A few months ago a thief was caught at the University of Zimbabwe trying to make off with a laptop. He nearly succeeded and was only apprehended because the taxi he boarded delayed allowing the victims to reach the taxi terminus and conduct a search.
The unfortunate thief was dragged back into the University and beaten by a group of about ten students who also notified the authorities. But the news spread, and by the time the Dean and Warden arrived, a group of about five hundred angry students had gathered outside the room where the thief was locked up.
The students’ demand was simple- all they wanted was to be given the thief. A little physical correction would not hurt him, they claimed. The Dean, quite obviously, refused, which prompted the crowd to start singing and chanting loudly. One or two stones were thrown and some windows were broken. In a rare display of efficiency and responsiveness, the police sent a car with an armed guard to escort and guard a common thief as if he was a murderer. The police quickly whisked the thief away but not before they were insulted and their car was pelted with stones.
Four Nigerian youths were not so lucky this week when they were accused of stealing laptops. They were set quickly set alight and met a very fiery end.
This incidents are not confined to Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Mob justice is especially widespread- and accepted- in South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda and Cameroon. In those countries, a thief, once caught by the common people, faces a very unattractive fate.
A year or so ago, a South African man accused of raping a school girl was horribly tortured and urinated on by a large group of women until he died. Granted, rape is a deplorable thing, but equally ruthless is murder.
In the North and West African countries the common practice is to put a tyre around the victim’s neck, douse him with petrol and then set the tyre alight. Horrible and inhumane.
This is one of the bad things that African countries inherited from colonialism. Colonial authorities usually encouraged thieves to be punished publicly, and more often than not, in a very degrading manner. Additionally, during colonial times there were very few police officers in black settlements which meant the local people took the law into their hands.
Colonialism is long gone now yet the cruelty remains. In such instances, as in many others when we Africans do terrible things to our own, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Ourselves, and our governments.
The police rarely respond quickly, and do very little to combat crime especially in the ghettos and slums all over the continent. Some known criminals are free to roam the streets because of an incompetent and corrupt justice system. People vent their frustrations, and the frustrations come from many disappointments with governments, on some equally frustrated petty thief.
The police blame the government, saying they do not receive enough money or manpower from the government to be effective.
All the arguments are valid to a certain point, yet the most important thing is that we need a societal revolution. A revolution in the way we think and treat the powerless. It goes all the way up, the people are brutal with petty thieves, the police and soldiers kill innocent citizens all the time. Politicians kill us all.
Equally important is the fact that we need responsible governments who are able to provide for their citizens. Without the rampant unemployment, very few people would be inclined to steal laptops and cellphones for a living.
The people’s court is cruel, the verdict is harsh and many pay the ultimate price. It has to stop.
Mob justice has no place in a modern society.