Mob Justice in Africa: Uganda as a case study

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In recent years the issue of mob justice has come to light in many African states. Citizens are growing more vocal about what seems to be a mode of justice that has prevailed for a long time. In many African countries this form of justices runs parallel with the legal systems and both undermine each other. In this essay I want to focus on the character of mob justice, analyzing its prevalence in the 21st century and why this brutal form is still common within African states.

Focusing specifically on Uganda, I want to find out the causes of mob justice, how the country deals with its acts of mass violence, whether there is a legitimate place for mob justice in the country and of not how it can be prevented. I will also be analyzing African people’s attitudes to mob justice and how it is covered in the media. Using a number of media sources, research articles and statistics on this particular form of group violence, I hope to come to a deeper understanding of the subject and its presence in African countries specifically Uganda.

These are the questions of questions I will be considering in this essay:

  • What are the causes of mob justice?
  • How countries, particularly Uganda deal with crimes by mobs?
  • What is the media and public’s attitude towards mob justice?
  • Does mob justice work?
  • What are the problems of mob justice and how is it prevented?
  • Where is Africa now and what’s its class of action for the future?

The power of masses is not to be underestimated and this is clear in Africa. In 2011 mass protesting brought down authoritative regimes, however for a long time in pockets of different countries it has also been used to do more harm than good. Public lynching, setting people alight, brutal beatings are the many ways mobs manifest their own special form of justice. The word mob justice refers to the course of action taken in the hands of a mass vigilante in response to crimes committed within their communities. The inequitable character of a mob’s action is that it takes place in the absence of a conventional or otherwise form of fair trial in which the accused is given the right to defend themselves. Rather under such rash circumstances the accused is brutally punished and possibly sentenced to death within seconds of being indentified.

Mob justice has been prevalent in societies all over the world let alone Africa. It has been recorded in times as early as the Romans and even possibly before then. It is therefore convincing to cast it deep rooted in human nature to react in collectives to perform group punishment when they feel wronged. However with modern social constructs such as judicial systems, this mode of behavior has become a barbaric solution to solving crime in society. It then calls to question why some societies more than others still have high cases of mobs taking the law into their own hands. This is evident in many African countries and for example Uganda where “an unprecedented surge…in the recorded incidents of mob justice” was recorded in the second half of 2009. Why are some countries more susceptible to mob crimes than other continents?

  • Causes of mob justice

On the surface, it is clear that there is public distrust of formal institutions such as the police and other forms of law enforcement which are accused of corruption and improper handling of criminal investigation. The case in Uganda is no different where the public has little faith in the judicial system due to its corruption. Many accuse the judicial process as being easily manipulated. Criminals and perpetrators can be easily let off with just a slap on their wrist as long as they are able to bring forth a substantial bribe.  The public’s dissatisfaction for this system has resulted in them taking the law into their own hands and even public support for mob justice as an alternate form of enforcement.

History supports this argument, that where there is a loss of a dominant power in society as is with countries who cannot control their own systems, collective groups arise to fill the void in the lapse of power by taking things like criminal punishment into their own hands. This is clear in fractured and corrupt systems. On ground, a police force which is not adequately salaried because funds fail to drip down the employment line and only circulate among top heads, a street police man relies on bribes as a means to survive. This consequently undermines law enforcement and the judicial system as a whole.

If crimes are not being investigated and handled properly by the law due to it incompetence, mobs arise to combat the problem on their own. Rampant crime is therefore what leads to mob justice. However another key causes of crime in Africa is poverty. In Uganda, 72% of the population lives below $2 a day it is therefore no surprise that 63% of recorded mobs have been in reaction to theft. In poor societies theft is more likely to occur especially in situations where people need to feed themselves and the only solution is to steal as a means of living. This leads one to think that in a situation of poverty whether people can move past crime even with alternative more brutal forms of punishment like mob justice trying to act as a deterrent. Conversely can mob justice ever be eradicated if root problems like poverty are not eliminated as well?

S/No. Alleged Causes for Mob Action No. of Cases
1 Theft 232
2 Murder 59
3 Robbery 29
4 Witch Craft 26
5 Burglary 22

Fig. 1 Table from the Annual Crime Report of 2008 – From Mob Justice report by Robin Glad, Åsa Strömberg and Anton Westerlund

  • How are countries particularly Uganda dealing with crimes by mobs?

For any country where mob violence is prevalent it is difficult to assess who specifically within the mob committed the crimes. The law is unable to charge whole groups with a particular crime as those involved quickly blend in into crowds once the law enforcement arrives on the scene. On the other hand the way in which law enforcement handles criminal cases too has gained negative reputation for being brutal itself. Culprits and civilians suspected to be associated with a mob, are beaten at the scene in order to break up a crowd. Violence is tackled with violence. From this angle nothing vital is being done to actually combat mob violence and its root causes.

Nonetheless there has been a tremendous dialogue created within the country’s media in order to challenge people’s ideas and thoughts on mob behavior. This form of education is a crucial way of questioning the rash mode of action and these debates allow citizens to evaluate the inefficiency of mob justice within their streets.

  • What is the media and public’s attitude towards mob justice?

Mob violence within the streets has been covered regularly in the country’s newspapers and it is no longer a surprise to read a story of a culprit killed by a mob.  However of recent with the surge of mob killings media coverage on the topic has increased accordingly. The general view emitted by the media is a negative one of mob killings. They are generally depicted for their levels of barbarianism however what is still significant is civilian support for its role as a crime deterrent.

While newspaper headlines can read “Uganda: Mob Justice – a Problem That Just Won’t Go Away” taken from the national daily New Vision in April 2011, the reaction from the public is quite a mixed one. Many still defend mob justice as an effective way of deterring criminals from committing the crime again and others who might be thinking about doing the same.

This was taken from the same article: “The public’s response to such cases is condoned by a lot of sarcasm. Edward Muwanguzi of Kyambogo University supports those who in a way or another administer “justice” to a suspect thief, especially if caught red-handed. He disagrees with the extent some of them take it, though he believes that the experience would serve as a permanent lesson to deter the culprit in future.

“The public should punish him according to the weight of his crime,” he adds. Unfortunately nobody is ready to weigh the crime before they throw stones on the suspect.”

To some extent a percentage of the of the public believes that mob justice has a place in their society even still for whatever reasons its condemned. For reasons regarding deterrence, does mob justice actually reduce crime?

  • Does mob justice work?

To be careful of making sweeping judgments on the topic several facts have to be pointed out and evaluated. The crime rate recorded in Uganda in 2010 was at a 5 year decrease. Taken from the country’s Annual Crime Report of 2010 “declining reports of crime is a vindication of the radical changes we have made, both in approach to policing, as well as the extensive organizational restructuring that we have undertaken within the Police…” Declines in crime have been attributed to improvements in law enforcement. However it is unclear how much the decline can be contributed to the message put out by mob violence. It would be unintelligent to completely rule out the effect mob violence has on crime, especially when fall in crimes punishable by mobs were at a significant decrease from other crimes. This is evident in crimes such as ritual murder which carry serious punishment in a mob.

However it is also wise to consider the fact that deaths caused by mob violence are too considered acts of crime. So therefore at the cost of preventing any future crime, mob violence too is committing criminal acts. .Taken by the report by Freedom House “In 2011, police statistics recorded 466 deaths in 383 cases of mob action reported to the police—slight increases over the 2010 figures.” With no clear evidence that mob action directly reduces crime, statistics also show that with trends of decrease in crime and the police battle to tackle crime all is undermined by a surge of mob violence working in the opposite direction of crime reduction.

  • What are the problems of mob justice ?

A continuation of mob justice undermines a country’s institutions and puts it at a threat of falling into lawlessness where people arbitrarily take the law into their own hands. This is particularly dangerous for the civilians themselves. It has already been indentified that one of the sad results of a mobs rush decision to punish a suspect sometimes results in misidentification. On several occasions innocent bystanders are quickly accused by a crowd and cannot defend themselves before the crowd pounces on them. Most of these cases result in death or with a victim at the brink of death.

This hostility created by a hot tempered crowd has also contributed to death by traffic accidents. People involved in hit and runs fail to remain at the scene of the crime or report the case because they fear being beaten to death by an angry mob. Additionally bystanders are more willing to pass a scene of an accident because of fear of being misidentified by the crowd. This results in death of those involved in accidents, in situations where help could have been provided and saved some one’s life.

Irony is what strikes the term mob justice because it serves no justice at all. The degree of violence inflicted by mobs spreads barbarianism within communities which become guilty of condoning mass murder. It does not set a moral example for how society should handle its problems, it rather allows a tempered few to spar crowds, create riots and chaos, deters organization and brings down a community.

  • Conclusion: Prevention

It is clear that a country and society that has proper functioning law enforcement does not feel the need to take the law into their own hands. Therefore a key way to prevent the prevalence of mobs is for a state to consolidate its institutions. Once people gain more trust of their systems, they are less like to undermine them with their own actions. When crimes take place, they will have faith that the judicial system will handle the matter. Unfortunately it is still a problem in African countries and the trust between law enforcement and the public is still far from perfect and  in the case of Uganda hopeful.

Another angle to tackle mob behavior is through education. The UN Human Development Report of 2009 states that Uganda has a whopping 94% of the population poorly educated. In order to change people’s attitudes they have to be educated and schooled into different ways of handling crime in societies. The public has to be literate in order to join debates and discussions on the problems of mob violence.

As earlier indicated poverty is a key cause of crime in Africa. For decades it has been the nation’s agenda to eradicate poverty within the continent, however the problem still persists. A revision of strategies is needed in order to create a serious way forward. If something is not working it needs to change. Poverty is a stream that breaks into all types of social problems as is evident here with mob justice. Stop the source and you will have eliminated all the other problems.

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2 thoughts on “Mob Justice in Africa: Uganda as a case study

  1. Pingback: To Understand the Ferguson Riots, Look to Africa | Conservative Free Thinkers

  2. Pingback: Taylor om Ferguson | Reaktionære Refleksioner

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