An Eye for an Eye, A Head for a Pig

17 05 2010

The website UGPulse just ran this headline:

Uganda People News: Residents Behead Pig Thief in Kayunga

I wasn’t shocked by the headline.  That’s disturbing in itself.  A headline like this should always be a shock.

My home in the U.S. is a small island in Washington State near Seattle.  It feels a bit like a village.  If the Bainbridge Review ran a headline “Islander Beheaded by Crowd after Allegedly Stealing Neighbor’s Pig,” it would have sent a chill down my spine and changed my view of the island forever.  But my reaction to the article in UGPulse was “Huh.  Here we go again.”

Vigilante justice is a big thing here in Uganda.  There are frequent reports about thieves on the streets of Kampala being killed by a crowd, and it is recommended that if you hit a pedestrian with your car you should keep driving to the nearest police station to report the incident, as the bystanders might attack you if you stop.  I have seen crowds chasing someone down the street with a sinking feeling in my gut, just hoping they will make it to a police station to turn themselves in before the mob gets them.

There are any number of problems with vigilante justice.  The response, as in this case of the pilfered pig, is often outlandishly disproportional.  It bypasses any type of “due process.”  I could potentially point to a random person in a crowd and yell “THIEF!” and the crowd could pounce.  It also perpetuates the notion that violence is the best, or at least an acceptable, solution to conflicts between people.

Beyond these issues, what I often wonder when I read reports about vigilante justice, is why. Why can a group of people so quickly turn into a mob?  Why are people who have no personal stake in a situation so ready to kill someone for an offence that may or may not have even happened?

I can think of a few possible answers to the question of why:

1.  People have no faith in the legal system here.  This is understandable.  There are many criminals walking free who had enough money to pay off the arresting officer or the judge, or who had some useful family connections.  I believe this causes a deep-rooted frustration on the part of honest people who feel like justice will not be done through proper channels, so they take it upon themselves to deliver the punishment.  When we feel powerless, we look for ways to have control again.

2.  There is a deep-seated societal anger looking for an outlet.  This could come from a number of sources; poverty, trauma, violence in one’s own past, etc.  When there is no socially acceptable way to process this anger (therapists are not terribly widespread here), I think (in my thoroughly untrained opinion) it can become generalized and cause people to lash out at any opportunity.  Uganda has certainly had its share of violence in the past 40 years, and there has been a general policy of not opening up old wounds (for more on this, read The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget).

3.  Actually, I can’t think of a #3.  If there is a #3, I have a feeling it is just a variation on #2.  Referring to the post-election violence in Kenya in ’07-’08, I have heard many Africans saying they weren’t surprised.  Even though Kenya was perceived as a bastion of stability in East Africa, people knew there was a seething division between tribes that was going to come out eventually.  The elections opened the pressure-valve.

When I dive into the meaning of mob justice in Uganda, it is like thinking about a family member with split-personality disorder.  I love Uganda, and have never been to a country with warmer, friendlier people than Ugandans.  I feel safer in Kampala than in almost any city in the U.S.  And then you hear about villagers beheading somebody for maybe stealing a pig.

If it was just this one incident, I could write it off.  Messed-up stuff happens everywhere, and Uganda is certainly not the only place where mob justice is commonplace.  But this is where I live, so this is the place I think about, and it happens often enough here that it feels like part of an outlook on the world.

I would be interested to hear other thoughts on why this happens, particularly from any Ugandans reading this.  I also have a healthy dose of cynicism about human nature, and would be interested to hear thoughts on why it doesn’t happen more often, either here or elsewhere in the world.  Would vigilante justice be more prevalent in the U.S. if people weren’t afraid of getting caught and punished for taking matters into their own hands?  If violence is part of our nature, what keeps it in check, and what are the triggers that release it?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala