In the first part of this series we looked at the concept of the Social Contract, an agreement between citizens to submit to the rule of a government in order for society to exist peacefully. In the second part, we considered how the government of Nigeria has been failing to keep up its side of the contract.
And so the logical next thing to look at is how the citizens are forced to respond once it is established that the contract has been rendered null and void. First on the list is, of course, security, because that is the key clause in this contract; that the citizens surrender the responsibilities of maintaining security to the government, which shall then arbitrate when there are disputes. Because what is arguably the greatest concern is man’s ability to live in peace and pursue his progress without undue interference.
First we should probably be a bit clear on what the government’s role, security-wise, is and why we citizens deemed fit to give it such awesome power over us. As mentioned in the first part, without the state to settle disputes, once I commit an offence against you (steal your land, kill your family, etc) it automatically puts you and I in a state of war because I have visited an injustice upon you, causing an imbalance in the scales. And so I would need to be paid back in like measure, both to settle the matter and also to serve as a deterrent for any would-be offender. In other words…
All of us have felt the pang for revenge, so I needn’t try to explain it. But sometimes this need for revenge, and yes it is a basic human need, reaches a crescendo and has to be released. Revenge, it turns out, is a complex emotion that’s pretty much ingrained in humans but which we rarely ever acknowledge and, thus, most of us don’t really understand it. Rather we cover it up, try to ignore it, and try to move on with our lives, essentially allowing the wound to fester. You should really read this piece for a good explanation of the main points, but I will mention most as I write.
Why is revenge a basic human need? Well, it turns out that revenge is not simply about selfish satisfaction but, on a deeper level, also about justice and the balance of society. Essentially, when a wrong is committed it is the role of justice to right that wrong and return balance to the world. This allows society to continue to function and communities to coexist because all within deem it to be fair. Also revenge is in some ways an evolutionary response necessary for human survival. Man being a social creature, we are bound to have altercations and confrontations with each other. Revenge, as a response, is meant to establish to both the other party as well as others that we are not to be trifled with, that no slight will go unpunished, a kind of deterrent.
But therein lies the problem. Who should mete out this vengeance? And how exactly should it be carried out? The old text probably over-simplified by declaring “an eye for an eye”; it sounds logical and fair, but when you attempt to apply it in this context you run into trouble. Remember, there is neither state nor judge to decide what a fair punishment is and to execute said punishment. So you are left with individuals having to both decide on appropriateness and also carry it out. The first problem is obvious; if I am stronger than you then you cannot carry out the act of vengeance. The second problem is a bit more subtle; if you do carry out the act of vengeance, psychologists have discovered that I will be very likely to deem it as unfair and over the top, causing me to want to even the scores, creating an almost never-ending loop. Here’s an example in real life:
- West ignores Russian objections while drawing its neighbors into NATO
- Pro-Russian Ukrainian government overthrown, Ukraine decides to move closer to NATO
- Russia views it as Western interference and annexes Crimea
- West believes Russia overreacted and imposes sanctions
- Russia believes sanctions are unfair and impose their own sanctions
- Russia also intervenes in Syria on the side of President Assad
- West believes Russia went too far (again) and further freezes out Russian
- Russia believes West is again overreacting and fires up its hacking department
- West believes Russia is out of line. US expels Russian diplomats
You see what I mean? Keep in mind that this short timeline does not include the petty acts like banning American citizens from adopting Russian children, apparently in retaliation for American attempts to punish Russian “human rights abuses.” And so, since we can clearly see that vengeance creates the impression in the offender that the punishment is unnecessarily harsh, we recognize that we need to avoid getting into that loop. Luckily, there is a ready solution because, as someone once said, revenge is…
Best Served Cold
“Cold” in this instance meaning without the passion of anger, with clarity of mind and purpose, and without the emotional drive that would typify an act of revenge in the heat of the moment by the person who has been wronged. Which is where the state comes into its own. Because it is (supposed to be) impartial and independent of the two warring parties, it is in the best position to examine the offence, as well as the circumstances, history, etc. and decide on an appropriate punishment.
If we look at the laws of the land, as well as enforcement, we can still detect elements of revenge within it. Not quite an eye for an eye but the law does make attempts to rectify wrongs by evening the score. This is why crimes such as fraud and theft are not decided in courts of law by simply having the thief return the goods, but rather they recognise it’s not just about the items, but also the violation of the victim’s rights that needs addressing. And the concept of punitive damages is very clearly a factor of revenge since it takes into account what sort of financial punishment would hurt the perpetrator, rather than having a fixed sum as punishment. So revenge is not all bad, but does have its benefits to society. As a more contemporary example, we need only look at the new law in Lagos state which prescribes the death penalty for kidnappers who murder their victims. That is as clear a case of vengeful law as you will find.
Secondly, the state also has been granted awesome firepower to enforce the punishment. This is a key part of the social contract, the part often referred to as “monopoly of violence”, that the citizens give the state sole power to exercise violence on our behalf, and we have given it a lot of power in that regard.
And that is where the Nigerian state has failed its citizens again, because there is little to no chance of having the state deliver that revenge for you. And so, logically, one must deliver the revenge oneself, deciding subjectively how much of that revenge is appropriate. Unfortunately, because of the difficulty of being objective in such situations, the punishment meted out is rarely proportional. And what makes the situation even worse is that the alleged offender suffers revenge not just for their perceived slight, but for other, pretty much unrelated, slights from other actors.
Here’s what I mean. Corrupt government officials pocket the money that’s meant for bettering our society, we all know that. And then the security agencies, a law unto themselves, take it in turns with other government agencies to harass innocent citizens, in the process robbing them of their dignity, livelihoods, even their very lives. In all this, the poor victim has no recourse for justice and must console himself with the conviction that “there is God.” But even that conviction is short-lived, and does nothing to address the feelings of injustice, loss of human dignity and decency, or the desire for revenge. And so when an opportunity presents itself to exact retribution on another Nigerian who is just as powerless, this person transfers unto the victim of their revenge (I know, I keep calling everyone a victim. We all are, really) the partial identity of the state and/or its membership (politicians, their cronies or their agents).
Feeling of powerlessness turns good men cruel.
- “Alfred” in the movie, Dawn of Justice
And when you have situations like that which we find ourselves here in Nigeria, pretty much everything is gone out the window. First of all, that monopoly of violence that we refer to? It does not exist here anymore because the government has consistently shared that power with violent groups whom we the citizens did not at any point give these powers to. The government will, of course, claim that it did not give the power to these groups either but by their actions or inaction they have given tacit approval to them to share in the power that we insisted must be wielded by the state alone. Because when the state allows a group to go on a killing spree through multiple states unchecked and pretty much unopposed, it is an admission that the government is unable, unwilling or otherwise to do its duty. In fact when I said “killing spree through multiple states” just there you probably couldn’t tell whether I was talking about Boko Haram or Fulani herdsmen. Which is exactly the point, really.
Secondly, if we were to excuse the inaction of the government in protecting citizens from those who would do us harm, thereby forcing us into a state of war with them, it would then be important for the state to show that it can and will exact revenge on our behalf, as the contract requires. But here too the performance has been less than stellar. The courts of law are not known to give justice to those most in need of it. Indeed, even if the courts were to deliver a verdict, there is no guarantee that the executive branch would be bothered to enforce it.
This creates a situation where the average citizen feels the injustice that comes with rule by law, but is unable to act against those who have wronged him. At least until he finds a worthy cause provided by an insurrectionist with a penchant for passionate, rousing speech.
And so, what recourse is the Nigerian citizen left?
Vengeance is Mine
When the state will neither protect nor avenge you, it leaves the average citizen feeling very alone indeed. These people, who already take responsibility for their healthcare, electricity, water and home security, as well as taking care of random other Nigerians (more on that next time), now find that they also have to devise means in which to protect and/or avenge themselves from people with firepower that only the state should have, people that the state appears to tolerate. However, since no man exists in a bubble, it becomes a community affair.
And this is probably the reason why a large number of weapons are suddenly being imported into the country. The incident with the truck full of guns is interesting because that cache appears to have come through the Lagos port but if you consider the largest perpetrators of violence in Nigeria, it is unlikely that they would use the Lagos port. Militants in the Niger Delta already have access to open waters and so docking cargo in Lagos before driving it overland to the creeks is madness. Boko Haram might be suffering from having their regular supply routes cut off but then, considering that the weapons are “pump action rifles”, it is hardly the sort of weapon you would use to commit mass murder, let alone fight an army with. And Fulani herdsmen are famously all over West Africa so they probably wouldn’t need ports. No, my money is on those guns being brought in for community defence. And, if they’re actually shotguns as reported, then it’s even more interesting because those are practically the only firearms Nigerian law allows private citizens to own (albeit with many caveats). So it then becomes a case of breaking one law (importation) while making sure to keep in line with another law (ownership); an indication that the people importing these weapons have lost faith in the government, but maybe not the state.
Bonus Reading: Extraordinary Effects
In June of last year, a woman was brutally murdered by a mob in Kano state, after which the state government announced that it had arrested five in connection with the murder. Not long afterward, the five suspects arrested for this heinous crime were released and charges against them dropped without ever going past a magistrate’s court (which apparently does not have jurisdiction on capital crimes anyway). While dropping charges against men identified by the victim’s husband, an eyewitness, is astounding, my particular focus here is on the crime, and what I suspect helped lead up to it.
Sadly, murder by mob is a common occurrence in Nigeria, and I have written about a previous occurrence and how it concerns us all. This time, I will present a different argument.
First of all, I suspect that such murders are not unconnected to feelings of revenge. Revenge is known as retaliatory aggression because the behaviour is aggressive in response to provocation. But the truth is the provocation must not necessarily be from the person who becomes the focus of that aggression. In our daily lives we are taken advantage of by the government and its cronies and allies, with no recourse for justice. Whatever the government and its agents do to you, an average Nigerian, you just have to swallow it because there is nothing that can be done to return your dignity, property, freedom or life. There is neither justice nor restitution available to the average Nigerian from the aggravations of the state and its agents. To make matters worse, the state rarely bothers to address the not-insignificant matter of arbitrating justice between the citizens.
And so when there is a perceived slight or infringement by one party on another, a mob is quick to form to carry out instant justice, in part because each and every one of us still has open, festering wounds and that desire for revenge doesnt always go away. Interestingly, revenge can be motivated by satisfaction and pleasure, both positive emotions, sometimes more than the negative ones. Which is probably why carrying out the act of revenge itself gives a pleasurable feeling, but it afterward gives a negative feeling. And so exacting revenge on some other poor soul could be a good feeling indeed, however temporary. I think that needs to be looked into.
“The vast majority of these mass killings, are motivated by revenge…Most of these perpetrators have led a life of frustration and depression over a long period of time.”
- Prof. Jack Levin, co-director, Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict, describing what drives people to commit mass killings.
The words above could easily refer to the perpetrators of mob killings. It also shows that revenge-inspired killings are not alien to Nigeria, but can be found all over the world, albeit in different forms. However, it does appear that proper rule of law significantly affects how many people actually commit these acts. Because when the police do their job and the courts work, they are a good recourse for those who feel they have been wronged. After all, one downside to revenge is that it leaves you uncomfortable, never knowing when the other party will pay back in your own coin. It also does not give lasting satisfaction, but rather keeps you dwelling on the offense much more than if you had forgiven. But if that revenge is carried out by the state then it is much less likely that the person being punished will attempt to take revenge. So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I must reiterate that I do not see how peace and security can be achieved in a country with this many diverse interests, beliefs and systems until the entire government insists that rule of law must take precedence and apply to all equally. Until the Nigerian constitution becomes the holy book for Nigerians, we will keep shuffling from side to side, even while going backward.
And so when officials declare that they want communities, states and the nation as a whole to live in peace with each other, I would like for them to recognize that the underlying feeling of vengeance needs to be carefully considered. Rebuilding houses does not create homes, nor does it address the rebuilding of a communal spirit because, as we have seen, balance has to be restored in order for a lasting peace to be achieved. To be clear, this does not mean punishing every single crime without mercy because the balance is born out of fairness, rather than the actual meting out of punishment.
“You won’t be excusing what the person did, you will not be forgetting (lest it happen again), and importantly you will not throw justice away. Forgiveness and justice will exist side by side.
- Robert Enwright, founder, International Forgiveness Institute
Another thing to do, if you truly are interested in generating a lasting peace, is to ensure you give voice to victims. Attempting to cover up the gravity of crimes does nobody any good, and further creates doubts and suspicions. In this vein, I would like to see something like a truth and reconciliation panel set up, inviting victims from all sides to come and talk in turn. This is very important because until the victims can have their voices heard, a lot of them do not fully heal of their psychological wounds, which could lead to unfortunate actions in the future. Courts in other countries have been allowing for Victim Impact Statements, where those hurt by (usually violent) crimes have the opportunity to speak to the perpetrator as well as the entire court on how their lives have been permanently changed. It is well worth looking into for our country struggles with violent crime.
Until next time.