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Mob justice in Africa

Theresa Krinninger / cmMay 5, 2016

Petty thieves are stoned, burglars are beaten to death or lynched. In many African countries citizens administer justice because they have little trust in the police.

A man who is part of a mob holds a rock.
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Vincento

Eric Ponda, DW's correspondent in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa thought he was going to die. Last year, while driving back home after working on a report, a pedestrian suddenly crossed his way, to avoid him, Ponda had to quickly steer his car off the road but while doing so, he caught the left foot of the pedestrian but only mildly. Ponda stopped his car and then all hell broke loose.

"They [people] stormed out of their houses and they really wanted to burn the car, they pushed me out of the car and started beating me up," Ponda recalled. The mob went on to steal all his equipment which he had in the car.

Luckily a police car passed by. "That was my salvation. If the police had not passed by, they would have burnt me alive or set my car on fire," the DW correspondent said. "You can not prove who did it," Ponda added. In and around Mombasa, mob justice happens very often.

More than 500 die annually

In 2011, the Kenyan police for the first time included "lynching" in its crime statistics. The officials recorded 543 victims. In Uganda, 582 people died as a result of lynching in 2014. That is 1.6 cases per day on average. According to the United Nations, mobs have brutally killed 16 people in Malawi in recent months.

A police man guards a suspect from an angry mob
In most cases, the police arrive late. This suspect was however luckyImage: picture-allianc/dpa/K. Ludbrook

In South Africa it is commonly known as "necklacing." Angry citizens round up the alleged wrongdoer, after being tied up, they force a tire that has been doused in gasoline onto the neck of the suspect, and then burn him alive. Such cases happen several times a year.

Even politicians are not spared. In April, a furious crowd dragged Nigerian lawmaker Bukalo Saraki to a marketplace in the capital Abuja. The mob ripped off his clothes and hurled insults at him. The reason for the attack is that messages had been circulating on social media claiming the senator had illegally enriched himself.

Role of collective punishment

Why would ordinary, peace-loving citizens suddenly turn into murderers? Gail Super, a criminologist at the University of Cape Town, told DW that social problems and the gap between the rich and the poor is to blame. "The problem comes in especially with rapid urbanization and the migration of people," Super said. The criminologist pointed out that lynchings occur more frequently in poor and informal settlements because these areas face a major existential threat.

"Vigilantism or mob justice is a traditional way of communities to deal with criminals or the high level of crime in the country," the researcher said.

A group of armed vigilantes in a truck and some on foot.
Vigilantes in northen Nigeria cropped up because residents had lost trust on the country's security apparatusImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Abubakar

A number of African countries also lack enough personnel. According to media reports, the Nigerian Police Chief Solomon Arase, recently complained about the fact that there are less than 8,000 policemen in the state of Niger. That's one officer for approximately 494 inhabitants.

Problem with the police

In addition to that, most people in Africa perceive the police as being corrupt and demotivated. "They often feel like they can not trust the police to address the crime problem," Lizette Lancaster, a researcher with the Crime and Justice division at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, told DW.

The problem of not trusting the police is particularly worse in major cities. "The police often arrive only later when the bodies have been found by another group," Lancaster said. She said people in these communities are living in a legal limbo. Besides the police, these areas are also governed by traditional norms which ensure law and order in their own context.

After his ordeal, DW correspondent Eric Ponda's image of the police is not a positive one. Although their presence rescued him from the mob, there was no follow up on the case. "In the end you can end up losing everything, your car and even your life, but nothing happens," said Ponda. Since that time, he drives in Mombasa with a sinking feeling in his stomach.