I know what it looks like when people are burned alive. I know what it smells like when people are burned alive. I know what it sounds like when people are burned alive. I’ve known that since I was eight years old.
I was sitting inside a bus taking me home from school. The bus stopped to pick up passengers at a bus terminal in Accra. There was a large crowd gathered at the terminal. That wasn’t unusual. That bus terminal was one of the busiest in the city. But that afternoon, it seemed like the whole neighbourhood was there. The bus driver couldn’t find room to drive out of the terminal. So he parked the bus and stepped out to see what was happening. The passengers followed him, and I followed them.
I was in grade three at the time. I was small. I was able to maneuver my way around the crowd. I saw boys who looked just as young as I was. I saw girls who were younger than I was. I saw babies wrapped around their mother’s back. I saw elderly people celebrating what was happening. Then I saw men with tires and large cans walking toward two poles at the front of the crowd. When I moved closer, I saw two men tied to the poles. They were soaked with tears. They were soaked with blood. They were soaked with gasoline.
I asked a boy in the crowd to tell me what was happening. He said the men were accused of armed-robbery.
Accusations like that can be death threats in Ghana. Armed robbers are the most despicable criminals in the country. They prey on the poor. They rob the rich. They pay off politicians and police officers. They are underpoliced and above the law.
When a person is accused of robbery in Ghana, too often the accusers call their neighbours, not the police, to establish justice. This is what happened that afternoon at the bus terminal. This is what happened last year when a Ghanaian soldier was lynched by a mob after he was mistaken for an armed robber. This is what happened in 1979 when president Jerry Rawlings normalized mob justice in Ghana.
My mother’s generation of Ghanaians are familiar with the words, “let the blood flow.” Ghanaians chanted those words while president Jerry Rawlings executed his allegedly corrupt political rivals in the streets. They did not receive a trial. They did not receive due process. They did not receive justice. They received accusations, then executions.
Mob justice is illegal in Ghana and a foreign concept in the nation’s tradition. Before Ghanaians were introduced to British law under colonialism, Ghanaians implemented their own form of due process. However today, surveys reveal that at least 15% of Ghanaians support mob justice.
When you emigrate from a country where mere accusations ignite executions, you tend to appreciate due process maybe more than others. Two years before that day at the bus terminal―when I was six―I was part of a mob that beat up a man accused of robbery.
I ran out of the house to join the mob as soon as I heard the neighbours yelling that he was a thief. There were older women and men punching the man. There were younger girls and younger boys kicking the man. I didn’t know his name, but I insulted him. I didn’t recognize him, but I punched him in the face. I punched and kicked the man with the crowd for several minutes until I was called home.
I don’t know what happened to the man. I didn’t think about it until two years later at the bus terminal, when I cried over what happens to accused thieves after they are punched and kicked by people like me.
The mob at the bus terminal placed the tires around the two men’s necks. The men groaned for someone, anyone to intervene. But the mob poured gasoline on them. They lit matches and tossed them on the men. The men screamed in anguish. They burned in agony. The mob burned in anger.
They were covered in flames. The tire melted over their neck and shoulders. They convulsed on the pole. They dropped to their knees. They were covered with smoke. It suffocated them. Then they suffered in silence. They died. The fire didn’t. They were burned alive. They were burned to death.
They were accused. They were executed. They were maybe innocent. That is what mob justice looks like in Ghana. That is what social justice looks like in Ghana.
When White police officers are immediately accused of racism and murder when they are involved in a police shooting against a Black criminal, I think about that day at the bus terminal. When Brett Kavanaugh is immediately labeled a rapist because of mere allegations against him, I think about the two men burned alive at the bus terminal.
Americans and Canadians are apparently too privileged to appreciate how important presumption of innocence and due process is. They want to burn people’s character when they are accused of despicable things. They’ve never seen people burned alive because of mere accusations. They do not know due process protects the innocent and protests injustice. They do not know presumption of innocence protects Black people from systemic racism. They do not know due process protects women from systemic sexism.
Presumption of guilt against Black people is why 4,743 Black Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968. Presumption of guilt is why 40, 000 women were executed during the witch trials in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Presumption of innocence and due process are essential principles for justice in society. Mob justice threatens that in Ghana. Social justice threatens that in Canada and America, and it’s alarming. When I was six years old, I played a role in beating up man accused of a crime he may not have committed. Today, many do the same on social media.