Vigilantism and the right to security

If all goes well, the justice system within a democracy goes like so:

A crime is committed. The criminal is reprimanded. The authorities pass fair judgment in a court of law. Punishment is allocated to the accused, if guilty. Justice and security of the victim is upheld. Communities feel protected.

When the right to security isn’t adequately enforced, however, there are implications.

It can make a society seem lawless. It can create resentment towards a government. It can make a lynch mob out of good men.

As my time in Ghana comes to an end, two situations have bookmarked my experience here, reminding me of what a flawed justice system has to do with the right to security, vigilantism, and what these very grey terms look like in real-time.

***

I spent my first month in Accra at a guesthouse while I was looking for a home.

I settled into my temporary accommodations nicely and befriended the locals in the area. We would chat and eat and drink together. I felt like I was part of a community. I had made some new friends and – most importantly – I felt safe.

Then a series of robberies began to happen in the area.

Each victim that I had heard of was attacked in the early evening while walking alone.

They all reported hearing the rumble of a motorcycle engine in the distance, at first. Each explained that before they knew it, one of two men on the motorcycle swiftly pulled out a large machete, cut the strap of the purse or laptop bag this person was carrying, and off the robbers would ride back to the area of the city they had come from.

These criminals were certainly not from this “our area” explained each of the victims.

***

As I approached the guesthouse a group of local boys – my new friends – were sitting on chairs by the curb as they always did, heatedly discussing something-or-other as I approached.

I was told that their community watch group was being reinstated. It was time.

This close nit community had been problem-free for years until these series of robberies began, but now, the robbers were getting too confident.

“Why not call the police?” I wondered.

They laughed.

“Do I have to tell the police to come do that job for me? They’ll tell me ‘it’s not my job’,” remarked one of them.

“So we do it our own way. We want to protect our neighbourhood. We want you to come home – now this is your home – and we want you to feel comfortable coming here, any time.”

It’s difficult too quantify affective justice in a country whose wheels are known to be greased by corruption, but the word on the street is that the police are not trusted. They will extort, pull rank and intimidate, but rarely are they concerned with protecting their citizens.

For a city that has a population that is close to 2 million people, “Police cannot easily handle it themselves,” admits Chief Inspector Asikah Samson of the community’s police station.

And whether the problem is in fact corruption or a lack of resources, community justice groups are embedded in just about every community in the city. That’s the reality. Some are sanctioned by police and some are not.

One of the boys on the curb explains to me that just a few days earlier, Accra’s Police Chief was publically discussing the capture of an armed robber, who had been caught by police for his crimes for the 5th time in 4 years.

“So, imagine it was members of the [community watch group] who caught this man,” he said. “Criminals in these jails go in, pay money and go back out. No. We are not taking him to the police station. That is a waste of time. Some people take the law into their own hands. Sometimes you need to do that.”

Unsure of how much of this was hype and male bravado, I went to sleep with their words weighing heavily on my mind.

They feared nothing – not death, not prison. They simply wanted justice, they wanted protection for their families, and because their constitutional right to security was not being upheld – according to them – they were willing to take the law into their own hands.

A few days later, a robber was caught stealing from a hotel down the street from the guesthouse.

The commotion in the streets called me onto the balcony by my room and I watched as these same boys who hold my hand and walk me to the corner store in the evenings, beat this thief close to unconsciousness.  There must have been twenty of them. Each took a turn implementing their personal brand of justice.

This is the result of a ‘Right’ ignored.

***

Last week on the job, a phone call came across the news desk.

A man was murdered in a district of Accra called Spintex. He was beat to death with the wood that he was stealing from a neighbours yard. Later that day a witness dropped the picture off at the station.

Despite curiosity sometimes being one of the more foolish of my instincts, I examined the photo of the thief anyway. He was young – perhaps in his late 20s, early 30s. His entire body was swollen and lifeless.

These good citizens, turned vigilantes, turned lynch mob decided that the price of this lumber – under their law – was this man’s life.

As I write this blog days later, I wonder:

How often do we connect the dots between the right to justice and the implications of not giving people access to this right?

One thought on “Vigilantism and the right to security

  1. Wim Deprez

    Dear Sandra,

    thank you for your inspiring article. As most Ghana dwellers are aware, we know about the existance of vigilantism, but it is the first time that I see the line drawn from the denial of a (my opinion basic) human right as security to these implications.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Kind greetings from Tamale,

    Wim

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