Fourteen years ago, young Umar Ibrahim was a student of Aminu Kano College of Islamic and Legal Studies (AKCILS) in Kano, Nigeria’s North West. He found himself entangled in a bizarre accusation that would alter the course of his life.
One evening, as he returned from a school drama rehearsal, he went looking for his friend. He would stop a passerby, shake their hand, and ask them for directions to Farida Cinema, a place he thought his friend was definitely in.
Eventually, one of the people he greeted accused him of stealing his penis, a claim that has been linked to Koro Syndrome, otherwise known as missing or genital retraction hysteria. It is a psychiatric disorder characterised by an intense and irrational fear of the genital organs going missing or retracting into the body of the victim.
Ibrahim followed the path pointed out to him, and upon reaching his destination, a tap on his shoulder startled him. He turned to find the initial stranger and casually inquired, “What’s up?”
In a shocking twist, the man cried, “Return my penis!”
Ibrahim, now bewildered, was seized by the man, setting off a chaotic reaction fueled by fear and superstition. An angry mob soon gathered and, convinced of Ibrahim’s guilt, demanded he return the stolen sex organ. To Ibrahim, the unfolding drama resembled a surreal movie scene. “It was the most harrowing day of my life,” he recounted.
His pleas of innocence were drowned out by the mob’s angry uproar. His belongings were taken one after the other, and as he attempted to reason with the hostile crowd, he realised no one was listening. Some tore his shirt; others hit his face and other parts of his body they could lay their hands on.
In a desperate bid to survive the mob’s fury, Ibrahim considered admitting to a crime he hadn’t committed, hoping it would lead him to a police station where the truth could be unravelled.
“Wait, wait, wait. I did it. I’ll return it to him,” he said, attempting to buy time.
He turned to the accuser and asked if he could offer him money. The man replied that all he wanted was his penis back. The situation escalated again, and the mob began to beat him mercilessly.
Ibrahim’s friend arrived and, not being able to calm the mob, he contacted a nearby police station. The officers acted swiftly to disperse the crowd and rescue Ibrahim. They also arrested some of the assaulters.
When the police investigated the event, the truth slowly emerged. The accuser maintained that his penis was stolen until one officer “gave him a hard slap” that caused him to drop to the floor and asked him to check for his genitals again. The man replied that it had returned.
The police detained him for false accusation and some members of the mob for their violence. Ibrahim was released and escorted home.
But this incident has left a lasting scar on him, a reminder of the fragility of truth in the face of irrational fear. He has witnessed how misinformation and superstition could transform an otherwise peaceful day into a harrowing ordeal.
As claims of genital theft and missing testicles resurfaced in Kano around October 2023, Ibrahim said the situation has caused him anxiety. “Every time I see others being accused, I feel like it’s going to happen to me again,” he said in a video where he shared his experience.
In some of the recent instances, law enforcement agents intervened just as in Ibrahim’s case. For example, on Oct. 7, an angry mob in the Dei Dei area of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, attacked policemen who had gone to rescue a man identified as Mubarak, who was almost lynched over an allegation of genital theft. Three days later, the Kogi State Police Command paraded three suspects for false alarm that led to the lynching of a man accused of stealing their genitals.
Not everyone is as lucky
While police officers saved Ibrahim’s life when he was about to be lynched, in some cases, the police only intervened to amplify the situation. That was the case of Bitrus Iliya and his two friends in Bauchi, a state in North East Nigeria.
In a video that recently went viral, a man who identified himself as Joshua Yohanna was paraded by police to speak to local journalists after he and his two friends were accused of stealing penises. In a state of fear, Yohanna said he stole the penises and handed them over to his friend Bitrus.
“Are you married?” one journalist asked Yohanna.
“Yes, with four children,” he replied.
“How could you feel if it’s your penis that was stolen?” the journalist challenged him.
Yohanna was dumbfounded, and thinking that admitting his alleged crime would save him, he started pleading with the government to forgive him.
Asked where he took the penis, Yohanna pointed to Bitrus, who in turn said he gave the organ to another Yohanna. “And he is the only one who knows how to return it to the owner,” he added. That Yohanna, he explained, “was beaten to death”. One of the police officers allegedly hit him with a gun.
One video that emerged from Borno State showed the police insulting someone in their custody who was accused of stealing three people’s penises. The man cried as the uniformed officer threatened to beat him to a pulp if he refused to return the penis.
Another incident in Borno involved a young man accusing another person of stealing his penis. He held him tightly while the youth behind him threatened to kill the supposed thief. Upon seeing the angry mob, the man gave in and said he had already returned it.
“But I still can’t feel it,” the young man protested.
“Let’s just kill him,” another person who was behind a camera yelled.
Another disturbing case happened in Bauchi again when an elderly man was accused of stealing penises by the students of Bauchi State University, Gadau.
Distraught and disturbed, the old man was stripped of his shirt and injured to the point that he stopped speaking, but they dragged him to the police station while others proposed that he should be killed instantly.
In October, residents of Lugbe in Abuja lynched two young men after Abdulrasheed Jeje raised an alarm, alleging that they had made his penis vanish. The same month, in Nasarawa State, an unidentified man narrowly escaped being lynched in the Mararaba community after his vehicle was set ablaze.
While some cases of victims of these accusations being brutalised have been covered in the news or uploaded to social media — such as this, this, this and this — many others have gone without documentation.
Missing genitals frenzy
The mysterious and longstanding belief known as shafu-mu-lera in northern Nigeria and medically recognised as koro syndrome has caused a stir in Nigerian communities for many decades.
The first case was said to be documented in northern Nigeria in 1975 and it has occurred since at periodic intervals. Periods of relative calm are interrupted by outbreaks of accusations and fear within communities.
Its popularity and acceptance can be partly attributed to how it was featured in local films and literature, making it widely held as a tactic among witches and magicians.
Stories of genital theft have been woven into the cultural fabric and handed down from generation to generation. While traditional healers and local mystics often find themselves entangled in these narratives, shafu-mu-lera primarily operates within the realm of belief rather than science.
The stories of penis theft have also been recorded in medieval Europe and recently in many countries around Africa, such as Congo and Central African Republic (CAR).
This peculiar phenomenon revolves around the conviction that someone can employ supernatural means to steal another person’s penis, leading to claims of genital disappearance or shrinkage. Others claim it is their testicles that were stolen to render them impotent.
Despite the lack of medical evidence supporting such occurrences, these narratives persist and have recently gained unprecedented traction, owing to the widespread use of social media platforms.
Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and TikTok have become conduits for the rapid dissemination of misinformation on the issue as the belief transcends geographical boundaries more quickly.
On Facebook, groups and pages sharing content related to shafu-mu-lera have sprouted, creating echo chambers where individuals validate and reinforce each other’s beliefs. Millions of impressions were gathered from thousands of Facebook posts from both verified and unverified accounts, amplifying the misinformation.
Twitter’s fast-paced nature has allowed these stories to trend, reaching a broader audience and sparking conversations across Nigeria. Fake and doctored images were shared to amplify the misinformation.
In northern Nigeria, a new term, satar balance (slang for manhood theft), was given to the phenomenon, and soon comedians and skit makers started amplifying it through short videos asking people to be “checking their balance”.
The immediacy and personal nature of WhatsApp has further fueled the hysteria. The platform’s end-to-end encryption, while ensuring privacy, has enabled the swift transmission of anecdotal experiences, contributing to the normalisation of these narratives. On this platform, audios containing misinformation about shafu-mu-lera were shared widely, reaching many people who could not read or had no time to read.
A lack of digital literacy has also made many WhatsApp users spread or consume a lot of misinformation. The use of local languages like Hausa has also made it more difficult for Whatsapp and its parent company, Meta, to combat some of these trends.
TikTok, known for its short-form videos, has also been used as a medium for sharing accounts of alleged genital theft, captivating audiences in a way that traditional forms of communication may not.
The platform is getting more users from Nigeria, particularly the Hausa-speaking North, and information shared there reaches a wider audience through the “for you” page.
The horse’s mouth
Individuals like Habibu Lawan, who claim to be victims of this magical theft, contribute to the perpetuation of the belief.
Their personal stories shared within close-knit communities serve as the seeds from which the phenomenon sprouts, gaining momentum during times of heightened anxiety and uncertainty.
According to Lawan, he was standing alone as he attempted to cross a road to Sabon Gari Market in Kano when somebody greeted him and asked him for directions. A few seconds after the man left, he searched for his penis but found it shrinking.
“First, I felt it was nowhere, then searched again and found it so small. It was shrinking,” he narrated to HumAngle.
Lawan quickly shouted at the man he accused of mysteriously stealing his penis, and, according to him, the man tried to run. “But I grabbed him by his shoulder and asked him to return back my penis.”
The man denied the charge, and soon, many people gathered, some of them trying to beat him. He was taken to a police station where, after writing their reports, they were taken to a nearby hospital.
“At the hospital, the doctor gave me some pills and said the penis would return after I sleep,” he said. They gave him some drugs, and the other person was released on bail.
Habibu said he felt his penis a day after. He still believes that genitals could be stolen. “Mine was shrinking, but I believe it can be stolen because it happened to me,” he said.
While the Koro Syndrome trended on social media, Abdullah Dahiru, a consultant doctor at the Abdullahi Wase Specialist Hospital in Kano, took a bold stance to debunk the claims.
He asserted that there is no scientific evidence to support the notion of stolen penises. “It’s entirely not possible for someone to magically steal somebody’s penis,” he said.
According to him, the root cause of these beliefs lies in stress. He specifically cited Koro Syndrome as a psychological condition associated with the unfounded fear of genital retraction.
Dr Dahiru said the feeling of inadequacy both in social and sexual life coupled with consuming sexual myths could lead to it. “That’s why most of the people who claim their genitals were stolen are youths who are obsessed with sex,” he explained.
A paper published by academics at Louisiana University of Health in 2023 has also mentioned that having a “neuropsychiatric disorder could be a risk factor for Koro Syndrome”. People with major depression, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more likely to suffer from it.
Dr Dahiru said this is not the first time there’s been mass hysteria, particularly in Kano. “In the 90s, there were similar conditions among the boarding secondary school girls who claimed to have been possessed by a spirit known as sumbuka,” he recalled.
The cases of Sumbuka (and another spirit Yar Madabo) at boarding secondary schools were widespread during Sani Abacha’s military rule. Economic hardships and other social stress caused people to think they were possessed or could be possessed by spirits.
“In many cases brought before us, we found that the genitals are there. They were not missing nor retracting,” he explained. “But when you make the person who claimed to have his genital stolen calm, he would say he has seen the penis back.”
Dr Dahiru highlighted the importance of distinguishing between medical conditions and cultural beliefs. He stressed that attributing these concerns to supernatural or unexplained phenomena can exacerbate anxiety and hinder individuals from seeking appropriate medical care.
To further solidify his stance, he referenced established medical knowledge, emphasising that the human anatomy does not undergo sudden, unexplained changes such as the disappearance or shrinkage of genital organs. He urged the public to rely on evidence-based information and consult medical professionals for accurate assessments of their health concerns.
His advice points to a broader challenge in Nigeria, where cultural beliefs intersect with medical understanding. According to him, addressing these issues requires a collaborative effort between healthcare providers, community leaders, and educational institutions to dispel myths and promote mental health awareness.
He also advocated for increased awareness about mental health issues in the community. “By attributing these concerns to psychiatric conditions rather than supernatural causes, a more compassionate and informed approach to addressing the anxieties and fears that individuals may be experiencing can be used,” he concluded.
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