Mob (in)justice in Malawi
In Malawi, incidents of mob justice most often occur in densely populated cities. Photo by Andrea Lynett.
By Andrea Lynett
“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 one 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 woman 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.