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When the mob rules: jungle justice in Africa

Nneka Luke July 26, 2016

Jungle justice is rampant across sub-saharan Africa. Every day at least one person on the continent faces torture or even death at the hands of irate citizenry determined to be judge, jury and executioner.

07.2013 GDMA Sonderpreis des Publikums: Street justice Bildergalerie
Image: Lulama Zenzile

Jungle justice is anything but just. It is a form of mob rule in which people take the law into their own hands and punish alleged offenders for perceived heinous crimes. Jungle justice is also referred to as mob or street justice and can lead to extra-judicial killing.

The victims are deprived of rights to which everyone is entitled under the rule of law. Punishment is normally barbaric, usually involving stoning or burning of the unfortunate individuals in a public place.

Cameroon and Nigeria are said to have the highest rate of jungle justice in Africa.

Hauwa Yusuf, a criminologist at the Kaduna state University Nigeria, told DW that most jungle justice victims are innocent of the crimes for which they are punished. "A lot of innocent Africans have fallen victim to jungle justice," Yusuf said.

Jungle justice practitioners normally proclaim the guilt of an alleged offender on the basis of some locally understood code of conduct or standard of morality.

Jungle justice is often enacted swiftly, sometimes with local police standing by and watching, doing nothing,

Sierra Leone went through a brutal 11 year civil war which ended in 2002. Mob justice there was more frequent in the immediate aftermath of war than it is now, according to Valnora Edwin, who heads Campaign for Good Governance, a Sierra Leone-based NGO. But he said mobs could still allow themselves to be incited by suspected larceny.

"When thieves are caught, they face jungle justice," he said.

Südafrika Selbstjustiz
A suspected robber saved from mob justice by a policeman in an incident in South Africa in 2007Image: picture-allianc/dpa/K. Ludbrook

Jungle justice is a serious human rights abuse which continues to persist and grow in Africa. Festus Okoye, a barrister and Nigerian human rights activist, told DW that the inertia found in the official African judicial process was one reason people took the law into their own hands. "The slow pace of the African judicial system makes the people impatient, hence they engage in extra-judicial killings, which is illegal and a violation of human rights," Okoye said.

Enock Chibwana, a lawyer from Malawi, also sees “deficiencies in criminal justice system" as contributing to the spread of jungle justice.

Eliminating jungle justice in Africa

Jungle justice has not reduced crime in Africa but has rather multiplied the number of human right abuses in the continent. "We need proper education and enlightenment for the people to tell them of the consequence of using extra-judicial measures when an individual has not been convicted by a properly constituted court of law," Festus Okoye said.

African institutions need to counter the negative perceptions that surround them and show that they are there to address the issues of all citizens. "Then we can see eradication" of jungle justice, Valnora Edwin said.

Most Africans yearn for a society which is just and fair; a place in which everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Governments must act to end jungle justice which has already taken the lives of so many innocent citizens.