Mob justice fears after soldier's gruesome death in Ghana

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Accra - An off-duty soldier in Ghana who was lynched while out running was laid to rest with full state honours on Friday, in a case that has sparked fears about the "growing menace" of mob justice.

Maxwell Mahama was beaten and burnt to death near the central city of Kumasi on May 29, after locals mistook him for a robber because he was wearing sports clothing and carrying a pistol.

The brutal attack on the 31-year-old - described as a "heinous crime" by President Nana Akufo-Addo - was captured on film and the horrific images and video shared on social media.

The tragedy has shaken Ghana, which prides itself on respecting democratic values and prioritising peace in a wider West African region so often blighted by violence and instability.

Mahama, whose coffin was draped with the country's red, yellow and green flag, was posthumously promoted from captain to the rank of major and given a full state funeral in the capital Accra.

Vice-President Mahamudu Bawumia told mourners: "May the death of Major Mahama serve as the death that heralded the death of impunity in our nation.

"We are truly sorry that your fellow Ghanaians did this to you."

Akufo-Addo, government officials, colleagues and friends have vowed that Mahama's death will not go unpunished. Forty-four people have so far been arrested.

 No faith in authorities 

Since Mahama's death, television and radio talk shows in Ghana have been dominated by discussions about mob justice, which police chief David Asante-Apeatu has called "a growing menace".

But the problem, which is fuelled by distrust in the capability of police and the courts, is seen as having no quick fix.

A lack of faith in the authorities to handle criminal cases contributes to the public taking matters into their own hands, according to a study of the phenomenon published in 2014.

Mob justice has been around "since time immemorial", said police spokesperson Superintendent Cephas Arthur, attributing an apparent increase to a recent spike in armed robberies.

Nevertheless, police do not yet collect data on attacks and instead rely on anecdotal reports.

Mob violence is "scattered", said Arthur. Officers may hear of four cases in a month, then nothing for the following six, he added.

People are not always prepared to let justice run its course and prefer instead to act as judge, jury - and often, executioner - killing "savage" robbers who are known to rape and murder.

"People develop some sentiments and passions about the perpetrators," said the officer.

"All they need to hear is 'thief' then the sentiment plays up, and all they need is to get something to hit the person. It becomes instinctive to go and strike him."

 'Instant justice' 

Police hope Mahama's death will be the last but whether it is could hinge on what happens to the perpetrators, given that few people have previously been punished for mob attacks.

Isaac Kyei Andoh was almost killed by a mob in central Accra in 2008 after he was mistakenly accused of stealing.

The 32-year-old said he was surrounded by a mob and a taxi driver was ready to douse him in petrol and burn him alive.

He was saved at the last minute by a woman who vouched for his innocence.

"You don't get the benefit of the doubt when you are accused of stealing in this country," he said.

"As long as you are accused of stealing you are seen as guilty until a credible person comes to your aid."

Since then, he said he has witnessed five different "mobbings" in Accra: two people died on the spot, while the three others were severely injured.

Andoh fears nothing is going to change, noting reports of at least two other mob attacks since Mahama's death.

"People don't really think instant justice is a problem. It's only a problem when you kill an innocent person - they think instant justice is OK if you kill a thief," he said.

Ghana's government is hoping to change such an attitude with a massive planned public education campaign.

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