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Killing justice to get ‘justice’

By Stephen Kafeero

Mohandas Ghandi once said: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

The message embedded in these words is at variance with the thinking of many Ugandans today who take it upon themselves to pass judgment on suspects and summarily condemn them to death.

Damulu Abdul, 26 years old, a resident of Kamwokya never dreamt that he would meet his death at Kyebando Police Post. On July 27, 2011, Boda-boda riders were chasing an unknown suspected thief who entered the police post. At the same time, an officer at the police post was taking Damulu, who had been arrested for a different crime, to the main Kiira Road Police Station.


A mob charged and overpowered the police officer. They set upon Damulu and started beating him. He died the following morning of July 28 at Mulago Hospital. Peter Senyonga, 32, and Godfrey Keeya, 21, were arrested in connection with the murder. According to James Ruhweza, the Kiira Road Division Police Commander, the duo would be charged with murder. Damulu’s case is not a new nor surprising phenomenon in Ugandans. The incidence of mob action which people erroneously call “mob justice” is as common as Kampala’s traffic jam. Many Ugandans, guilty or innocent, have been killed without a fair trial.

Shaban Bukenya, another victim of mob justice was found lying helplessly at the casualty ward at Mulago Referral Hospital. He had been so badly beaten that he could hardly talk. He was apparently beaten by a mob in a bar brawl.

Police reports indicate that 199 people were killed by mobs between January and June 2010 in the whole country and the report for January-June 2011 indicates that 50 people in Kampala Metropolitan only have been killed in the same period.

The boda boda riders are singled out as the major perpetrators of mob justice.

Fred Seruyaange, a boda boda cyclist at Diamond Trust stage on Kampala Road, blames the mob action on the police’s inaction. “When we arrest someone we have caught red handed, the police release them after a short time,” he said.

Francis Semuddu, a boda boda cyclist on Kampala Road, says: “The way our colleagues are killed is very brutal. What do you want us to do?”

He however castigates some of their colleagues who he says brand passengers as thieves to provoke the mob against them after a disagreement over pay.

The boda-boda riders explain their behaviour on two accounts; the way their colleagues are brutally killed by robbers who take away their motorcycles and two, the lenience with which the police and the judiciary handle the arrested culprits.

Ambrose Mpirima, another boda-boda cyclist, says: “When we kill these thieves the way we do, others planning to do so are discouraged. It’s better than taking them to police and they are released the next day,” he said.

And the fact that police take long to reach scenes where mob action is taking place encourages the crime because the perpetrators know there will act with impunity.

The thin presence of police has made the bad situation worse. The ratio of police to the population in Uganda is 1:1722, which is far below the internationally  recommended ratio of 1:450 for effective community policing.
Police spokesperson Judith Nabakooba says the police cannot fight mob justice alone because they cannot be in every inch of the country. She says the community has a primary duty to inform the police when such crimes are about to be committed or have been committed.

“We advise our officers to leave their numbers in their areas of operation,” said Nabakooba. She says the police are using a double approach of arresting the suspects and sensitising the communities and students to desist from mob justice. She urged the media to report responsibly in a manner that will discourage rather than escalate mob actions.

Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, a human rights lawyer, says there is no offence called Mob Justice although the culprits can be charged with assault, murder or malicious damage to property. He urged Parliament to amend the Penal Code Act to provide specific punishments for mob justice perpetrators.

“People ought to respect the legal system. But also the legal system must work for the people to respect it,” Rwakafuzi says.  He attributes mob justice to ignorance and loss of faith in the judicial system.

Erias Kisawuzi, the spokesman of the Judiciary, says the courts should not be blamed. He says release or conviction of the suspects depends on the evidence the prosecution presents during the trial. He says courts release suspects for lack of evidence.

But he also hinted at the understaffing in the judiciary as one of the reasons impeding effective disposal of cases. He says Uganda has only 44 High Court judges about 10 of who are deployed outside the country. “How do you expect us to handle the over 30 million Ugandans effectively when most of the cases can only be handled by the High Court?” Kisawuzi asked.

Ida B, Wells, an American author, said: “Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defence.” Can Ugandans learn from Wells?

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