On Tuesday evening at around 6.30 pm I walked into a supermarket at Kimironko and immediately noticed that something was amiss.
Heading to the (meat) section of the small supermarket, an acquaintance holding her shopping bag told me “the attendants left me unattended because they have arrested a thief”.
I then walked to the counter to establish what was going on, and then I heard what sounded like slaps behind the shop shelves, walked there and found the lynch mob raining blows on the suspected shop lifter.
The suspect was holding two notes of twenty thousand Rwanda francs (4000 frw).He was a well groomed, smartly dressed man in early thirties.
When I approached demanding to know what was happening, the blows stopped except for the bouncer-looking security man who had left his guard outside the shop to participate in mob justice.
I told them stop beating him and enquired whether he had accepted responsibility. A man who might have been the manager said “yes, and he has the money to pay, here it is” and shoved him to the counter.
To my surprised the man was being lynched for taking lifting mayonnaise and walking out of the shop without paying. An attendant who suspected him followed him and brought him back.
I wondered, why this healthy looking man with money why stole mayonnaise worth 2600 francs. The menacing guard might have thought the same because he walked back and slapped him hard on the face to which I reacted, asking him stop beating the man after taking his money, for in any case he was not a policeman.
The guard walked out and as I walked through the door, he told “ Mzee, I had to punish him so that he stops the habit”.
I walked home thinking about the dangers of mob justice. Certainly the man was not poor nor was he starving considering his choice of food for shop lifting. Could he have forgotten to pay, is he normal?
There are people one could call pathological thieves and I am informed that such people are never beaten. My former classmate at Ntare School, Fidel, renounced for his striking memory, among his other talents, reminded me of school mate Yakobo who was from an affluent, generous family.
Yakobo’s dress code was most fashionable, he spent lavishly at the school canteen, but he was often arrested by Indian shopkeepers shop lifting. In most cases Yakobo who became a prominent lawyer was nabbed stealing chocolate.
The two cases will illustrate why I abhor mob justice. In the first case the young man could have forgotten to pay but even he is a serial thief, there are certain basic rights we have to observe.
In such cases reasonable force should be used to apprehend the suspect and hand them over the police.
Supposing such a person was sick, and you slap him he falls down unconscious, who is guilty of a more grievous offense, the suspected thief or you? Think about what happened in Rwemiyaga sector in Nyagatare district recently.
A couple with their two and half year’s old son wer arrested for stealing cassava at around midnight by vigilantes. The man managed to escape, but the woman was detained for the night.
I was shocked to hear her voice on Radio Rwanda saying she killed her son that night to highlight the severity of famine. Now, is that a normal person who should receive instant punishment?
No, that is why I argue that the police should be involved early as they are expected to have appropriate knowledge, mechanism and expertise to handle such cases.
Mob justice, in my view, is a reflection of impunity. It is an aggravated assault and should be firmly dealt with.
Fortunately in Rwanda it has been contained through community policing and other administrative measures; but in countries where it has developed into a bizarre culture, it consequences are disastrous.
A BBC programme in 2005 generated disturbing responses from Africa: In Kenya two brothers were set ablaze when the lynch mob mistook them for thieves.
From Ghana, according to an eye witness, Mob justice has is part of culture “I have personally witnessed several instances where taxi drivers have parked their cabs, passengers and all, in order to join a mob action which they have no clue about. On one such occasion, an alleged thief managed to escape the original group chasing him.
He then pointed at somebody else shouting “dzulo, dzulo” - “thief, thief”. Within a few minutes, this innocent man was besieged by an angry mob but thankfully the police were quick to respond and saved his life.”
We should not condone crime of any sort and no efforts should be spared to prevent it. In Rwanda where CCTV is not widespread, customer care service can act as deterrent if attendants, greet, follow and help in the shopping.
Another strategy is to regulate entry with brief cases and bags like the one the Kimironko ‘thief’ held under his arm pit.