In April 2021, a report spread across the Nigerian blogosphere that Chinese authorities at the Shanghai Port had seized a Nigerian cargo ship carrying 7,200 refrigerated human penises. Although the report seemed improbable for many reasons, among them the fact that the original source was a satirical website with an explicit “buyer beware” statement on its homepage, the fact that a former high-level minister had thought it credible enough to retweet it, following through with an admonition to the Chinese to “leave Nigerian penises alone,” seemed to lend the report a patina of credibility. In short order, two members of the Nigerian House of Representatives would move a motion (unanimously adopted) to have the matter carefully investigated.
It is not entirely clear whether the lawmakers acted in full awareness of the fact that the global illegal trade in human organs is reported to be worth between 840 million dollars and 1.7 billion dollars annually, or whether the lower house of parliament, being male-dominated and all, was motivated by basic self-preservation. What is beyond dispute is that genital disappearance panic (GDP for short) is all too real in Nigeria, and often tragically so.
For example: in November 2020, angry youths from the Daudu community in the Guma Local Government Area (LGA) of Benue State stormed and set ablaze the Divine Shadow Church, pastored by one Prophet Joshua Uhembe. The youths were convinced that the pastor was the mastermind behind the “mysterious disappearance” of the manhood of seven members of the community. In September 2019, police had to step in to rescue a man with dwarfism, identified simply as Anayo, after a mob set upon him following another man’s accusation that he, Anayo, had “caused his manhood to disappear.” Mob justice against alleged “manhood snatchers” has also been reported in Ondo, Niger, Lagos, Kwara, Kogi, Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Osun States. Last week, in the North Central State of Nasarawa, an evangelist with the Living Faith Church (aka Winners Chapel) was lynched by a mob after someone had accused him of “collecting” his penis.
While, on the whole, the police have tried to educate the general public on the implausibility of snatching someone’s manhood or making such disappear entirely, sometimes going as far as arraigning some individuals for raising false alarm, there are reasons to believe that law enforcement itself is not entirely convinced in its belief, as seen either in cases of soldiers or police officers effecting the arrest of those accused of manhood “snatching,” or, more perplexingly, physically assaulting an accused, as was recently the case in Abuja with eight officers of the National Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC). In a video that was widely circulated on social media, the officers could be seen hitting and kicking a man accused of taking another’s manhood, all the while demanding that he “return it.”
This is not the first time that anxiety over disappeared genitalia has swept Nigeria; nor is the phenomenon unique to the country. In recent times, similar mass hysteria has been witnessed in other parts of Africa, whether involving a man who apparently regained his lost manhood but discovered that it was “yet to start functioning” (Ghana), a man who woke up to the discovery that his manhood had gone missing (Kenya), or two men who reported to the police in Gambia that they had lost their penises to “magic.”
While it is not unlikely that some of the aforementioned incidents may have been instigated by nefarious agents intent on using the pretext of mass hysteria to instigate mob action against real and perceived enemies, it does not make the underlying hysteria any less “true,” in which case the real challenge is to account for its recurrence in certain sociohistorical moments.
On this matter, the relevant literature is as insightful as it is divided. For anthropologist Julien Bonhomme, what he calls “sex theft” is nothing but “a sort of transposition of rural witchcraft to urban settings,” a “dysphoric interaction” that “reconfigures African witchcraft in the context of globalization.” For psychologists Glenn Adams and Vivian Afi Dzokoto, “Genital-Shrinking Panic” (GSP) is an invitation to consider the “cultural realities in which incidents of GSP make sense,” as well as “the role of psychological activity in reproducing, maintaining and extending those realities.” For her part, anthropologist Jean Comaroff sees anxiety over genitalia, especially over the sale of body parts, as part of an “occult economy” that embraces “ritual murders” on one side of the spectrum, and pyramid schemes and kindred financial scams on the other. Not only is this plausible, but her claim that this tends to excite “violent reactions against people accused of illicit accumulation” appears substantiated by the fact that some of those alleged to have “snatched” their fellow citizens’ manhood have been persons of a certain eminence within the community, including religious and political leaders.
That said—and while taking nothing away from Comaroff’s argument about the social targeting of those deemed to have been involved in “immoral consumption” —there is no doubt that mass panic over alleged disappearance of manhood is also code for an underlying anxiety about masculinity and the role of men, hence a window into emergent mores about men, male-female relations, virility, sexual potency, and individual—especially male—achievement.
The source of this anxiety is obvious enough. The tanking of the Nigerian economy, coupled with the ensuing immiseration of millions (today, four in ten Nigerians live below the national poverty line, while 63 percent of an estimated 220 million people are “multidimensionally poor”) has created an atmosphere of social desperation in which the cultural pressure on young men to become “real men” and make something of themselves has only intensified. Anthropologist Daniel Jordan Smith’s account of this shift in expectations and the attendant struggle by young men to meet society’s new standards amid a remorselessly disempowering economic crisis is uniquely insightful.
If, for the average young man, cultural expectation tightens the screw on one end, a newly deregulated intimacy economy tightens it on the other. With the mobile phone bringing in its digital tow unattainable, never mind unreasonable, standards of male sexual performance and virility, Nigerian masculinity finds itself in an interregnum with its fair share of morbid symptoms. Mass panic over the purported disappearance of male genitalia is of a piece with this, boosted by the persistent belief that human genitalia and body parts in general are convertible to wealth, and, crucially, that all great wealth is “unsavory” at source.
Caught in the maelstrom are young men who will accordingly go to any length to “become a real man,” whether that involves stowing away in the landing gear compartment of an airplane headed for a Western destination (often times, any destination will do), becoming a pastor, dipping into the unregulated market for sexual aphrodisiacs, or submitting their manhood to the pastor for “restoration.” After all, no “real man” gives up without a fight; or allows his manhood to be “taken.”
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.