By Bephine Ogutu

Last month, pictures of a young boy sitting on the ground bleeding, about to be lynched, went viral on social media. Most people couldn’t stand the sight of the pictures, which were extremely graphic. For those who had the guts to watch the video, it was beyond painful; it was traumatising. The boy was only 10.

Mob justice is a brutal part life in Kenya and elsewhere. Administration of instant justice to suspects and accused persons is an “accepted” way of fighting crime in Kenya. But the question is, how do you stop crime in a community where the police and the judicial system are not trusted? Mob justice mainly occurs in slums where residents do not trust the police to (a) be regularly present to ensure order or (b) administer justice. Vigilante justice, as far as they are concerned, is their only recourse.

Whenever a community feels that the government is not doing enough to protect them, crowd violence and mob justice is unavoidable. In Kibera, the relative calm the area enjoys today is attributed to a group that has been tracking down and lynching suspected thieves and criminals since 2008. Mob and vigilante justice in Kibera, like other slums, is purely as a result of shady police work.

Yet, while this brand of justice is barbaric, it does seem to work. In January last year, Maureen, who lives in Kisumu Ndogo in Kibera, had been hurrying home, glad the sun had gone down and eager to get off the dusty streets. But thoughts of getting home were immediately forgotten when her purse, which had been hanging loosely from her shoulder, was yanked away. As the man dashed away, Maureen started screaming and chasing after him.

“It’s like they appeared from thin air,” Maureen says of the mob that joined her in chasing the handbag thief. But neither she nor the crowd were prepared for what happened next. The thief turned to face them, lifted the back of his hooded pullover and brandished a gun. He began shooting in the air. Maureen froze on the spot but the relentless mob, slowed down for the moment, continued its pursuit.

“I remember one man saying, ‘hizo risasi zitaisha (he will run our of bullets).” And when they did, the crowd pounced, kicking, punching and drowning out the thief’s groans with angry shouts and determined blows. One man reached for a brick from the side of the road and, lifting it above his head, brought it down on the thief’s chest. If he hadn’t been dead already, the brick did finished him. After that, the crowd disappeared as swiftly as it had congregated. Amidst all the commotion, someone handed Maureen her handbag – with all her belongings intact.

Had Maureen gone to the police, all she would have done was fill out an “Abstract” for the items she had lost, none of which would have been recovered.

“I’m glad that those people were there. I got my purse and that man deserved what he got for trying to steal,” she concludes without a hint of regret.

Maureen’s mob was a group of random people who had no investment, emotional or financial, in the outcome of her stolen handbag. The crowd, as in many other cases, didn’t know her but was willing to kill a man for stealing from her – a fact that betrays the frustration and desperation those living in slums feel every single day. When a mob turns on someone, s/he almost always dies.

In July 13 2016, in the same area, a police officer was lynched after he, with a colleague, robbed a woman of Sh490,000; his friend was lucky enough to get rescued According to the Star newspaper, police said the two were cornered while running away from the scene after the fact; the woman was delivering the money to an M-Pesa shop.

Advanced vigilante tools

The Voice of Kibera is a citizen-reporting project that uses a digital map of Kibera and the Ushahidi software to generate present information. Besides reporting incidences, it also provides information that helps residents to identify perpetrators of crime even if they escape after the first crime.

Beginning 2007, the now outlawed Mungiki sect rained terror in many parts of Nairobi and Central Kenya, particularly Kiambu and Nyeri. Their reign of terror went on until people started administrating mob justice on sect members. Mungiki was believed to have had membership even within the police. According to Joseph Mwangi, a resident from Kirinyaga, the villagers came together and decided to form a vigilante group to hunt down and kill members of the outlawed sect.

“We formed groups of more than 100 men to patrol the village at night and also hunt down known members the sect. We destroyed everything that was remotely attached to them – we would burn their homes and chase their families away from our village,” said Mwangi.
It was easy for the villagers fight the sect because they knew who they were after. Of course, nobody can say outright that s/he approves of their methods, but it is difficult to not appreciate the calm they enjoy today. It took the villagers less than a year to weed Mungiki, something government had been unable (or unwilling as it is whispered) to do in a long time,” says Mwangi.

People who rob terrorise any community are well known to the community members. Police might find it difficult to track down and arrest suspects but the people from that community know where these suspects reside. In most cases, whenever there is a crackdown by the police, it is usually the residents who hide the people being targeted in the crackdown. For these reasons, it is the criminals’ greatest fear when the residents turn against them.
And this is the reason mob justice – however despicable and crude – works so effectively: the fear it instils.

But a too-well-known fact is that mob justice does not always mete out justice. It also breeds mistrust, hate, revenge, buck-passing and regret, especially when it turns out – often too late – that an innocent has been killed. For it is not uncommon to hear the same people who participate in the lynches say afterwards, “he should not have been killed… he was a good man… he was innocent…” Others will claim to have known the deceased as an “honest, hardworking man”, and that they “don’t believe he was a thief”. Often, mob justice begins as passion – of wanting to punish someone – that quickly degenerates into death. The human psyche is an easy thing to excite.

David is one of the few lucky innocent people who have lived to tell the tale. It happened in Kariobangi where he was seen trying to break in. The house he was trying break into belonged to his brother. David has just arrived in the city from Kisumu, only to find that his brother had left for work early in the morning. He called his brother who instructed him to break the door since he would return late. It was when David was breaking the door that he was spotted by passers-by who, naturally, thought he was a thief. Unfortunately for David, he wasn’t known to his brother Otieno’s neighbours, and before he could explain, anything, people had descended on him. David’s luck came when one of the people who knew Otieno called to inform him of the “good job” they were doing. David’s brother had the presence of mind to call the police and ask them to go to his sibling’s aid.

“If it were not for Otieno’s quick thinking, I would probably be dead today; above all, I believe it is God who came to my rescue,” says David. He has just one good eye, and an arm is missing. He rides on a wheelchair. “I now depend, to some extent, on others, to do things for me. I used to be a carpenter but now I depend on selling airtime and sweets. That is the job I can do now.”

What should happen?

David suffered, and will continue to, for the rest of his life while those who beat him have gone back to their lives, oblivious to the disruption they caused in a man’s life.

While most resent it, there are those who have no apologies about meting out mob and vigilante justice, and have no qualms about doing it over and over again. It is the only way they know of making a statement to criminals, guilty or innocent. But shouldn’t we, perhaps, have a law that provides for the charging, individually, of these murderers and attempted ones, mitigating circumstances notwithstanding? I can think of a lot of possibilities of David above with two hands. Better still, wouldn’t it be appropriate to hold responsible the Police Service – and the officers assigned to the sections where mob justice occurs most often – for neglect of duty and failure to stop a crime?

At face value, mob justice delivers desired effect. But it is not a moral or legal alternative to the incompetence of police and judiciary system’s shady work? If it is, then perhaps we should go ahead and legalise it as an accepted way of fighting crime.

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