A video was published on social media showing a gory instance of popular justice in Madagascar has stirred debate over the self-defense groups that operate in many different villages. The video, which was posted on Facebook in mid-March, shows a man accused of stealing cows being tortured and lynched by men armed with machetes and axes.

In Madagascar of old, young men used to prove themselves by stealing cattle. However, in the past few years, this ancient tradition has been replaced by an organised crime network, whose thefts often spark bloody conflicts.

WARNING: READERS MAY FIND THE FOLLOWING IMAGES SHOCKING

In Sofia, a region in northern Madagascar, mounting insecurity and an increase in cattle rustling has led villagers to start self-defense groups known locally as "Bisabôha". According to several Observers from the region, these groups have been gaining in numbers and power over the past two or three years. They claim to enact the laws of the “Dina,” a traditional justice system.

In a video shared in mid-March, a group of "Bisabôha" armed with machetes and sticks celebrate the execution of a man accused of stealing cattle.
 

Based on the government definition, the Dina are communal codes written and adopted by village assemblies. These agreements “prescribe measures that the population finds necessary to ensure the harmonisation of social, economic and security interests”. These local laws, which are regulated by national law, usually establish things like fines in case of an infraction. The idea is that people who are detained for breaking these local laws are supposed to be handed over to the police.

But a video posted on social media on March 20 has called into question this system and highlighted abuses.

The footage shows a man being publicly shamed in front of about 20 other men. He is then hacked to death with machetes and axes. FRANCE 24 is only publishing screengrabs of the video.

At the start of the video, the man appears in front of the crowd next to a cow.

He is stripped and then blindfolded.

Then, one of his captors strikes him at the back of the neck several times. Several other men attack him as well, hacking him to death with machetes.

"People in the region have been speaking out about these abuses for a long time”

Our Observer Arnaud Bilal (not his real name) is a citizen journalist who lives in Sofia. He says there is no doubt that this video shows members of the Bisabôha who are abusing their power.

Someone sent me this video on March 23. I started researching and realised that this video has been circulating on Facebook since March 20 [Editor’s note: The Observers team was not able to determine the exact date that the video was filmed, but several different sources all agreed that it has been circulating online since March 20]. We might never be able to determine the exact date that it was filmed. But it is proof of the way that the Bisabôha have been abusing their power. People in the region have been speaking out about this abuse for a long time.

There are several clues that allow us to establish that these men are indeed Bisabôha. Firstly, the men in the video speak a dialect from the Sofia region, which is the only place in the country where these self-defense groups are known by this name. Historically, these groups were first launched in the Analalava district, where they have official documents establishing them as an organised group.

The Bisabôha function under a strict chain of command. In the video, you can see that this group is being directed by a leader.

The word Bisabôha comes from sabôha, the word for the spears that they can be seen carrying in the footage.”

In these photos of the Bisabôha taken in Antshohihy in mid-March, they carry their traditional weapons: batons, machetes and a type of spear known as sabôha.

"I condemn this video. However, we can’t do without Dina on a local level,” says the prime minister.

Contacted by FRANCE 24, Olivier Mahafaly Solonandrasana, who serves as both the prime minister and the minister of the interior in Madagascar, said he was aware of the video.

This incident took place in Sofia about a month ago. It’s an odious, reprehensible act, especially because these Bisabôha were not acting in accordance with the judiciary.

Since, the police have carried out several arrests in the region [Editor’s note: The Sofia gendarmerie said that 15 people with ties to the Bisabôha had been arrested since early 2018, including four members of the group shown in the video.].

Reforming the security sector is a priority for us because the current system no longer responds to the needs of Malgasy people. On April 9, we held an urgent, interdepartmental meeting on the question: the gendarmes and police stations no longer have the means to secure the entire country.

So we are hoping to launch structural reforms at the district level to better aid the population as well as to increase material resources.

However, we can’t do without Dina on a local level, because they play an important role in anticipating security risks. It is a system that should continue under the condition that laws are respected.

The prefect of the district of Sofia, Jean José Ambinintsoa, confirmed to FRANCE 24 that the video showed a group of Bisabôha. Shortly after the publication of this video, he went to the district of Analalava to meet several different local chiefs.

“On March 27, we discussed these abuses and reminded them that the Bisabôha cannot carry out these kinds of punitive actions. In case of theft, they need to contact the authorities and bring the suspects to the police station so that they are judged under the idea of being innocent until proven guilty," he explained.

The problem of popular justice carried out by local vigilance committees isn’t new in Madagascar. In October 2013, we investigated this issue in the south of Madagascar in a report for an episode of Observers Direct, which you can see below.