It was an unbearably hot morning in Mamba Point. The calm ocean breeze tried but failed in its attempt to alleviate the scorching 7 am heat along the Atlantic Coast. I had just walked outside my hotel to join colleagues in a van heading to the Ministry of Health for a day’s work. An unexpected commotion annihilated the morning peace. I couldn’t see from my vantage point, so I ventured to ask a young man standing at my hotel gate what the noise was about. “Dey man den wanted to jeek the woman bag, but God see them.” Just as he ended that sentence in one breath, he joined a chorus of voices, “Your take them to the beach and kill them!” Another young man in full strides like an Olympian sliced his way through onlookers with no regards for fellow pedestrians.
His first sentence stirred my interest, but it was his second sentence that really aroused my senses, “Dey will die this morning,” he said. I quietly inched my way toward the gathering crowd of mostly bear-chested, muscular young men. I confess these brothers challenged my masculinity with their well-toned bodies; no doubt I have access to better servings of nutrition than they, but somehow they are better sculpted than I could ever dream.
The scene that emerged before my eyes, however, betrayed my admiration for bodies that seemed hue from igneous rocks. Yells of “Your go kill man den!” filled the air with relaxed calm, as if killing suspected thieves was a routine event. Two young men, twenty-something is my best guess, were suspended in the air, held by two groups of four men – hands and feet stretched out – while others punched, kicked, slapped, stoned, spat on, and did whatever seemed appropriate to do to suspected thieves. Just like that, these two young men were being led to the beach to be killed.
Fortunately for them, the lone female officer on duty at the US ambassador’s residence heard the commotion and came running down the hill. Her intervention kept those thieves alive. She handcuffed them and assured the mob that she would take them to the nearest precinct.
In subsequent conversations after that incident, it became clear to me that mob justice was more common in my beloved Liberia than I could ever imagine. In fact, in the five weeks that I was in Liberia, the media reported at least one instance of mob justice per week. For example, there was the Ganta incident when businesses were destroyed after a motorcyclist went missing and his peers took the law into their hands to avenge his death. There was also the incident of two missing boys whose lifeless bodies were found in the backseat of a car belonging to a local Nigerian businessman. The man’s house and several used cars were burned by a mob consisting primarily of his neighbors. In addition, a suspected thief was found lying dead on the street outside LBS studios in Paynesville.
In each of case, the mob’s action indicates a lack of faith in law enforcement and, by extension, the entire legal system. These acts of barbarism reflect a dangerously weak legal architecture that exposes citizens to a myriad of vulnerabilities. In such a dismal context, citizens are compelled to take matters into their own hands. Subsequently, and the ensuing emotionally charged encounters can engender disastrous consequences.
We, as a democratic society, cannot afford persistent mob justice. It weakens the foundation of our society – moral, economic, social, and political, – compromising our strength and our unity. It renders all of us susceptible to this illogical and highly temperamental street justice. There is no established rule about how sanctions are determined and executed under a system of mob justice; as such, all citizens are at the mercy of a mob.
The remedy is formidable but not impossible. There are small steps we can take to mitigate mob violence, and we can begin today. First, the hour is ripe for a national dialogue about the dangers and illegality of mob violence. We need to talk among ourselves; we need to have an honest, open conversation about this plague that has besieged our nation. Led by our elected leaders as well as leaders from the civic and religious communities, we must engage in open, honest, and thoughtful national dialogue about mob justice.
Second, we must hold people accountable through a process of restorative justice.
In addition to sustained national dialogue, it is important to build an independent and resilient judiciary. This is far too important to be left to chance; it requires a deliberate plan with clear strategies and benchmarks.
All Liberians must recognize and affirm that mob justice is antithetical to our values and our interests.
Mob justice ain’t justice!