to pick it up. He didn’t return for two hours. When he did, he came with an envelope which had been opened, telling me his dad had taken the money for safe keeping. We only had to go to his dad’s shop to pick it up. We did not find his dad’s store for another 3 hours, wandering every street in town. In the end, he pointed me to his dad’s office – it was a one storey building, of which his dad’s office was the ground floor. It was all good, except that house he pointed to used to be my uncle’s home, the top floor, and the bottom floor was the home of my friend and classmate. At that moment, I lost it and swung two or three slaps at his face. I walked away and went back to school, not caring how he managed to get back.

When I got back, I recounted the story to my friends, who bayed for blood from the get go. Because I wasn’t much of a violent person, but for the odd moment of anger, I didn’t stay to hear whatever they had planned, but I said nothing to prevent what happened next.

The night after the boy had returned, he was dragged out by my friends, past my room, where I lay on a bunk backing the courtyard windows, and beaten very badly. I was not the biggest 15 year old in my time, and most of my friends were 16, 17 and 18, but I always had a voice, and held a good level of respect with the older boys. If I had told them to let that boy go, there was a decent chance that they would have, but I said nothing. I did nothing. I did not watch them beat him, I still was too sensitive to watch, but I did not feel any pity towards that boy. He was a thief and he deserved it.

I did not see that boy for a few days, but when I did, his entire back was covered with weals and small wounds from the beating he had received. I was in trouble then, because he had eventually found courage to risk expulsion for theft, and report me to the principal. The punishment for bullying was public whipping at the Assembly Hall, and my friends had advised me to stay away from assembly, but I didn’t. When it was time to receive my whipping, I refused to lay down, and vowed to fight anyone, student or staff who dared try to force me.

The irony – I let a boy be beaten  to a pulp, but I would not let myself be whipped for fear my pride would be hurt.

I was not whipped, but was was suspended indefinitely. When my parents dragged me back with them for the summons, there were loud cheers as we drove up the avenue; my mum was in tears. Because I was a top student, and maybe also because of my parents, I was not expelled. My suspension was made definite, two weeks. I returned to school a hero; the boy who stood up the principal and won.

And never in that time did I think I was guilty of anything. Until now.

I realize in this moment, that nothing can ever take away the guilt of that fact, that if not for me, that boy would never have been mobbed. If I had not reported that issue, knowing the dangers that lay in that report, then what happened to that poor boy would never have happened. It gets worse, when I realize that nothing I would ever do now, would erase those scars from his body, or the unseen ones, etched eternally on his soul.

So I have begun to search, through old school mates, who may have a number for that boy who got beaten. I may never be able to face him again, but I will start with a call, to tell him, for that wrong that I did him 14 years ago, that I am sorry.