When the beater is beaten, who wins?

This morning in Mulago hospital, a young man lay on a stretcher in the emergency ward, the side of his head split open over a lump that had swelled to the size of an apple. “Mob justice,” explained a nurse. “They were found beating a woman, and so they were beaten.” In the hall outside the room, two police officers waited for their suspects to be released. In the next room, patients waited to see the triage nurse, to register, to be whisked away to the appropriate ward, some of which remained too full to admit new patients.

I hoped the young man would make it, but I couldn’t help thinking that he was taking doctors and nurses away from so many other patients who hadn’t landed in the emergency room for beating someone (if in fact the story was correct, which it sometimes is not in the case of mob justice). I am sure the police saved the young man and his accomplice from the certain death they would have encountered at the hands of the mob.

According to Uganda’s 2008 Annual Crime Report, released last month, the incidence of mob justice is on the rise. The statement read by Inspector General of Police Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, “Last year registered a 100% increase in cases of mob action leading to death, from 184 cases in 2007, to 368 cases in 2008. Of these instances, 232 suspects were lynched on suspicion of theft and 59 on suspicion of murder. Suspected robbers, burglars and witchdoctors were other categories of persons murdered through mob action.”

He continued, “I am putting the public on notice that no one shall be allowed to take the law into their own hands, whatever the provocation or perceived justification. I have given strict instruction to the CID to apprehend and have all persons involved in mob action charged with murder.”

I am not sure what the apparent increase in prevalence of mob justice indicates. The obvious explanation for mob justice is that people feel that the legal justice system does not work for them and therefore must take matters into their own hands. But why more so now than before?