Vigilante Justice in Asia and Africa: A Threat to the State?

Vigilante Justice in Asia and Africa: A Threat to the State?
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Vigilante justice in Asia and Africa may look like a convenient way out for profit-seeking police officers, but its prevalence can also undermine the entire legal framework of a nation. 

Police officers are rarely seen in rural Africa. Only at traffic checkpoints near major towns that are usually more than a four-hour drive apart will one possibly come across a uniformed police officer.

Given the low population density, it can be understandable that police enforcement tends to be sparse. Farming communities of a few hundred people each evidently cannot justify constant patrolling by uniformed officers.

In fact, the police presence can be so distant that when crimes and disputes occur, reporting to the police may not even bring officers to the scene of conflict in time for resolution. In the case of thefts and other crimes, by the time the police arrive from afar and assess the situation, neither the victim nor the victimizer will be present for questioning.

It is no wonder that villagers who face crimes resort to vigilante justice rather than slow-to-come support from a faraway police force.

Local village leaders, upon hearing of a crime, will often mobilize groups of villagers to hunt down lost items or criminals on the run. The same parties are also responsible for punishments once the criminals are caught, with little legal restraint on the severity of the penalties, which can range from permanent banishment in the village community to fatal beatings.

An Asian analogy

Though village vigilantism might seem to be a unique African issue, it is not at all unfamiliar in certain parts of Asia. Courtesy of the continent’s massive geographic and demographic diversities, vast arrays of ethnic minorities continue to exist in tightly knit communities in remote areas.

These “independent” people are well represented by a colorful mix of aboriginal tribes of eastern Indonesia, Filipino islands, Taiwanese highlands, Indochinese jungles, and hills of southwest China.

As much as Asian governments try to establish their authority in these areas, distance and lack of familiarity of the locals mean that these people tend to have an affinity toward resolving crimes without the involvement of state agencies. Hence, these areas tend to face a similar dilemma as rural Africa, reducing the authority of the state in their respective regions.

The lack of formalized legal enforcement institutions becomes a particularly grave issue when regionally dominant minorities are willing to resort to their own systems of justice rather than follow those of the state.

In Africa of the recent past, Tuaregs of northern Mali and Biafra region in eastern Nigeria partially rose in revolt precisely due to underinvestment of the central government in local law enforcement, giving local leaders room to militarize their populations in war. Similar trends are present in Asia, where lack of government presence is partially responsible for deepening ethnic tensions in places as varied as Tamil areas of northern Sri Lanka, Muslim areas of southern Philippines, and Indonesian Papua.

These outbreaks, whether in Africa or the Asian countries mentioned above, stem from governments that became reluctant to invest in legal infrastructure of remote areas, due to ready presence of informal local legal systems.

If vigilante justice indeed deters crime in remote villages, established law enforcement institutions (police stations and local courts) may feel that their presence in the villages is unnecessary, in the process giving a semblance of political independence to local groups. What political scientists call the "monopoly of violence" will no longer lie with the national government, but decentralized to the community level in a way that prevents effective communication between average villagers and legal authorities.

In times of peace, such gaps in communication between locals and legal authorities may be limited to the occasional excessive punishment of criminals, but in times of political turbulence, the lack of government reach in the same communities may become a major source of instability.

Without proper legal education (via firsthand experience), communities can easily succumb to the temptation of relying on rebel groups that offer alternative rules of law in exchange for concrete financial benefits. The lack of a legal government presence in these areas will mean that there is no legal framework to hold back such developments.

The specter of corruption

For both Asia and Africa, an additional motivation helps keep legal enforcement in remote areas sparse. The few uniformed officers in the general region tend to congregate and work in areas where they know that capturing a criminal will mean some sort of personal (often monetary) benefits.

Hence, police officers enthusiastically man those traffic checkpoints on the outskirts of towns to examine goods, licenses, and vehicle registrations, dishing out fines for the slightest faults in paperwork. By the same logic, they seem to show no qualms about walking around commercial centers in medium of larger population centers, checking on every shop for the presence of equipment and documentation that is supposedly needed to legally sustain operations. Commissions from fines supplement meager salaries, with little effort.

No similar income-bolstering effect can come from resolving rural crimes. With little monetary benefits to be attained from poor farmers, there simply are not enough incentives for local legal enforcement to make a move. For both rural Asians and Africans, what they perceive as corrupt and unmotivated police officers has caused a further erosion of confidence in formal state institutions of law enforcement.

The underlying rationale of vigilante justice, whether it is underinvestment, lack of corrupt incentives, or just sheer distance, is just as valid in many parts of Asia as it is in Africa. The resulting dangers of ineffective communication and loss of confidence in formal legal institutions can, in the worst-case scenarios, stoke ethnic separatism in devastatingly militant ways.

Vigilante justice may appear to be a convenient way out for profit-seeking police officers, but its prevalence can very much undermine the entire legal existence of any national polity.

This piece was revised and submitted to The News Lens International by the author. The first version was published on the author’s blog here.