Is Vigilantism so Bad?

Ms Gloria Akufo, the Attorney General and Minister for Justice on Thursday morning laid before Parliament, a Legislative Instrument (LI) to deal with political party vigilantism and its notoriety in Ghana. Vigilantism has been defined as the” act of taking the law into one’s own hands and attempting to enact justice according to one’s own understanding of right and wrong; action taken by a voluntary association of persons who organize themselves for the purpose of protecting a common interest, such as liberty, property, or personal security,

It is also “action taken by an individual or group to protest existing law; action taken by an individual or group to enforce a higher law than that enacted by society’s designated law-making institutions; private enforcement of legal norms in the absence of an established, reliable, and effective law enforcement body.”

Political vigilantism has gained currency in Ghana in recent times, especially in the wake of political activities such as before, during and after elections and has become a security threat, for which President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo- Addo last February made a declaration to end that phenomenon. The instrument, when ratified, is expected to disband activities of vigilantism and make the formation of such groups illegal.

But is vigilantism in itself a bad thing? In a country when the police and other security forces seem powerless to stop public indiscipline including criminal activities, why would we want to enact a law to curb the ability of individuals or organized group of individuals to help police the state?

The United Nations recommends one police officer for every 450 citizens. Kenya has one for every 1,150, Tanzania one for every 1,298, and Ghana one for every 1,200. There are several communities which do not have a population of up to a few hundreds and so would not have an assigned police officer. To add to this predicament, infrastructure that would enable communication with the police in the event of an attack, is non-existent. How would such communities police themselves?

At the other end of the continuum are ridiculously over-populated communities that attract criminal activities, but where police presence is also mostly non-existent. Without vigilantism how would such communities police themselves?

To bring this down to practical terms, a vigilante act such as asking a citizen to pick up the plastic sachet that he or she dropped on the ground would be outlawed. Similarly, the taxi driver who used his own vehicle to help knock down two armed robbers in January of 2016, and who was rewarded by President John D. Mahama also committed a crime, and the president was complicit by rewarding him for committing a crime.

Let’s be clear; what has become a menace to our society is violent partisan vigilantism. And in addressing that menace, we must be careful not to create a bigger menace whereby crime and indiscipline reign unabated. Also a menace is the instant public administration of justice such as the killing of army captain Maxwell Adam Mahama.

In other words, in seeking to address the menace of political vigilantism, let’s also delineate between actual vigilantism and administration of justice by vigilante groups. In fact, not even the police are charged with the administration of justice let alone untrained and unappointed individuals. Notice that a definition of vigilante is “civilian or organization acting in a law enforcement capacity,” a clear departure from administration of justice.