24 August 2007

Uganda: Mob Justice Thrives

Kampala — JANE ROSE Nassuuna was stoned to death. Her crime? A brother in law accused her of witchcraft. Then local council leaders called a village meeting, during which Nassuuna tried in vain to defend herself. As the gathering passed a 'death sentence,' Nassuuna took to her heels. But soon the mob of about 50 villagers caught up with her at a family friend's doorway as she tried to dive into the house for protection.

Nassuuna's daughter, Mary Nagawa, tried to shield her but she too fled for her own safety as the stones rained. So did Nassuuna's husband and all their children.

Nassuuna's body was smashed and her heart made its last beat as the sun set, just minutes after the mob descended on her. That was on September 27, 2005 at Buwungu village 15km west of Masaka town.

To-date Nassuuna's husband, Yoranimu Lukwago, 71, mourns the death of his wife. He has failed to remarry. "My life and that of my family has been shattered ever since," says Lukwago.

When Lukwago goes to the shamba where he used to till the land with his dear wife, he sees images of her being stoned.

Neither does he go to the forest where they used to go together to cut trees for making charcoal. As a result, the ageing widower has become poorer.

"Life without her has not been simple. When I recall the times we enjoyed together and how she used to give me a hand in everything I did, I break down and cry," he says amid sobs.

Lukwago's children have gone away to live with different relatives as the village was no longer safe for them and their father could not single-handedly look after them. Apart from losing the family bond, they live in fear and embarrassment.

Nassuuna's lynching is not an isolated case. A total of 197 people were killed in mob justice in Uganda last year alone, according to the 2006 Police crime report. Theft was the leading cause of lynching, accounting for 108 cases. Other victims were accused of robbery (14), witchcraft (13), murder (12), burglary (6) and other suspected crimes (31). Of the people lynched in 2006, 191 were male while six were female.

The Kampala Police spokesman, Simeo Nsubuga, warns that communities do not have the rights to kill anybody. All individuals accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty, he cautions. To prove that someone is guilty, the person has to be tried in court and given a chance to defend him or herself.

"The problem with mob justice is that even innocent people get killed. It is a matter of someone shouting mubi (thief) and that is enough for someone to be killed," says Nsubuga.

Some people are lynched simply because of misunderstandings, says Sebuliba Mutumba, Member of Parliament for Kawempe South.

Mutumba says while communities have the right to arrest someone and hand him over to Police, they should not take the law into their own hands. "Before a person involves him or herself in such a mob, he should ask: 'what if it were me, my mother, sister, brother?'" says Mutumba.

A Kampala lawyer, Yusuf Nsibambi, says even where someone truly committed an offence, lynching goes beyond the punishment they deserve. "A chicken thief suspect would be given a very unfair sentence if lynched," he says. "People should respect the lives of others."

Why it persists

Mob justice has persisted because most people do not know the law, says Nsubuga. He also blames local leaders for inciting citizens to carry out mob justice.

Nsubuga adds that the Police has limited capacity to respond to cases of mob justice. Currently, Uganda has about 20,000 policemen, including local administration police and special police constables (maroons), serving a population of 31 million people. This implies that there is one police man for every 1,500 Ugandans, as opposed to the internationally recommended ratio of one to 500.

The LCI chairman for Kyebando-Kisalosalo, Geoffrey Kasaija Kilabira, argues that the Police and Judiciary often frustrate citizens, forcing them to resort to mob justice. In the process, he says, the lives of innocent people are lost. For instance someone who loses a mobile phone can spend a lot of time and money going to Police and Court. In the end he could fail to recover his phone. "So people find going to court a waste of time," says Kilabira.

He adds that corruption in the Police often discourages people as suspects are released without charges, exhibits go missing and files disappear. Also some cases are dismissed for lack of witnesses.

"In some cases, the victim lacks money to transport their witnesses to court, hence the case fails and the suspect is set free," he says. "In such a situation, when a person goes back to the village and commits another offence, the villagers resort to killing."

But Nsubuga says most people simply do not understand how the Police and Judiciary work. "The suspect has a constitutional right to get police bond or court bail. When such a person goes back to the community then they say 'you see, there is no point taking them to Police.' So they end up taking the law into their own hands," he says.

What should be done?

Nsubuga suggests that the community service scheme should be expedited so that citizens see a lawbreaker serving his sentence within their vicinity. This way, they will feel satisfied that an offender has been punished.

MP Mutumba suggests that mob justice can be reduced by creating jobs, especially for the youth. Many of the victims as well as the mob participants tend to be unemployed youths.

Mutumba also suggests that the Government should strengthen institutions like the Police and the Judiciary.

LC Chairman Kilabira too, calls for transparency in the Police and the Judiciary, speedy investigations and trials, and salary increment for law enforcers.

He also says community leaders should be sensitised on the law and the dangers of mob justice.

LCs should be empowered to handle certain petty cases to save citizens from the usual lengthy and expensive process in the Police and Judiciary, he argues.

Whereas the different parties differ about who is to blame and how to solve the problem, they agree that mob justice is leading to unnecessary loss of lives and that something should be done about it.

Reporting by Charles Wendo, Rogers Muyanja, Stephen Candia and Florence Naakayi


DEVANG Rawal, a 25-year-old Indian man, was lynched by Mabira Forest protection demonstrators for allegedly running into the mob.

Jacob Mutesasiira, a 22-year-old man in Kawempe, Kampala, was killed for allegedly stealing a goat.

A freed murder suspect, Yakob Ntale, was killed by mob soon after he arrived home in Manyama Village in Bamunanika, Luwero.

A woman in Kabarole, was beaten to death by a mob for instructing court bailiffs to destroy her former husband's home and banana plantation.

A mob in Busana trading centre lynched a man on suspicion of having stolen shoes.

A man was beaten to death in Bugiri for allegedly stealing a television set.

Three women were lynched at once by a mob in Okidi IDP camp, Kitgum district, for suspected witchcraft.

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