Academic journal article African Studies Review

Juju and Justice at the Movies: Vigilantes in Nigerian Popular Videos

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Juju and Justice at the Movies: Vigilantes in Nigerian Popular Videos

Article excerpt


This article examines the rise of vigilantism in southeastern Nigeria. Two opposing discourses on Nigerian vigilantism are examined. The first is characterized by the valorization of vigilantes as heroes in popular Nigerian video movies. The second is represented by a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report denouncing the vigilantes as criminals. My research utilizes ethnographic research to contextualize the video movies as a means toward understanding the ideological gap between these discourses. A close analysis of the Issakaba video series reveals a subtle treatment of the vigilante phenomenon designed to appeal to an indigenous perspective that is cognizant of the inherent risks of vigilante justice but also aware of the limitations of reform strategies such as those proposed by the HRW report.

Résumé: Cet article examine la montée du vigilantisme dans le sud est du Nigeria. Il analyse deux discours opposés sur le vigilantisme nigérien. Le premier est caractérisé par la valorisation des membres de groupes qui s'emparent de la loi pour administrer leur propre justice jusqu'à en faire des héros dans les films vidéo populaires nigériens. Le second est représenté par un rapport récemment publié par Human Rights Watch (HRW) dénonçant les membres des organisations vigilantistes comme des criminels. Ma recherche utilise la recherche ethnographique afin de contextualiser les films vidéo et de les interpréter comme un moyen pour comprendre l'écart idéologique qui sépare ces deux discours. Une analyse approfondie de la série vidéo Issakaba révèle un traitement subtil du phénomène du vigilantisme dans le but d'attirer une perspective indigène consciente des risques inhérents à la justice prodiguée par le vigilantisme, mais sensibilisée aux limites que présentent les stratégies de réforme comme celles qui sont proposées par le rapport de HRW.

I WAS TRAVELING ACROSS southern Nigeria from Enugu to Lagos in what Nigerians call a "luxury bus." Packed with people, the large coach alternated between rocketing down stretches of expressway that were relatively pothole free and crawling slowly over the long tracks of road that were more pothole than pavement. It would be a full day of travel and as usual, a salesman provided entertainment for part of the journey. Before peddling his wares, he led the passengers in a few hymns and then gave a sermon in which he petitioned Jesus to protect the bus from violent attack. Utterances from the passengers enthusiastically endorsed this sentiment. Luxury buses had become a favorite target for the armed robbers that plague Nigeria's roads and markets. Just a few weeks earlier, robbers on this very route had forced a bus like this to a stop, and thirty passengers were murdered.

Thus bus sermons provide a modicum of comfort to Nigerians who seek security in an increasingly perilous environment. Understanding this helps one to appreciate the poignancy of the opening scene of Issakaba 2, the second in an extremely popular Nigerian video movie series about armed robbers and the vigilantes, or "Bakassi Boys," that have mobilized to stop them. The movie opens with an inspiring sermon on a luxury bus. The preacher shouts, "I pray that none of you meet any robber today, in Jesus' name!" and the passengers respond with a resounding "Amen!" He then smiles ironically and says, "Brethren, I don't know how effective that prayer was... Because, you are face to face with an armed robber!" Suddenly brandishing a gun, he walks down the aisle demanding money and jewelry from the passengers. Along the way he grabs a baby from its mother and points his gun at its head as the mother begs pitifully for mercy. This dramatic transition from religious comfort to abject terror in the opening scene of the movie resonates with the anxiety Nigerians feel about the pervasive violence that has become an increasingly prevalent fact in their lives.

On our bus, however, the preacher was of the ordinary sort. …

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