Last night a neighbour, home alone, heard someone jump the gate, the rattle very discernable against the quiet of the night. The hurrying footfalls easily heard and of the type to make the heart rush not with the thought of her husband returning but with the fear of someone trying to avoid detection.

The footfalls faded off into the black of the night and were overtaken by the frenzied barking of dogs. The lady had the presence of mind to call another neighbour and, a couple more rungu seeking to emulate my own Somaliland aid of choice, they mobilised to ensure the want-to-be perpetrator of more crime saw we were far more prepared to act.

My mind went back to days following bad nights a quarter of a century ago and thoughts prompted by the policeman who came two months ago when my own house was broken in to. The police detective had talked of ‘chomaing’ thieves and people causing communities to live in fear. A rule of law is here; but many still see it as working for those with money and not for the vast majority people.

Is this wrong? In terms of working only for those with money – Yes. In so many places we are seeing the outsourcing of security or even in the case of South Africa, insecurity in the name of landlords – see these graphic pictures of the Red Ants – In Kenya, insecurity is providing security of employment for some in the security sector – as the number of people guarding now surpasses those guiding tourist. And still the elephants (and rhinos) are endangered requiring a nice Bwana Kuboir (Big Man) conference as a host of presidents pledged to defend elephants recently. The meeting itself, of course, required more security and saw the ritual ‘chomaing’ of ivory from already dead elephants not defended; probably because of disempowered people?

No wonder people who feel disenfranchised and disempowered are reclaiming direct action on security for themselves; no matter the issues of legality and Rights.

A quarter of a century ago, we, in East Africa, had heard of necklacing from South Africa and, despite the lack of global media of the type we now have, there was also knowledge of using straightened coil springs to ensure people were sent messages. Knee capping never caught on in Africa as far as I know; we remain the continent of ‘Would you like long sleeves or short sleeves?’1

Necklacing – I lived in Meru, a nice town on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya. We were starting to get anti Moi, the then President of Kenya, movements as Meru was starved not only of investment but even leaders able to be party to a morally bankrupt regime. Incidents of theft at all levels were rising and people had little or no faith in judicial process. Necklacing is about taking law into your own hands, some would call it mob justice, and others would say it is sending a message when your life and livelihood is threatened by mob injustice.

In Meru the first acts of this type were two thieves, caught in the act, judged by those who caught them and sentenced to send a message to others. The two thieves were marched up from where the market and bus stage are to outside the central police station. Tyres put around their necks, dosed in petrol and sent on their way to meet a higher authority. The choice of venue was clear; it sent a message the police did not unduly mind and were in essence complicit in the message being sent.

The following days, buses were loaded leaving town as those with doubts as to whether they would survive if such a purge took hold decided to go elsewhere.

I was running a meeting with the Jua Kali, the informal sector and micro and small business people, who were busy arguing among themselves following thefts from their cooperative set up. We were down below town in a place called Gakaromone where land was still relatively cheap and informal businesses could prosper from people coming in to town to walk up to the Municipal, County and District Offices. The meeting was in a dell where the land slipped away swiftly from the town down toward a river itself incised into the slopes where Mount Kenya started to climb above us. Myself and a few office holders were seated on the ground looking up at maybe a hundred business people, men and women but predominately men in their thirties and forties who were hard working enterprisers seeking to get ahead.

The meeting ran in Kimeru, the Mother tongue. Another outsider, trusted (as far as anyone was trusting anyone) to translate my words from English to Kimeru sat with me at the bottom alongside the new chairman of the Meru Jua Kali Association. A gentleman from one of the churches who insisted in all women wearing all white stood up to speak. Flanked by two ladies, dressed in white, and from three quarters up the embankment, slightly off centre but definitely in the midst of all. He launched a tirade against the changes to the Jua kali Association management saying he was the legitimate chairman and he would seek a court injunction to stop any further business. The meeting saw this as apostasy and the embankment became an amphitheatre. I called for order but was quietly told to watch and see (social) justice in action.

The movement in the gathering took it’s lessons from preceding events outside the police station and the gentleman claiming to be chairman was warned not to stop development for the wider Jua Kali otherwise a fate similar to that of the thieves would befall him. He was a thief, he was told, having stolen earlier dues paid by members of the Jua Kali Association.

After maybe four or five minutes furious discourse during which time I kept asking for a translation, interpretation and or explanation of what was going on, the gentleman with his two all in white women took their leave. They carried on and were also on a bus out of town within a day or two. I received an explanation and then tried to lighten things by saying necklacing was not the way to go even if the courts were ineffectual, some sense of law should be maintained. If nothing else, the gentleman was not worth a tyre a fundi could turn in to sandals and petrol costing precious money. Environmental consciousness. Straight faced the new chairman, who became a very good friend, said not to worry – ‘We only use tyres that cannot be used for anything else and never use petrol – waste oil burns better once ignited’.

Justice served with an environmental and cost conscious edge? The smell of retribution did not need to assail our nostrils as people of dubious character took note of promises of swift actions. Lessons to be drawn in terms of ‘hot justice’ and points of no return for those who perpetrate crime against the wider community? Meru now has blossomed as it came out from under the yoke of dictatorial approaches of patronage for those in support and subjugation of those who wished to stand up to be counted as opposition. But, somehow, the talk of ‘chomaing’ is still there and, despite the trappings of a supposedly middle-income country, there are those who are left behind without real recourse to the apparatus of functional state. Environmental consciousness will not safeguard those who continue to cause trouble for some communities.

1 During the dark, dark, days of West African rebellion, different groups would ask their victims if they wanted the hand, long sleeves, or forearm, short sleeves, amputated – their form of sending messages as to their control of places.

The straightened coil spring was used during the days pre-removal of apartheid on informers. The victim would be bent over and the straightened, tensile steel, would be rammed up through the spine from the anus destroying much of the central system enabling us to function leaving the informer crippled and as a message to others.