LUBERO, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In 2020, Jadot Ikosi saved a young man’s life. He was walking down the street in Lubero territory, in DRC’s North Kivu province, when he saw the terrified man running, a riled-up crowd behind him. The crowd wielded all manner of weapons— sticks, rocks, anything they could lay their hands on.
“He was just a boy who didn’t pay a prostitute,” Ikosi says.
At the time, Ikosi, a researcher at the Center for Research on the Environment, Democracy and Human Rights, a local nonprofit, was concerned about the number of deaths occurring in this region through mob justice. He couldn’t let the young man become another statistic. He remembers imploring the raging crowd to think of the young man as a human being, just like they were. Could they let authorities decide his fate? Ikosi managed to still the crowd, and the young man lived.
“He almost got killed because people believed he was a thief,” Ikosi says. Others who’ve been suspected of petty theft in the Lubero territory, where mob justice has become a preferred form of retribution, haven’t been as lucky. The actual numbers could be higher, but in 2020 alone, Ikosi’s organization recorded 33 mob justice-related killings in Lubero territory. In 2021, they recorded 13 killings. He says this is a significant increase compared to previous years.
MERVEILLE KAVIRA LUNEGHE, GPJ DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Locals point at a failed formal justice system, ranked 137 out of 139 countries by the 2021 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, which ranks countries’ adherence to the rule of law based on factors such as civil justice, criminal justice, and corruption.
But human rights activists like Ikosi say these cases are emblematic of a larger problem. They worry about the diminishing value of human life in this eastern part of DRC, which has suffered various forms of violence due to decades of conflict involving about 120 armed groups, according to Kivu Security Tracker, a violence-mapping initiative between Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, and New York University.
Clovis Kanyaghuru, mayor of the Kayna commune, south of Kirumba in the province of North Kivu, blames corruption within the police force. He says his office usually brings suspected thieves to the police for prosecution, but little happens after.
“We are often surprised to see them again a few days following their release,” he says. He offers the example of a man who was suspected of stealing by locals and arrested 12 times. The police kept releasing him, Kanyaghuru says. Eventually, locals killed the man after they caught him stealing dried cassava chips from a mill.
Kirumba resident Lapereau Muhindo Kalamo believes the state is culpable, as it often fails to prosecute suspects. Kalamo admits to having participated in an incident of mob justice. The 37-year-old says that together with others from Kirumba, they killed a man suspected of stealing a goat and slaughtering it. He has no regrets.
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Claver Kahasa, first deputy prosecutor at the High Court of Goma in North Kivu province, denies allegations that the formal justice system is failing. He says that prosecuting can be challenging since locals rarely follow up with the courts as expected or provide evidence.“People will say that the judiciary is not doing its job,” Kahasa says. “But who followed up on this file? People don’t.”
Without a formal complaint or evidence, he says there’s little authorities can do except release suspects. “It is not enough to say that [someone] is a big thief,” he says.
Mob justice isn’t just about distrust in the justice system, Kahasa adds. He sees a connection between mob justice and increased insecurity in the region. It has desensitized the public, he says, which is why they are no longer afraid to kill. “People see a lot of blood from the people killed,” he says.“They are used to this. Life is no longer sacred as before.”
Human rights activists are addressing this issue by using various platforms to promote the value of human life. Since 2021, Ikosi has raised awareness through churches, youth groups and local radio stations. In a weekly radio show dubbed Sheria ni Dawa, which translates to “the law is medicine” and focuses on human rights issues affecting the area, the 64-year-old appeals to listeners to respect the constitution and leave retribution to the authorities.
He urges his audience to familiarize itself with the constitution, as it contains the country’s shared values. “It says that human life is sacred,” Ikosi says.
In a country where an estimated 95.8% of the population is Christian, Ikosi knows that the Bible is a useful tool as well. “The Bible also says not to kill. The same Bible says not to take revenge,” he says in a recording of the show that aired in November 2021, days after a lynching in Kirumba.
The show is aired on two local radio stations: South Lubero Community Radio and Great Lakes Radio Television. “The impact is very positive,” he says. “People like and follow the advice we give them on our shows, even though not everyone can be convinced.”
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Salomon Kaniki, a human rights activist and spokesperson for International Circle for the Defense of Human Rights, Peace, and the Environment, another local nonprofit, says his organization has also been raising awareness through community meetings and local radio stations.
Like Ikosi, he believes many who resort to mob justice are ignorant of the law. The solution, Kaniki says, is to strengthen civic education, which could solve both theft and mob justice. “All [humans] are capable of change and can become valuable to their community.”
While these efforts are changing some minds, Charmante Kanyere Kambumbu, whose older brother was killed by a mob in 2019, holds little hope.
When her brother went missing for two weeks, the family looked for him everywhere. They issued announcements on local radio stations. Later, they found out that the 23-year-old was suspected of stealing a goat and killed in Kayna, about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from his home in Kirumba.
The family filed a complaint with the police, who investigated the killing. Several of the alleged perpetrators were arrested and paid money to the family. But no matter the monetary compensation, Kambumbu says, justice will never be served.