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You Either Work or You Die: Mob ‘Justice’ in Uganda

by Jemma Williams

It was Christmas day in Fort Portal, Uganda. A large group of people had gathered by the roadside and were all moving in one direction. At the front were the younger men. Many of them carried long, straight sticks, and some also brandished machetes.

A typical street in Uganda. At any given time there are many people idle on the streets, leading to mobs forming easily. Photograph courtesy of the author.
A typical street in Uganda. At any given time there are many people idle on the streets, leading to mobs forming easily. Photograph courtesy of the author.

As we got closer, the full, brutal picture emerged. The scarlet red of the victim’s scalp was just visible as he tried to break through the crowd and escape. The man ran desperately, covering his face in his hands, but he was surrounded. The men circled him, leaping in for the opportunity to hit him savagely with their sticks. The community followed impulsively. Women and children trailed at the back of the crowd, straining their necks for a view of what was happening ahead.

A few days later I was sitting in a taxi with a driver named Fred. He had a huge infectious smile and was dressed tidily, his clean white shirt neatly tucked in to his trousers. I asked Fred about what I had seen. His face seemed to harden as he explained that this man was a thief, and on Christmas the community had finally killed him.

“Here, you either work, or you die,” he said.

Violence of this kind occurs all too often in Uganda and other parts of the developing world, where mobs form to administer punishment to those accused of wrongdoing. In Uganda, its victims are most commonly accused of stealing, and are often beaten or burned to death. This group violence is often called ‘mob justice.’ However, ‘justice’ is a misleading term.

Firstly, the word ‘justice’ assumes that the punishment administered is in proportion to the crime committed. According to Gawaya Tegulle, a criminal defence attorney, this is rarely the case. Often a thief will be torturously killed after being accused of stealing a chicken.

Secondly, in the heated environment of a mob killing, guilt is assumed with little evidence, undermining the human right to a fair trial. Mobs can arise quickly and the victim is often wrongly accused. Tegulle recalls an incident where a taxi driver had run over someone, and then fled, leaving his innocent passenger to be mistaken as the driver. “He was killed in under five minutes,” Tegulle recalls. “Nobody ever entertains the hypothesis that they might be mistaken,” he says.

Tegulle believes that socialisation of mob violence in Uganda has led to people accepting it as a legitimate form of justice. “Mob justice is now a culture in our country,” he says. Psychologists widely agree that socialisation of violent behaviour, especially in front of young children, reinforces the acceptance of violence within the community as a valid response to conflict.

As I witnessed the scene in Fort Portal with my foreign eyes, I was highly distressed. Yet the Ugandan community members, including very young children, crowded around the scene, watching unflinchingly as the man was beaten to death. I watched the scene from the elevated viewpoint of a public bus, held up because of the commotion. On the bus the other passengers stood up in their seats, craning their necks for a better view.

One major reason for the prevalence of mob justice in Uganda is the failure of the formal justice system to provide security for poor people.
Carol Adams has lived in Uganda for 17 years as the director of Y.E.S Uganda, an organisation that aims to benefit orphans in Fort Portal. She says that the justice system does not serve the poor because it is too expensive, slow, and inconsistent.

Adams has experienced firsthand the inefficiencies of the justice system. She recalls one day when a man robbed her of a wheelbarrow. The neighbors caught him and by the time they had dragged the thief back to her a mob had formed, and demanded that she turn the thief over to them so they could administer the punishment. Adams told them that she would not allow him to be killed, but they answered, “Not to worry, madam, we will kill him down the road.” She called the police and was surprised that they arrived promptly on the back of a small motorbike. “The thief ran to the police and told them to arrest him and take him quickly, which they did,” she tells me. Later, the policeman came and said that she had to pay a fee if she wanted him arrested.

The police often turn to corruption, and as a result, it costs money to seek justice. “Police have starvation salaries,” Adams explains. Even if people can afford to pay the required bribes, there are additional costs, such as money for the transport to make a statement. For the Ugandan population, of whom 30 percent live under the national poverty line of US$1.25 per day, this cost is impossible to meet.

Additionally, it can take years to convict someone, and criminals can be turned loose if someone can pay for his or her release. These factors, combined with illiteracy and a basic lack of understanding of legal procedures, mean that the poor cannot have confidence in the formal justice system. According to Tegulle, most people believe that the criminal justice system “cannot be relied upon to administer justice.”

When my friendly taxi driver explained that you must work or die, he meant it literally. He explained that when the police were notified, the criminals were free within days, so it was much easier for the community to just kill the thief. “We are sick of these thieves, and so are the police,” he said. “These people, they do not work, they just live from everyone else’s work.” A cook working for a local tour company agreed. “It’s better to just kill them,” he said. “They will never change their behavior, they have always been that way.”

Living without the certainty of a functioning justice system, many Ugandans evidently feel that they must protect their livelihoods themselves, by taking justice into their own hands. When families struggle to feed themselves, the theft of a chicken is a serious crime that undermines the security of the entire community. Tegulle says that these crimes inspire anger because the community feels that they affect them personally. “When that happens, they never forgive,” he says.

Recognising the need to reduce incidents of mob justice, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission recommends more discipline within the police force, enforcement of traffic laws, the enhancement of community policing, and intervention when mob action is taking place.

However, a study by a Swedish university indicates that improving education, increasing employment, and strengthening the police force and judicial system are key ways to address the complex structural causes of mob justice.

Mob violence is an attempt to bring stability to communities and to protect livelihoods. It is symptomatic of a society that has not successfully provided a secure environment for all of its citizens to live and work. Without a viable alternative, mob justice is the tragic result of the poor’s need for security.

About the Author: Jemma Williams grew up in a small town on Australia’s North Coast, and has since travelled, lived and worked around the world. She writes about social justice issues and is motivated by the personal stories of marginalised people around the globe. Jemma holds a Bachelor of International Studies from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and specialises in international development. She is completing a thesis exploring the issues of fear, underdevelopment and violence in Latin America.

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