March 21, 2012, 3:00 p.m.: A band of army mutineers in the garrison of Kati launches an assault on Koulouba, the presidential palace overlooking Bamako. With armored vehicles, automatic weapons and rocket launchers, they target the executive residence, forcing President Amadou Toumani Touré to escape the compound with a few bodyguards and go into hiding. The mutineers take control of state radio and television, and several hours later proclaim themselves the new rulers of Mali.
January 29, 2012, 5:00 a.m.: A young man is caught stealing from a residential courtyard in Bamako’s Djelibougou neighborhood. Neighborhood youths tie him up and beat him before dousing him with gasoline and setting him alight. The young man is burned to death, and his body anonymously disposed of by a local trash collection crew. The stolen goods? Two sacks of charcoal, worth no more than US$5.00 each.
Could these two events be related? I think so. For months, such examples of vigilante justice have been growing more and more frequent in Bamako. Consider these examples gleaned from the Malian press:
- February 26: “Youths in Doumanzana (Commune I of the District of Bamako) burned a motorcycle thief alive…. That same night, in Banconi not far from the water tower, another thief was burned alive by youths. Two thieves burned in one night and in the same area means the people’s propensity to render justice themselves.”
- February 16: “A Qur’anic teacher, Baba Adama Sangaré, was killed by armed robbers during an attempted break-in…. The next day, gendarmes in Gouana caught two suspects, Broulaye Samaké and Mohamed Sérémé. Learning of the arrest, the population demanded to lynch the suspects and burned the shed serving as the gendarmes’ outpost. Overwhelmed, the gendarmes called for reinforcements from their brigade in Kalaban-Coro. Before these could arrive, the demonstrators apprehended Broulaye Samaké, a.k.a. Bamba, presumed killer of the Qur’anic teacher, and burned him alive.”
- January 31: “Two presumed thieves were lynched to death in Nafadji (Commune I) and the Medina market (Commune II) at the end of last week by populations fed up with this recurring banditry and, especially, by the screaming absence of the Malian police and by the laxity, even complicity, of judges.”
- January 9: “These presumed bandits who allegedly victimized many people were Bakary Monékata and his brother Aboubacar Monékata, both former soldiers dishonorably discharged, according to a source in the Kalaban-Coro gendarmerie…. Aboubacar Monékata… evaded police before being caught by an angry mob which ended up lynching him to death.”
I’ve found reports of seven alleged criminals being killed by mobs in Bamako the first two months of 2012 alone. Surely other cases were never reported.
Mob justice is nothing new in Bamako. Lynching was a common practice in the early 1990s around the time of Mali’s previous coup. Back then, there was “no law and no authority. Enraged people sought justice and wouldn’t hesitate to buy a liter of gasoline at 300 CFA francs and a box of matches at 20 francs to burn the thieves,” a Malian journalist wrote last year. Hence the practice of dousing victims in gasoline and settling them ablaze was nicknamed “Article 320″ of the constitution.
As Mali’s democratic transition advanced and the rule of law was reestablished, “Article 320″ faded away. Around the middle of last year, however, it again began to rear its ugly head. At least ten cases were reported by the beginning of June, and several journalists observed that lynching was making a comeback, with many Bamako residents openly supporting the practice. Last September a group of youths marched on a police station in Badalabougou, my neighborhood, proclaiming “Let thieves beware: we’ll burn them alive.”
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the recent coup d’état in Bamako followed several months of lynching incidents. The coup and vigilante justice are different expressions of a single logic shaped by the state’s perceived failure to enforce the law. When the government is seen as having abdicated its fundamental responsibilities, by this logic, taking charge through violence becomes legitimate and even salutary.
Two points are key here. One, this logic is neither universal nor uncontested. There are many Bamakois opposed to the coup, just as there are many opposed to lynching. If you scan readers’ comments on the news links above, you’ll find some condemning mob justice and others expressing support for it. Two, whatever the actual motivations of the coup leaders — and, as I’ve pointed out, their public justifications have been all over the map — part of the junta’s appeal to Malians in general, and Bamakois in particular, has been its stated intention to end the lawlessness prevailing in Malian society, in affairs of state as much as in everyday life.
It’s telling that the Badalabougou youth I mentioned earlier ended their march at a police station. They were serving notice that the state had failed in its duty to protect law-abiding citizens. Consider also that in some of the incidents detailed above, mobs confronted law enforcement personnel who had suspects already in custody. What the recent wave of lynching suggests is that by late 2011, a large number of people here had lost all faith in their justice system’s ability — and even willingness — to punish wrongdoers.
“The harshest sentence issued in the last court session against confessed armed robbers… was no more than five years suspended,” wrote a Bamako journalist last July. “One notes bitterly that at least two out of five criminals are repeat offenders whose sentences were never completed. In light of all these failures of the system, should we be surprised to see populations taking their security into their own hands?”
This mistrust extended to many areas of government. When people no longer trust the institutions of the state to protect their safety or defend their interests, such responses become foreseeable. Bamako’s recrudescence of lynching in mid-2011 should have been a warning sign in this regard, an indication that the regime was in trouble. I wonder whether political scientists studying cross-national data might be able to find a correlation between instances of mob justice and violent internal regime change.
The problem, of course, is that vigilante justice goes too far. When it does not punish the innocent, it metes out disproportionate punishment. With no oversight and no limits, vigilante justice quickly goes awry. The same is true of military juntas and any other regimes improvising their way in the absence of institutional controls, checks and balances.
You cannot rebuild the rule of law through extralegal means. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that not enough people have learned, and I think the cost to Mali will be much greater than that of two sacks of charcoal.
Update, May 10: Here’s a recent article on the “reappearance of Article 320″ in Bamako’s Commune I.
Update, August 26 2013: An item on the killing of a 20-year-old suspected motorcycle thief in Bamako’s Boulkassoumbougou neighborhood.