Mob justice is a form of extrajudicial punishment or retribution in which a person suspected of wrongdoing is typically humiliated, beaten, and in many cases killed by vigilantes or a crowd. Mob action takes place in the absence of any form of fair trial in which the accused are given a chance to defend themselves; the mob simply takes the law into its own hands (Ng’walali & Kitinya, 2006). Mob justice is not only criminal but also amounts to a violation of human rights (Uganda Human Rights Commission, 2016).
Over the past decade, Uganda has seen a significant rise in the number of cases of mob justice. According to the Uganda Police Force’s (2013-2019) annual crime reports, 746 deaths by mob action were reported and investigated in 2019, compared to 426 in 2013, a 75% increase. “Mob kills 42 in 7 weeks,” the Daily Monitor (2019) reported in March 2019, citing police figures – an average of six lynchings a week. Homicides by mob action in Uganda occur mainly in response to thefts, robberies, killings, and reports of witchcraft (Uganda Police Force, 2018).
According to the 2015 Afrobarometer survey in Uganda, one in six Ugandan adults said they took part in mob justice during the preceding year or would do so if they “had the chance.” This suggests that mob justice is not just a fringe problem in Uganda but commands attention and requires collective action. Why would a substantial number of Ugandans resort to taking the law into their own hands as an alternative form of “justice”?
Analysts have pointed to a number of factors that might contribute to a willingness to engage in mob justice. One is a lack of trust in the formal criminal justice system to administer fair and timely justice. A 2005 study in Uganda showed that mob actions were often motivated by widespread suspicion or misunderstanding of the justice system, especially concerning the procedure of police bail, under which suspected culprits can be temporarily released before the court process (Baker, 2005). A study in southern Nigeria also reported that a lack of trust in the police was one of the motivations for the alarming incidence of “jungle justice” (Obarisiagbon, 2018).
Research has also shown that personal victimization by crime can have a lasting impact on attitudes toward the police, the courts, and the criminal justice system overall (Berthelot, McNeal, & Baldwin, 2018; Dull & Wint, 1997; Koenig, 1980; Sprott & Doob, 1997), as can negative personal experiences with the courts (Olson & Huth, 1998; Kanaabi, 2004).
Amid Uganda’s surge in mob justice, Afrobarometer findings tell us that popular trust in the police and courts has been declining while citizens’ perceptions of corruption in these criminal justice institutions has been rising. Statistical analyses show that a lack of trust in the police is associated with a willingness to engage in mob justice, while perceived corruption undermines trust and thus indirectly contributes to a willingness to join others in mob actions.
Further, our analysis finds that being a victim of crime (physical assault), encountering problems in the court system, finding it hard to obtain police assistance, and having to pay a bribe to police or court officials are factors that make people more likely to say they would take part in mob action against suspected criminals.
Based on these findings, we offer recommendations to mitigate Uganda’s growing problem of mob justice.