The human affinity for blood sport is both ancient and long standing. But there is an even more distressing angle to viewing man-made evil and horror. In the age of digital technology capturing gory scenes of anguish and death is strangely becoming de rigueur. And recorded death and horror in real time prove our almost limitless capacity for evil.
Recently, a friend sent me a video via WhatsApp that left me both dazed and aghast. He hadn't sent a note of warning to alert me beforehand as to the contents of the video. Just the video itself with a brief disclaimer tacked to the end stating that "viewer discretion is advised".
The video was about the gruesome decapitation of a naked and weary-looking woman. Beside her was the lifeless body of a partially, or perhaps even, completely decapitated man. The events were filmed in eastern Nigeria.
I was struck by the objectification and dehumanisation of the woman. They signify the banality of life and death at the same time. Her dehumanising death also betrays an alarming as well as illicit and baleful kind of power that casually dispenses with life. Coupled with 'the heart of darkness', that lies within humanity, we also feel a gargantuan nothingness in the manner in which the victims were summarily dispatched.
From an entirely different perspective, the way she was mutilated strongly suggests ritual murder, a phenomenon known throughout Africa. Suddenly, death acquires tremendous meaning beyond a mere act of irrevocable violation. Death serves the occult, and vice versa.
These are among the most shocking images I have ever seen. As it turns out, the victims were Linus Audu, a retired private with the Nigerian Army, and his still serving military wife, Gloria Matthew. They had journeyed to eastern Nigeria for their traditional wedding ceremony where they were accosted by terrorists.
I had barely recovered from seeing the video of Elvis Nyathi's dastardly killing during the upsurge of xenophobic violence in the townships of Gauteng, South Africa, which has been fuelled by Operation Dudula. Nyathi's limbs were set on fire and as he rolled around in agony, he was clubbed repeatedly by two or three men. Another assailant poured some accelerant on the burning man. Bystanders watched with evident glee.
The killers and spectators were bonded by complicity and inhumanity. An innocent man was burnt alive for no reason other than he wasn't from South Africa. Needless to add, it was too hard to process so I filed the memory at the farthest recesses of my mind in the hope the images would just fade away.
The African continent has produced some of the most distressing video images ever. For instance, the killing of Master Sergeant Samuel Doe by Prince Yormie Johnson's goons in Liberia in 1990. Doe himself was a heartless dictator who reduced his country to squalor, chronic dysfunction and disillusionment.
When he was about to be killed, he was stripped to his bloodstained white underwear with his arms tied behind his back pleading for dear life. Yormie refused to budge while Doe whimpered and implored. Doe was taunted, tormented and tortured to death. It was a dastardly end to a dastardly reign. But his inhumane death trumps even his atrocities.
These heinous acts of murder and mayhem ought not to fan the sort of fears that plagued the English novelist, Joseph Conrad, as he travelled over the intriguing waters of the Congo River during the dawn of the colonial era. Undoubtedly, barbarity lies at the epicentre of modernity as the transatlantic slave trade and the first and second world wars attest.
Conrad had called the Congo "the heart of darkness" and thus it was the sacred duty of avaricious colonialists and incorrigible racists to bring "the light of civilisation" to a continent blighted by superstition, ignorance and barbarity. They were further emboldened by the Vatican-sanctioned injunction, "Exterminate all the brutes!"
In 1996, Swedish author, Sven Lindqvist published a colonialist tract with no less a title, Exterminate all the Brutes. The rise of neo-Nazi and extreme nationalist sentiments all over Europe and America in the 21st century keeps racist tropes alive. In warring Ukraine, Africans were tossed off freedom bound trains on account of their skin colour as they scrambled to flee; their safety and humanity unacknowledged and undermined.
The footage of Rodney King being stomped out by a bunch of berserk Los Angeles Police Department cops who looked more like gangster bikers is no less shocking. Still in the US, George Floyd was tortured to death in a gruesome ordeal caught on camera that lasted almost ten minutes. The reels of numerous unarmed black men and women shot point blank by cops in present-day USA, sometimes on their backs, are equally tear-jerking.
The capacity to casually inflict pain, agony and death spans the length and breadth of the human spectrum.
Linus Audu and Gloria Matthew, Samuel Doe and Elvis Nyathi were all killed under murky political circumstances. Audu and his partner, allegedly by neo-Biafran secessionists, Doe by resisters to his tyranny, and Nyathi by parochial, nationalist xenophobes.
All the murderers in these different cases were clearly uninformed about the numerous traumas the continent has had to endure. In some ways, it may be said that they were also victims of the protracted inter-generational traumas that continue to convulse our beloved continent.
In some manner, those murderers attempt to cast themselves as political saviours righting past omissions of some nebulous nation-building project; Yormie Johnson and his band of killers dream of a liberated Liberia, the killers of Audu and Matthew, a new Biafran dawn, the xenophobes of Diepsloot, an economically self-sufficient and vibrant South Africa.
But these political visions, are of course, skewed and impracticable because they are devoid of the sincerity, generosity and humanism required to build just and equitable political communities. They are essentially motivated by the biblical and anachronistic logic of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leading to a sum zero outcome of mutually assured destruction. These are indeed simply agendas of death with genocide as the end result.
But the cowardice of Audu's and Matthew's beheadings is just as shocking. Their killers are part of the sordid and faceless underbelly of humanity. They dare not come to light, cannot come to light. We don't know which sect the terrorists represent. But we can assume they demand some sort of severance from the Nigerian nation.
It is indeed the murkiness of their agenda, the colonial anonymity, and the superstitious and self-serving righteousness of their horrific deeds that one finds so numbing. We are left confounded by their casual bestiality, callousness and utter indifference. They not only fan the sort of fears Conrad would have gladly entertained but also those all humane Africans need to confront and defeat.
Author: Sanya Osha - Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town