Tag Archives: mob justice

Mob justice in Northern Ghana

Men argue over the fate of the alleged thief.

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

Northern Ghana is a powder keg, waiting for a fuse. Whether it’s a dispute over the enskinment of a chief or over a bad left turn in traffic, things turn violent quickly.

This week, as I was reporting on mob justice, the violence turned to me.

Walking through downtown Tamale on a sunny afternoon, I hear a commotion outside a small mosque. It isn’t time for afternoon prayers, so I am surprised to find 100 people gathered outside the doors. I look on bemused, wondering what the fuss is over. A friendly bystander gives me some context.

“There’s a thief. He’s inside the mosque. You see, them with sticks? He must stay inside or he will be beaten.”

Innocent until proven guilty. It’s a fundamental human right and the basis of Commonwealth law. Yet something tells me the mob wouldn’t be too impressed with my paltry legal knowledge.

“But the police station is just there,” I say gesturing down the street. “Why don’t they take him there?”

We are 100 metres away from the biggest police station in Northern Ghana, the district offices of the Ghana Police Service. The irony is not lost on me.

I want to start taking pictures, but first I have to assess the risks. In Ghana, violence against journalists is not unheard of. My bulky Nikon SRL is not easy to disguise. The crowd’s anger is reaching its zenith.

Comforted by the daylight and proximity of female bystanders, I start photographing. My journalistic instincts take over. I take wide shot of the crowd from a safe distance. Some women gesture at me and try to jump out of my shot, but I ignore them.

The alleged thief emerges from the mosque and the crowd swarm him, some brandishing sticks. Nursing a fresh head wound, he somehow manages to evade them by climbing into a taxi.

Bystanders observe the violence outside the mosque

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

Undeterred, the mob surrounds the car, rocking it back and forth. It’s all happening so quickly, it’s impossible to see what’s happening. A few minutes pass before the car is allowed to leave.

The crowd starts to disperse. Pulses are raised and the crowd needs a new scapegoat: me. I have been ignored until this point and am surprised when a young man approaches me.

“Why are you snapping pictures?” he demands, his brow drenched in sweat

“I am just watching,” I shrug and smile. I am hoping my characteristic, wide grin will diffuse the situation.

He laughs, as if to say “silly foreigner” and rejoins the throng.

“You shouldn’t be snapping. Close.”

This advice comes from a man in a tan suit, who looks to work at the hospital.

“Why?” I ask earnestly.

The man draws closer, inches away from my face. A crowd of onlookers is now joining around us.

“Things will end badly for you. They will snatch your camera and spoil it.”

My temperature is rising. Now I am getting reckless

“Are you threatening me?” I ask. “Who are you anyways?”

The tan-suited gentleman backpeddles.

“No, I am not threatening you. You are not permitted to snap photos. Where will you put them?”

Despite his assurances that he is not threatening me, he and four onlookers are closing in on me.

Emboldened by the fact I am leaving in two weeks, I tell them what I think of their advice.

“I don’t care.”

I loop my camera around my neck, swing my backpack onto my stomach and start to walk away.

The jeering crowd follows. I hear sandals flopping against the pavement, running towards me. I brace myself to be hit from behind.

One of the women who didn’t want her picture taken is following me. She’s tall, wearing a flowery blue blouse and is livid. Thankfully her friend is holding her back, a safe 10 metres away.

Nurses observe the scrum outside the mosque

Photo by Gwyneth Dunsford

Sal’minga,” she hisses.

She starts yelling expletives at me that I can’t print here.

I beam at her and say, “Bye bye now”.

I continue walking away.

A nurse walks alongside me and gives a reproving look.

“You cannot show those pictures,” she says, chastising me. “It is a shame to the hospital.”

“I’m a journalist,” I explain. “I am here to witness what’s happening. If you have security problems you need to fix them.”

Behind the nurse, my bullies continue to taunt me.

“Your ugly legs! Your ugly legs! Look at your ugly legs!

I continue to walk away and escape the crowd in an internet cafe.

Somehow I thought I was immune to the violence and threats; that my Canadian passport and white skin meant that the mob couldn’t come after me. I was wrong, but I am grateful I discovered this before it was too late.

Mob (In)justice



In Malawi, incidents of mob justice most often occur in densely populated cities

“I was driving right behind the car when I saw it all happen,” my roommate tells me. “An old man was on his bike coming out of the gas station. The car in front of me didn’t see him until the last second—they tried to swerve, but they hit him.”

Within seconds, a mob descended on the scene. The driver tossed the man into the back of the car before witnesses could attack.

Sometimes after car accidents or incidents of street theft in Malawi crowds beat the suspected criminal—at times to death—in a practice known as mob justice. It’s driven by citizens’ lack of faith in law enforcement and a misunderstanding of legal systems.

“We’ve had numerous incidents of mob justice,” says George Mhango, a veteran reporter in Malawi. “There’s even been many times where groups of people catch thieves and burn them to death.”

Between January and October this year there were 13 reported cases of mob justice in Malawi, most of which occurred in cities, where the population is denser.

According to Davie Chingwalu, public relations officer for southern region police, citizens resort to mob justice when a suspect is released from prison on bail. “They think that means we are setting the suspect free,” he says.

Vigilante justice also occurs when individuals are accused of practising witchcraft, according to an article by Chingwalu published in The Daily Times. “Many suspected witches and wizards are assaulted, killed or their houses and property are torched,” he writes. “Witchcraft cases are very difficult to prove in a court of law because of lack of tangible evidence that can be seen or produced. Hence innocent people are likely to suffer for merely suspecting them to be [guilty].”

The Malawian Constitution clearly states that an accused person is entitled to a fair trial and shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But when mob justice occurs, the accused is stripped of these legal rights.

It appears the court system is failing to adequately assist; the country has only one lawyer for every 37,000 Malawians, a stark contrast to Canada, which, according to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, has for every 345 citizens.

With a backlog in the court system, funding constraints and few practising lawyers in the country, the majority of Malawians, especially the poor, wait months or even years for their cases to be heard before a judge. The Malawi Human Rights Commission recorded over 150 complaints in one year related to limited access to or unfair administrative justice.

However, as Chingwalu argues, this does not give citizens the right to interfere before the law has time to intervene. When they do, “the legal practice is derailed, [which] brings about investigation deficiencies.”

Just two weeks ago, police were called anonymously to Ndirande Township in Blantyre after a mob killed two people who were caught robbing a house. “The mob followed the suspects to their own home and murdered them right on their doorstep. They hacked them to death,” Chingwalu says. It was the worst case he’s seen yet.

Nonetheless, he says he’s noticed an overall decline in mob justice over the past three years. In his opinion, the downward trend is taking place because Malawians are becoming better educated about their legal rights.

When my roommate saw the cyclist collide with the car, his first instinct wasn’t to run. “I wanted to help,” he explains. “But I watched this women try to help the old man and the crowd surrounded her. If I helped, the same thing would happen to me and it’s best to just stay away.”

I guess you never know what a crowd is capable of.