By Yvon Randriaharimalala
Incidents of popular vindictiveness, or “people’s courts,” have become increasingly common in Madagascar. In 2016, 44 cases of popular vindictiveness were reported in the country, and this phenomenon continues into 2017. Judgments issued by the people are often spontaneous, and lynching is carried out immediately. The majority of lynchings are reactions to crimes such as robbery and murder, but breaches of local customs and traditions have also provoked a public response. For example, in October 2016, a crowd lynched a woman who brought pork to a holy place in Mananjary, where pork is prohibited. A gendarmerie station in Mampikomy was burned down on Nov. 5, 2016, and two policemen were lynched on Feb. 18, 2017, in Befandriana-Nord. Other lynchings are planned over accusations based on hearsay; after pressure builds up, the community might decide that it is time to find the accused and carry out his or her punishment.
Madagascar has never seen these incidents on such a large scale, especially in times of social and political stability. The problem of people’s courts is a result of a rise in crime, as well as frustration with rapidly expanding economic inequality and corrupt officials, especially in the police and judicial systems. Trust has disappeared between the authorities and the people.
“Given the magnitude of the problem, the Malagasy government and its prime minister have decided to reduce other state budgets, such as that of infrastructure, to increase the budget for public security in order to station more policemen and gendarmes in remote areas. Incidents of popular vindictiveness mostly take place far from police stations. The presence of a larger police force prevents outright lynching in cities, but even there, sometimes the crowd manages to inflict serious injuries on the victims before the authorities take over. The government acknowledges the necessity of adjusting the security system, but in the meantime, spontaneous cases of vindictiveness continue to occur.”
People’s judgment is most common during periods of relative stability, when tense politics do not occupy people’s minds. It typically begins after a few years of a new government, when people are anxious due to increased crime and lack of action by authorities, or unrealized campaign promises. In 2013, a few lynchings occurred four years after Andry Rajoelina, the leader of a 2009 coup, came to power. On Oct. 3 of that year, two French nationals and one Malagasy citizen were lynched on the island of Nosy Be, after accusations were made of organ theft. Once they begin, lynchings become contagious, spreading throughout the island as a sign of disobedience. The lynchings are then exploited by the opposing political parties, which use social dissatisfaction to encourage people to demand that the sitting government step down.
Historically, Malagasy people have had quiet temperaments; the violence of the lynchings disorient the Malagasy themselves. It’s also a recent phenomenon; no cases of people’s vindictiveness in the pre-colonial or colonial eras, which ended in 1960, have been recorded. The judicial system set up during the reign of the king of Imerina, Andrianampoinimerina (1787-1810), who initiated the unification of Madagascar, allowed people the right to judge minor conflicts in their own communities. Unresolved cases would be referred to higher levels of the court system, ending with the king or queen. If the monarch could not decide the verdict, the defendant was sentenced to Tangena—he or she would drink a bitter beverage that was mildly poisonous and in some cases would kill the person. Acts of horrific violence were largely seen only during wartime.
At the local level, problems were solved using the so-called Dina community agreements, which were used when Madagascar was ruled by a monarch, before the island was colonized. These laws described the customs, rights, and taboos accepted within a geographically limited area. The Dina is socially binding, and is used to resolve minor problems, such as zebu and cattle theft or aggression between villages. A typical resolution through the Dina might require the accused to donate a zebu in order to restore the stability of society.
The Dina system is a stark contrast to the people’s courts, which became common during the 1970s, when Madagascar’s economic troubles took a toll on social relations, especially in urban areas. Daily life was not as severely affected in the countryside, but security quickly degraded. In these new forms of popular justice, victims can be lynched due to penny thievery—the type of act that could be easily and peacefully resolved through the traditional Dina system.
A modern court system has been introduced since the colonial period, but it has not replaced traditional mechanisms of justice. It is almost impossible for people in the countryside to go to courts, which are often located in larger cities and work as part of a complicated bureaucratic system. The process and decisions are all communicated in French or complex Malagasy, which are difficult to understand, and often inaccessible, for most people. In 2001 the Dina was incorporated into the modern legal system through law 2001-04, whereby the adults from a community would decide together in a meeting what kind of sanctions could be imposed for a specific wrongdoing, but each decision would need to be approved by the official court.
The people view public institutions as unable to take care of their problems, so they decide to solve them independent of the state. Malagasy often see this as a conflict between the selfishness of the people in power and the governed people. The foundation of Malagasy society is referred to as fihavanana, the relationship and respect between society and the individual, in which the society prevails over the individual. This idea is so instilled in the Malagasy people that the people expect their leaders to govern and act according to fihavanana. Instead, there is worsening public security and a growing gap between the poor and the rich, all symptoms of the degradation of fihavanana.
People’s vindictiveness is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the clashes between Malagasy tradition and modern society. Since the central authorities cannot effectively manage the security of the Malagasy people, these people should be able to solve these problems themselves through the traditional Dina system. Empowerment on a local level will help to stop the frustration of the people and minimize the chances of extrajudicial violence.
Yvon Randriaharimalala is from Madagascar, where he works as a sourcing services provider and is the author of Réflexions sur la Chine et Madagascar (2016). He holds Master’s degree from Beijing University in Chinese language and literature and a Master of Advanced Studies in Asian Studies from Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris.