Is mob Justice an indication that the legal system in Uganda is a failure?


Ochlocracy is synonymous in meaning and usage to the modern, informal term “mobocracy”, which emerged from a much more recent colloquial etymology.

Ochlocracy (“rule of the general populace”) is democracy (“rule of the people”) spoiled by demagoguery, “tyranny of the majority”, and the rule of passion over reason, just like oligarchy (“rule of a few”) is aristocracy (“rule of the best”) spoiled by corruption, and tyranny is monarchy spoiled by lack of virtue.

Every day when we read in the newspapers, view televisions and listen to radio news, we can’t miss pieces of news involving people who are engaged in lethal mob violence that is sadly referred to as ‘mob justice’ and one wonders what is happening to our country.

Mob Justice is when a large angry mob takes justice into their own hands; usually ends with somebody getting hanged, torched or pitchforked also a common method of dispensing justice in the more rural areas of a country.

General Elly Tumwine once defined mob justice as ‘rushed injustice’ as the mob takes quick and immediate action to redress a perceived problem at hand. To him, mob justice is an indication that the public has lost confidence in the existing legal system.

So what’s justice? This is the existence of a proper balance which in law illustrates applications of the notion of a proper balance: a fair trial, which among other things, achieves a proper balance between the ability of the defendant to establish innocence and the ability of the prosecution to establish guilt; a just sentence which balances the precedent wrong with the present response.

Like the story a friend told me of one who took a boda in Jinja. The price was sh5,000, but he had a sh20,000 note, and the boda rider claimed he did not have change and went off on foot to get change, leaving the passenger by the bike.  Moments later the rider came back with a mob of other boda riders, claiming the passenger had tried to steal his bike.

The poor guy was beaten to death on the spot, even when people nearby tried to defend him. He died for only sh15,000.  Often times in urban areas, scenarios of angry mobs organised around a cause and decided to take the law into thy hands.

The end results have of course been loss of lives on grounds the Courts of Law are meant to adjudicate. The spread of mob justice in urban centres is majorly due to one reason; anonymity. The thief or whosoever criminal they identify is not always known in the area he/she has committed the offense so it’s easy for the revelers to shout “kill” because he not vigilant to be a daughter, son of any immediate parent to save them.

Rural areas on the other hand have been intolerant of this particular form of justice largely because there is no anonymity. Any criminal they identify is a son of a known parent so it’s easy to refer the case to the authorities or parents rather than rush on heuristic and random conclusions where no one seems to care. It is sad to mention though that mob justice is penetrating the villages as well making it an existential threat to judicial justice. Image

Cases of Mob Justice recorded in the media:

  • Assistant Inspector of police John Ariong was reportedly killed by a mob accompanying FDC leader Kizza Besigye and Kampala mayor Erias Lukwago when the duo’s visit in downtown Kampala turned chaotic.
  • In May 2011, in Iganga district (eastern Uganda), a child went missing and villagers suspected three witchdoctors to have knowledge of the child’s disappearance.  The locals lynched the three suspects, only to discover later that the reportedly missing child was still alive.
  • In December 2009, when Sam Kubo decided to lease out his land that sits on 600 hectares in Kayunga district, the illegal squatters felt Kubo would rather die than lease out the land they resided on. The angry mob lynched him and burnt his body and his car.

What remains central in the various views expressed in defining ‘justice’ are the ideas of equity, fairness. It is therefore usually accepted that departures from equity and fairness are unjust and must be justified. In this regard, any recourse to violence to settle personal scores in any given human society without the due process of law is tantamount to a violation of the principles of equity and fairness that legitimate justice.

Such an act is therefore a breach of justice. A further consideration of ‘justice’ in the concept of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Uganda is signatory, and the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda reveals features that clearly stipulates and emphasizes the  need for equity and fairness in the quest for and administration of justice.

According to the article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. The articles 5 and 6 respectively emphasize the importance of equity and fairness for every human being as follow: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.”

Consequently, articles 8, 10 and 11 clearly underline the same virtues of equity and fairness as necessary to true administration of justice.

According to article 8, “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.”

Article 10, on the other hand, is explicit on the necessity of equity and fairness. It declares: “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.”

In furtherance of this, Article 11, (1) reiterates the importance of a competent jurisdiction to administer justice by deciding whether one is guilty of an offense for which one is accused. It states inter alia: “Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.”

The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda however does not state that the dignity of all persons shall be inviolable and that no one shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or any other condition that detracts from human dignity.

It only provides for an independent judiciary to ensure equity and fairness in the dispensation of justice. The constitution states that “All persons are equal before the law”. Besides, “Citizens may exercise popular participation in the administration of justice through the institutions of public and customary tribunals and the jury and assessor systems”, subject to Clause 2 of Article 125.

Clauses 1 and 3 of the said Article, trace the source of justice back to the people of Uganda, but confer its dispensation to the authority of an independent judiciary.   Justice emanates from the people and shall be administered in the name of the Republic by the Judiciary which shall be independent and subject only to this Constitution.

The judicial power of Uganda shall be vested in the Judiciary; accordingly, neither the President nor Parliament nor any organ or agency of the President or Parliament shall have or be given final judicial power.

Despite the popular expectation that the law exists to achieve just results and will operate procedurally just ways, there is an ample potential of conflict between legal systems, natural law and morality which gives rise to difficult questions about nature and application of justice.

This indeed is the unfortunate situation in the quest for justice in Uganda’s democratic system. The administration of justice appears not to meet the popular expectation in most cases and consequently most people resort to mob violence as a way to justice which contrary to public opinion is a bad thing.

What do authorities say about Mob Justice?

The Archbishop of Kampala, Dr Cyprian Kizito-Lwanga, has urged Parliament to come out and enact tough laws against mob justice in the country.

The Catholic Church stands firmly against mob justice, in the strongest terms possible, as has Lwanga come out to urge Ugandans to stop it. He said the act is not justice at all, as it is destructive to human life, a violation of human rights and Christian principles.

Lwanga sent out a clear message to the Ugandan legislators to pass stringent laws on mob justice.

The Human Rights Network, an organization that runs a campaign against mob justice, has reported before that there are increasing incidents of mob justice because ‘people have lost trust in judicial services.’ A section of the public believes that part of the cause of mob justice is a judicial problem, that when court backlogs increase, some people feel the need to take the law in their own hands.

“If you the youths of today continue to pursue your own interests by engaging in the so-called mob justice, then our country will continue to disintegrate. As leaders of tomorrow, you will have taken this country to nowhere,” the prelate assured. While Lwanga blamed most mob activity on youths, he also highlighted the absence of peace and justice in some societies as part of the bigger problem.


2 thoughts on “Is mob Justice an indication that the legal system in Uganda is a failure?

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