Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Prevalence and Danger of Vigilante Justice in Rural Africa

In all non-urban areas in the world, police enforcement tends to be sparse.  Farming communities, separated by acres of fields, evidently cannot be conducive to constant patrolling presence of uniformed officers.  In fact, police presence can be so distant that when crimes and disputes occur, reporting to the police may not even bring officers to the scenes of conflict in time for fruitful resolution.  In the case of crimes by stealth, it is highly likely that by the time the police can assess the situation, neither the victim nor the victimizer will be there for questioning.

Here in rural Africa, there seems to be an additional layer of complexity.  The few uniformed officers in the general region tend to congregate and work on areas where they know capturing the criminal would mean some sort of personal monetary benefits.  Hence, police officers enthusiastically man traffic checkpoints to examine goods, licenses, and vehicle registrations, dishing out fines for the slightest faults in paperwork.  Similarly, they seem to show no qualms about walking around villages, checking on supposed equipment and documentation to sustain operations.

With all their time spent at such activities, it is no wonder that villagers who face other sorts of issues receive rather lackluster support from the local police.  Matters of land disputes and theft are not too uncommon, but resolving them often require the victims to physically report the situations to the police stations, a trip that may take more than an hour one way for more remote villages.  Out of their job responsibilities, the police will make a record of the situation, but the author has not heard of any efforts at on-the-field investigation by the local police to help resolve the issues.

Perhaps knowing the passiveness of the police, many locals tend to rely on their own communities when conflicts arise.  Local village officials serve as first point of contact, and informal guild-like organization of men and women in same profession may be mobilized to hunt down lost items or criminals on the run.  Often it would means days of not working for the mobilized group, but for the community-centric mentality of the area, insisting on supporting a fellow in need has much more important social value than ensuring that usual work is being done and incomes is being made.

Given that these informal groups of villagers are effectively the primary force of crime investigation in faraway villages, surely the same parties are also responsible for punishments once the criminals are found.  It can be speculated that even if the crime can be proven and the police is willing to punish according to the law, villagers are unlikely to hold back their own anger that one of their community members are so out of the line.  The criminals in question, hence, are likely to be at the mercy of their fellow villagers even before being handed over to the police.

What the informal punishment of the villagers tend to be probably largely depend on the village in question.  Some are certain: the criminals, if they choose to stay in the village, will remain social outcasts for years to come.  But other punishments will be completely "flexible," ranging anything from a beating to death.  In the absence of a police force that can check and restrain the magnitude and severity of such vigilante justice, criminals who are caught should very much expect the very worst from people they criminalized.

Yet, maybe the least sanguine aspect of vigilante justice is not the sheer randomness (and potential undeserved severity) of punishments received by criminals, but the fact that it weakens the very institution of law enforcement in rural areas.  In punishing criminals, vigilante groups certainly do not check relevant laws of the country to set standards, and there are no one in the villages trained on the topic to give guidance.  Trained police officers, almost without exception, turn a blind eye to such vigilante justice, knowing that to go against the will of the villagers do not help their own authority.

What is worse, if vigilante justice indeed deter crime in the villages, established law enforcement institutions (police stations and local courts) may feel that their presence in the villages will simply be unnecessary.  Governments will become more reluctant to invest in legal infrastructure in rural areas, and the formalized rule of law will remain a minnow for the foreseeable future.  What political scientists call the "monopoly of violence" will no longer lie with the national government, but forcefully decentralized to the community level in a way that prevent effective communications.

In times of peace, the issue may be limited to occasional excess punishments of criminals, but in times of political turbulence, the lack of government reach in rural communities may prove to a major source of instability.  Without proper legal education (via firsthand experience), communities can may easily succumb to temptation of rebel groups who offer alternative rules of law in exchange of concrete financial benefits.  The lack of government legal presence in these areas will mean that there is no legal framework to hold back such development.

This is not even mentioning the fact the development will not be communicated to the central government until too late.  Because police officers, long dependent on vigilante justice as main method of effective crime punishment in villages, neglect to maintain meaningful working relationships there, any news of change are unlikely to reach them in real time.  And even if the police officers do try to reverse the changes, the lack of manpower will prevent them from undertaking any effective action against masses of village populations.  

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