08/08/2012 05:21 EDT | Updated 10/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Would the West Romanticize Mob Violence if it Knew About Uganda?


They might have killed him over a bag of soccer balls. It happened on a sunny Sunday morning when Kampala is, for once, quiet and sleepy. I was on my way to the bookstore when I saw the young man running with the netted bag of balls. But he couldn't outrun the mob of men who jumped him and began beating him. They threw him down on the tarmac and began kicking and punching him. Apparently, he was a thief. The soccer balls were the booty of his offending heist.

I always imagined mob violence would be loud, but the street seemed deathly quiet, the men in the mob too intent on their brutal work to be rowdy. The only sound came from the occasional vehicle passing by, though nobody stopped. I stood there, too, transfixed and horrified. A security guard finally intervened, but only to chase the crowd off the mall property. The man was shouting, and tried to crawl away from the mob, but to no avail. More men appeared.

The mob dragged him onto the back of a beat-up white pickup and sped away, the men holding him down. The security guard went back to his post. A boda driver beside me shook his head. The vengeful violence was forgotten.

A strand in North American culture has tended to romanticize this vigilante style justice. Whether it's the songs of Toby Keith (Beer for My Horses) or the myriad of Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood movies, Western culture has often lionized the vigilante who can restore "values" to a society gone soft and corrupt. But there is nothing heroic about kicking and beating a defenseless man on the street. Vigilante actions often speak more to a seething frustration than to any lofty goals of justice.

This seems to be the case in Uganda. In 2010, death by mob claimed 438 lives, and that didn't include those who survived or the deaths that went unreported. Vigilante justice is terrifying, an overwhelming physical manifestation of rage and suspicion. No doubt the innocent and guilty suffer equally if they are suspected of having broken the law of the street. There is no real threshold for determining innocence or guilt when the mob becomes the judge, jury and executioner.

What is striking about the mob vengeance is the anonymity of it all; the mob doesn't need to have a stake in the crime or to even know why they are chasing an alleged perpetrator. What drives them is a seething anger at the inability of the state to protect its citizens. And it's no wonder, either.

Last year, the East African Bribery Index (yes there is such a thing) ranked Uganda as having the most corrupt police force, just above Burundi, a country still emerging from a brutal civil war. Less than 10 per cent of Ugandans reported cases of corruption, reflecting the widespread belief that nothing will be done. A report from the Inspectorate of Government found that 79 per cent of citizens dealing with police had to pay a bribe. If you can buy your way out a criminal sentence, what does that say to citizens desperate for justice?

The truly tragic thing is that Uganda has so much promise; every day at work I meet people who are passionate about making their country better, about making their country a place they are proud to call their own. This is a place full of people who are fighting for a better country than what they are now offered. They seek real justice. Street-level retribution is a raw and twisted form of this. Justice, without mercy or compassion, without the rule of law behind it, cannot be justice at all, not for the thief, the police or the angry mob.

Once society becomes increasingly stratified along the lines of those who can pay for justice and those who cannot, dark fantasies of retribution will take greater hold. Are there problems with the justice system? Of course. And yet, the only thing that really holds a democracy together is rule of law. The only path to authentic justice is the rule of law.

But as I have learned here in Uganda, the rule of law is based on something fragile: faith. Faith that the government will represent its' citizens, that the judges will uphold the law in a fair and impartial manner, and that the police will protect its citizens. The loss of this faith is a dangerous thing, making citizens anxious and angry. This past weekend, into this potent mix of fear and frustration, a young man blundered and was beaten and humiliated. The soccer balls were hardly worth it, for both the victim or the perpetrators.