Expressing Outrage and Lynching: Vigilantism in a Tanzanian Village, 1997

When Killing is a crime(Adapted from Tony Waters, When Killing is a Crime, Lynne Rienner Publishers 2007).

By Essau Magugudi in Kigoma
NOVEMBER 27, 1997, is deeply etched in the memories of Shunga villagers. It was on this day that they took law into their own hands and hacked to death three bandits who they suspected of carrying out acts of robbery in villages surrounding refugee settlements of Mutabira and Muyovozi.
Such retribution was unprecedented…”

I found the above article story while cruising the internet in1999, after typing in the keyword “Shunga” on a lark. Shunga is a remote village in Western Tanzania where my sister-in-law lived for 16 years, and also where my wife and I were married. I had also spent six weeks there in 1996 recovering from hepatitis and writing an article about Shunga which was later published in African Studies Review.

Magugudi’s  article struck me as odd because lynch law (or vigilante committees, if you will) were not unprecedented in that part of Tanzania as is asserted in his article. Rather it is fairly typical of remote Tanzanian villages at that time, and has in fact been found around the world where ever justice systems are weak. Indeed, during the three years I lived in the nearby town of Kasulu (1984-7), typically once or twice per year, some kid would be caught in the market stealing something trivial. Someone would yell “thief” and he would run toward the police station as fast as he could, with a very angry mob chasing after him. The unspoken arrangement was that if he made the police station he would be arrested and a legal case would be made against him. Thus, the police station was “safe” so to speak, even though the thief would be prosecuted. But, if the crowd caught him, he might be beaten to death.

Similar rules of summary justice were applied to Shunga. The big talk in Shunga in previous years had been of rumored poisonings, the attempted murder of a former ward councilor (someone set his grass roof on fire in the middle of the night), and the execution by a burning tire “necklace” of a thief caught in a neighboring village. Vigilante justice and summary execution is not that unusual where the courts and police find it difficult to find transportation to the remote villages even if they are called. Indeed, in Tanzania when I lived there, without access to a vehicle police officers needed to walk for at least half of a day even to ask the first question. What has changed is that because of a refugee crisis in this part of Tanzania, which began in 1993.  Journalists came to the area looking for stories, some of which might end up on the internet where I can find them.  Mugugudi continued:

…The three slain bandits had on that day ambushed a peasant along the main road … As luck would have it, the peasant escaped narrowly from his custody of his captors who had tried to seize his bicycle. He then reported the incident to the villagers who were bathing at a nearby stream. As the bandits emerged from their hideouts and descended towards the stream, they were stopped by villagers for questioning. It was discovered that the bandits were refugees at Muyovozi [refugee] camp. Upon searching them, the villagers found them with three locally made guns secured in an old sack. The bandits were handcuffed and taken to the ward office where a mob of angry youths hacked them to death.

Not much of a criminal investigation here. Probably most relevant is the fact that the youths killed represented the threat the refugee camp provided to the village. Since 1994, Shunga, which has a population of about 4,000 has had a UN supported refugee camp built on its boundary. In 1997, there were 50,000 refugees from Burundi living there.

The hacking of the bandits did arouse mixed feelings among villagers, especially when the councillor of the ward was taken by the police to Kasulu for questioning, but residents of Shunga and other neighboring villages believed the killing of the bandits would minimize, if not stop altogether, acts of banditry which had been increasing in the villages.

“Mixed feelings” is usually an indication that there are doubts about “legitimacy,” particularly in the context of the removal of the ward councilor. Villagers asked themselves whether they should have killed the refugees or not? How does it feel like to live next door to people who have killed publicly in this fashion? What can the central authorities, whose authority was usurped, actually do? Should they have presented the thieves to the ward councilor while still alive? There are doubts among the villagers about whether the right thing was done, and whether they legitimate authority to do it. Notably, though, the doubts were about who should have responded, not whether the punishment for theft was just. Rather, it was about who is the legitimate third party, the central government, ward councilor, or the village mob? There is also fear that “two party” justice exposes the villagers up to retaliation by the dead refugees’ friends.

I also pity government officials assigned to rural areas of Tanzania, like the ward counselor. He was sent to a remote village like Shunga with the idealistic assumption that he could persuade villagers to develop and pay for a modern state, even though they will never receive things like police investigations. From the villagers perspective, the most most prominent duty or the ward counselor is to collect the annual head tax, a job which confers little status, and for which their miniscule salary which is typically late. In fact the salary is so small and irregular that as with virtually every other person living in Shunga, the ward councilor had a subsistence farm in order to raise enough food to eat.
Not surprising, in many parts of Tanzania, the situation often leads to corruption. Technically, of course, the Shunga Ward Councilor had the Kasulu Police force to back him up, but then so does every other of the 40 or 50 ward councilors in the District. When I lived in Kasulu, the police had only one or two vehicles, and were unlikely to respond to a remote robbery case. A consequence is that the problem sometimes escalates into the type of lynching described above. This is a classic case of a weak state which has little legitimacy built up, and as a result has difficulty asserting the monopoly on the use of coercive force.

In fact, the central government is aware that Shunga has had a history of problems with ward councilors. One of the previous ward councilors, who pushed projects of school construction and tax collections too hard (he was known as a modernizer), had the grass roof of his house burned late one night, in an attempt to kill him. He was warned, but lost his house, and was given a transfer by the central government. No one ever prosecuted (or lynched) those responsible for the torching.

But, four months after that incident Mugugudi described, several more incidents of banditry and robbery were reported from villages near refugee settlements in Kasulu district.

So much for the hope that lynching controls stealing. Banditry was a chronic problem before and after the incident in Shunga. Lynching, perhaps less so, but the point that Esau Magugudi makes here is a good one. Lynching is not necessarily an effective means of crime control. Nor were the footraces out of the Kasulu marketplaces described above. Stealing was there before and after “executions;” so much for  theories equating severity of punishment with deterrence. This is a stark reminder that capital punishment of the most horrific sort did not control theft in the area.

Related Reading
Waters, Tony (1997) Beyond Structural Adjustment: State and Market in a Rural Tanzanian Village. African Studies Review. 40(2):59-89.

Adapted from Tony Waters, When Killing is a Crime, Lynne Rienner Publishers 2007.

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