By Tsitsi Matope
MASERU — The Officer Commanding Maseru District, Senior Superintendent Mofokeng Kolo has warned communities against taking the law into their own hands in what is notoriously referred to as mob-justice.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Lesotho Times this week, Kolo emphasised mob-justice should never be an option and that vigilantism is not the solution to crime as it only complicates an already complex situation.
Kolo said communities must report suspects to the police and should never take the law into their own hands as doing so is a chargeable offense.
“Some people are now taking the law into their own hands by assaulting and killing suspects they would have caught red-handed committing crime or suspect they committed crime.
“This is a major concern to us because what the situation tells us is that people are no longer patient with the police and the justice system,” Kolo said.
Kolo pointed at two killings which took place in Naledi and Sehlabeng-Sa-Thuoathe last week, which he said further highlighted that mob justice was becoming a major problem in Lesotho.
“The incidents happened on Tuesday and Thursday, and the two housebreaking and theft suspects, both aged 30 from Naledi and Sehlabeng-Sa-Thuoathe, were beaten to death by some villagers.”
Although he could not immediately provide statistics regarding mob-killings and assaults which have occurred in Lesotho since last year, Kolo however, said “several” had been reported countrywide.
“While we appreciate how painful it is to lose property due to theft, it is important for the public to also understand that there is a lot involved in terms of investigations before a case is taken to court. On the other hand, the police do not have any control regarding the outcomes in the courts of law, and such rulings might not sit well with members of the public. For instance, the courts can grant suspects bail, which might anger the public, resulting in mob-justice, but what we are simply saying is communities must never take it upon themselves to punish suspects.”
A snap survey by the Lesotho Times this week showed most people were not happy with the handling of cases reported at various police stations after being either told the investigating officer was on leave, had no airtime or vehicle to follow-up leads.
One such victim who has been waiting for justice since January this year is Keneoue Letoao from Katlehong. Letoao claims to have lost his cow to robbers and says the frustration he has been forced to endure in his efforts to recover the animal has made him understand why some people end-up taking the law into their own hands.
“In my case, there was information that someone had stolen my cow and sold it at a local butchery. But up to now, police investigations are still going back and forth. The whole process is stressing me and I feel helpless,” Letoao said.
Another frustrated victim of crime is ‘Makhoboso Ntema of Motimposo. Ntema said although killing suspects is a sin, the law must be tough enough to protect vulnerable communities and also discourage crime.
“Because of various challenges, some people are now going against our traditions and values. Our Basotho culture does not allow suspects to be killed before they are granted the opportunity to explain themselves in either a traditional or modern court. That is what justice is all about, but due to this frustration and the feeling that the law tends to favour criminals, residents end-up punishing suspects on their won,” Ntema said.
She further explained that in Basotho culture, a person’s head is regarded as the “King’s place”.
“When I was growing up, it was taboo to beat another person on the head. It is frightening how some people are being bashed on the head these days, until they are dead.”
However, for Thabiso Matsoha of Maseru South West (MASOWE), robbers broke his heart in January last year when they stole all his four cattle he had intended to pay as bride price for his wife.
For two years, Matsoha said he had worked hard to save enough money for down-payment of his mahali.
In February 2012, he had saved M25 000, which he said enabled him to buy four cattle, and as the month for the planned traditional marriage drew closer (March 2013), the cattle, which he kept at his village in Pitseng, had also grown and become suitable for the crucial rite.
But in January last year, two months before the traditional marriage ceremony, Matsoha said he received a disturbing call from his brother, who told him all his cattle had been stolen.
In a state of shock, Matsoha said he had rushed to his village and reported the matter to the police.
“I had hoped the police would handle the investigations quickly, with the view of recovering my cattle, but that was not the case.”
As weeks passed and the marriage-date drew closer, Matsoha said he became desperate.
“I decided I was no longer going to sit at home and do nothing.”
With the help of his brother and friend, the trio launched their own independent investigations with the hope that they might just be on time and recover the cattle.
None of the trio had acquired any police training.
“We planned our operations very carefully and relied heavily on the tips we got from the local people. I invested M7 000 in the project, which took us as far as Butha-Buthe,” Matsoha said.
A week after launching the investigations, Matsoha said he managed to identify one suspect linked to the theft.
“We handed him over to the police but that was after we had extracted the information we needed to continue with our investigations. His information led us to the second suspect that the first suspect had alleged had connived with his brother to steal and sell the cattle,” Matsoha said.
However, the said brother was apparently in hiding following allegations he had shot and killed a policeman.
“The brother of the key suspect hinted the possibility that my cattle could have been sold to a popular businessman in Butha-Buthe. He also told us how dangerous the businessman was and offered to sell us a gun for M1 000 to protect ourselves. We refused and decided to follow up unarmed.”
However, Matsoha said when they reached the home of the businessman, they found the place heavily guarded and were barred from inspecting his herd of cattle.
In the meantime, Matsoha had received some financial help from his family to enable him to make a part-payment of the bride price.
“I had exhausted all the money I had on the investigation. What frustrated me for some time was how the key suspect had managed to outwit us and the thought of how, maybe, we were so close to making a breakthrough in Butha-Buthe.”
With hopes of ever recovering his cattle fading away, the key suspect was arrested around August last year and charged with the murder of the policeman.
“Since his arrest, I have followed up on my case in Pitseng many times. The last time I was there in January this year, I was told the officer responsible of the stock-theft unit was away on leave. I was also warned against interfering with police investigations. At the end of the day, I am the loser while the suspect is the winner because he gained and benefitted from my cattle,” Matsoha said.
Following the arrest of the man suspected of stealing all his wealth, Matsoha, who is a builder, is now trying to put the pieces of his life together, and has just established his own small construction company.
“If all goes on well, I hope to buy some cattle to pay the outstanding bride price.”