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Opinions of Saturday, 3 June 2017

Columnist: Kwadwo Agyapong Antwi

How I saved a young man from lynching – A terrifying true story

I often refrain from sharing this story, because the few people I've told often assume I was downright insane that night. They don't say it to my face, but like the cool Harmattan breeze, I feel it in their rather diplomatic responses, admonishing me to refrain from ever taking such an action. Perhaps you will too, after hearing it.

It was a rainy July day in 2014. I had just closed from work and proceeded to Circle to board a "trotro" home. Those were my 'walking days' as a young banker prior to getting my own four wheeler. Now, no one who has tried hailing a car on a rainy day at Circle, has any idea what life in a third world country really is. There were poodles of water everywhere, the mud was thick, and the long depressing queues snaked their way around mud drenched vehicles.

It was around 10pm and for a moment I forgot about my own predicament and wondered when all those weary people would finally get to the comfort of their beds. That is if they were fortunate enough to have their rooms surviving the perennial Accra flooding. It struck me how many people go through that routine everyday just to make enough to survive. In the midst of the chaos, I wondered whether the authorities had any idea what in the world was going on. I imagined them either stuck in traffic in their land cruisers or already snoring in their comfortable beds.

Whilst trying to locate a car, I heard some commotion in a dark corner of the yard. Dark because as expected, big brother ECG had taken off their electricity - blame it on the rains. Can the night get more chaotic? I thought to myself as I made my way to determine the reason for the commotion. As I drew closer, I saw a young man receiving some heavy beating by all the power and might of a furious mob. I enquired from some of the bystanders and got the all too familiar answer: He was an unfortunate thief who had been caught. Poor fellow. There was a policeman not far from the scene. He couldn't be bordered. Perhaps he was more concerned about getting home himself. In this ‘jurisdiction’, there's no such thing as 'alleged' or 'suspected' thief. A mob of instant justice has no time for lengthy legal jargon. They only need one or two people to provide reasonable accusation and justice is delivered swiftly and without mercy.

The philosopher George Carlin once said to ‘’Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups’’. The heinousness of a mob transcends the human experience. Perhaps mobs are capable of such atrocities due to the concept of ‘diffusion of responsibility’. As they say, 'No one Snowflake ever feels responsible for an avalanche". This unfortunate "thief" was experiencing the wrath and furry of man when he descends into his beastly nature. It wasn't a pretty sight.

Anyone who has ever witnessed a lynching will agree there are usually three parties to the spectacle. The first group of people are the ones who take part in the actual beating. This group does not fit any demographic profile: They could be men, women, teens, rich, poor... The second group provide the cheerleading: They don't take part but provide ideas, direction and motivation to those who do. The third group is made up of those 'decent' human beings who are 'merely' there to witness. A friend tells me the third group are the worst. That fateful night, I was in the third group. My natural inclination was to quickly leave the scene and the young man to his fate. Then it happened. I don't know where it came from or why but I got a strong urge to shout.

Maybe I was thinking about how unfair it was that he had to receive that kind of ‘justice’, when the people who are supposed to make life better for us embezzle (a nice way of calling 'steal') millions and still get our praises and shouts of 'honourable'. Just how much had the young man stolen anyway. I was told it was a mobile phone. Someone got caught for supposedly stealing a mobile phone and had to pay with his life?
I shouted to the mob to leave the young man alone. It fell on deaf ears. I persisted, I admonished, I pleaded, I threatened. Then as if by magic they stopped. I don't know why they finally did. People tell me I was lucky they didn't pounce on me.

I managed to drag him away from the crowd to a secluded area. He looked a bit emaciated. I didn't believe the beating he had just received was responsible for the ‘slimming down’. I asked why a fine young man like him would engage in such a dangerous profession. He denied being a thief. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. He told me he had left the village to seek greener pastures in Accra and was 'perching' with friends for the meantime. With the help of another young man, we got him some water to wash himself and I paid for a taxi to take him away.

Sometimes I wonder where he is now. Did he get some good opportunity in the city to turn his life around? Did he go back to the village? Or perhaps he resorted to petty theft? I may never have the answers to these questions but this one thing I know: Rescuing him cost me a nice white shirt. The value was his life. More importantly, I learned that each of us can make a difference.

In the wake of this high profile case of lynching which has ignited so much passion in the country, I've been wondering what would have happened if the young man had lost his life that night at Circle. Would it have gone 'viral' or would we have simply moved on because his status wouldn't merit such outrage? Would we feel the mob was justified because 'everything pointed to him being a thief’?

Once emotions subside, it is essential we look at the underlying causes of these barbaric actions by a section of our people. Is it lack of confidence in the ability of our police to maintain law and order? Lack of confidence in the judicial system to fairly prosecute and adequately punish criminals? Are these the actions of unenlightened citizens of a broken education system? Is it the unintended effect of poverty, unemployment and limited opportunities for the youth? Unfortunately, in about a month's time many of us will forget this ever happened, and many of these questions will still remain unanswered.