Last week, a video showing the lynching of four young men was uploaded to the internet. The four were branded thieves, and their treatment regarded as the sort of justice meted out to their ilk when Lady Luck decided that she had wantonly twirled her skirts in their direction for the last time. Within hours, however, a different picture began to emerge. Firstly, it was ascertained that these four were not the usual sort to fall victim to this sort of treatment, being undergraduate students of the University of Port Harcourt. Their identities soon followed, and justice became travesty in the blink of an eye. Social media erupted in frenzied calls for justice (the real kind this time) and outpourings of rage and grief followed.

The public lynching of thieves has been going on for decades, and whether it happens in Lagos, Kano, Onitsha or anywhere else, once the justice of the mob has been done, we have moved on calmly. It has even been a running joke that even in times of petrol scarcity, someone would always turn up with a can of petrol and a tyre for the burning of the thief. It is considered so normal that it is never done in secret, which is why someone felt comfortable filming the event, probably with the intention of letting other potential thieves know that their treatment would not be any different from what would obtain in any big city. It is why the crowd chanted “DIE! DIE! DIE!” while those boys were being bludgeoned before they were set ablaze.

Yesterday morning, the mother of one of the victims presented a petition to the Senate in which she vigorously defended her son, denouncing the accusations of theft, pointing out that the young man could not have stolen a BlackBerry or laptop as he had been accused of doing having had access to such things since he was a child as the son of a senior NNPC official. She demanded justice for her son, demanded that this investigation not be swept under the rug like countless others before it. I cannot pretend to comprehend her grief, or her pain. Her son was murdered like an animal while people stood by and shouted encouragement to his killers, and the entire barbaric spectacle was filmed and uploaded to the internet for the world to see.

In the last week, 43 students of the Federal Polytechnic at Mubi in Adamawa state, were murdered. Some had their throats slit, others were lined up against walls and shot. I must ask the question though, where are the petitions from their parents? Are the Mubi 43 not equally deserving of justice? Or is it because there are no videos of those gruesome murders that we have all but dismissed them out of hand? Is that what it takes to inflame the passions of the social media generation?

The reaction to the murder of the “Aluu4” as they have come to be known, has raised for me a very troubling thought. You see, I would wager everything I own that had those four young men been easily identified as “rough sorts” or come from the lower classes, we would have collectively shrugged at their fate, said, “Shit happens” and moved on with our lives. We would have recognised the barbarism, but it wouldn’t have troubled us that much because that’s the sort of thing that happens to that sort of person. However, these four were not apprentice mechanics or cleaners, they were middle class lads, and now, we are outraged and we demand justice at the top of our hashtags. Our inner snobs flutter their handkerchiefs in dismay that the Quality of the young men was not recognised by the mob. The hypocrisy would choke an anaconda.

Our “justice system” is skewed the same way. A man who steals ₦5000 will spend years in jail, but a man who steals ₦50 billion from the public purse will get a few months, most of which he will spend in luxury hospitals on “medical grounds” while eating the best food available to him and not common prison fare. Not for him the sharing of a cell with 20 other inmates and washing himself with his underpants and having to wear the same underpants while they dry. As an upper class criminal, he will have a private cell to himself on those days he deigns to dwell in the prison compound, and can enjoy conjugal visits with his wives.

That it took the treatment of these four middle class youths like “common” criminals to shake us out of our collective apathy is the greatest tragedy to emerge from the events in Aluu. And, even as we demand that their murderers are brought to justice, we must recognise that we all share some responsibility for what happened, for we have been comfortable to live as members of a society which offers such starkly different treatment for the criminally inclined: instant death for the petty thief at the hands of the mob, and spa-like conditions for those who gorge themselves on our collective wealth.

We might want to hope that this will be the last time someone is branded a thief by the mob and killed, but I won’t be holding my breath. For even as I write this, the jocular BlackBerry broadcasts about Aluu have begun arriving.