12 October 2012

Nigeria: Justice in the Twittersphere for Lynched Nigerian Students?

Lagos — Thousands of Nigerians have been murdered and killed by insurgency attacks in the last two years, but no such death witnessed the level of outrage as that of the fatal lynching of four students of the University of Port Harcourt in the oil-rich city. A battle to bring their killers to justice is now playing out online. Some Nigerians believe social media has come to the rescue.

Under allegations that they stole mobile phones and a laptop, the four young men were victims of a mob attack one week ago. They were stripped naked and beaten to a pulp before being set ablaze in the presence of a crowd in the local university community known as Aluu.

This mob action, which is popularly known as jungle justice in Nigeria, was filmed with a mobile phone and uploaded to YouTube. Outrage expressed online and in street protests ensued, as Nigerians continue to demand justice for the slain youth.

Nigeria's leading female blogger Linda Ikeji broke the news, though refused to upload the video of the killing shortly after it happened. She told RNW that "people are outraged because we can see what happened in Aluu and not just [by watching] the news" - the possibility of which she affirmed was enabled by social media.

Power of the hashtag

"The video from Aluu sure played the biggest factor in the outrage and demand for justice," Ikeji said.

By contrast "what happened in Mubi is like hearsay", she said, referring to the murder earlier this month of some 40 students in the country's north. In Ikeji's opinion, the Mubi massacre did not cause similar reactions as the Port Harcourt lynching because "there are no names, no pictures and no family has even come out to grieve".

Female activist and Space4Change founder Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri echoed Ikeji. "Aluu killings [are] another testament of the force and power of the social media," she told RNW.

"In recent times, Nigerians have been inundated with news of killings, massacres and violent terror attacks. The inability of advocates to put a face to those stories [has] seen citizens showing scant interest in demanding justice and accountability from the perpetrators."

"But all that changed in the case of #Aluu4," Ibezim-Ohaeri said of the hashtagged Twitter topic. "The filming of the Aluu killings and the YouTube uploads, particularly, amplified the message of injustice, put specific human faces to the stories, fueling outrage across the globe."

The blogger underscored how reactions were not limited to Nigeria. "That singular act powerfully demonstrates the capacity of the social media to influence public opinion, perceptions and activate the inherent collective action potentials of citizens," she said.

Government's change of heart

Earlier in the year, Senator David Mark suggested a possible clampdown on social media, citing it as a potential menace to Nigerian society. The president of the senate noted how such forms of technology can be used to demean leaders. "The need to check the social media became necessary, as [social media users] do not have the avenue for retraction of whatever they had done," he said.

But on Tuesday in an address to parliament, Senator Mark admitted that "with the help of social media, the faces of the killers of the boys were identified".

A series of agitation and clamour continue across Nigerian cyberspace. The topic #Justiceforaluu4 has also been created on Twitter. A one million signatory petition, launched by Anthony Akabogu, hopes to mount further pressure on the government, ensuring that the culprits be brought to book.

Ikeji, for one, has vowed to take the anger collectively expressed on the internet to another level. "I am going to use this online outrage to press for a demand that a bill must be passed to criminalize mob action such as lynching a thief, rapist or anyone else," she said, "because what we call jungle justice is jungle injustice."

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