The riots that have rocked London have shocked many people all over the world. Somehow the picture of the Englishmen stealing shoes, wine, flat screen televisions and other things from the shops in London and other cities is just too surreal. Many people have commented that the policemen of Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya, among other African countries would have shut down the riots and looters in a day. Yet others have faulted the reporting of the west’s media houses such as cnn, BBC and sky news. They say that had these riots occurred in Kenya, they would have been broadcasted all over the world.
I think Africans can compare and learn from these acts of “brazen criminality.” Some of the interesting aspects of these riots such as police response, the role of social media, political response, materialism, multiculturalism and ethnic relations, democratic society and social alienation, as well as the role of parents and the government in children upbringing.
• The police
The London riots began after the mysterious shooting of mark Duggan by the police. The shooting occurred after a botched undercover operation the police have been accused of not being responsive enough to the family of mark Duggan when they went to see them and get information about his death. This led to protests that eventually turned ugly, and led to the riots in Tottenham.
The police have been accused of being too soft and reluctant to use force when dealing with the protesters. This is a rather peculiar charge, as policemen are mostly known for being brutal when dealing with public upheavals of any kind. African police have rarely been accused of being soft on any protesters or citizens. As Kenya police continues to reform, care must be taken to ensure that the right balance is struck between softness and high handedness.
However, the police in Britain have been very efficient n arresting the looters, with over 1500 arrests having been made so far. The police have been very efficient in arresting, processing and charging the looters. This is unlike cases in Kenya where police have frequently dropped the ball while investigating cases. Some of the reasons given for this have been lack of resources, knowledge of the law, corruption and incompetence.
• Political responsiveness
Most of the national politicians had been in recess when the riots occurred. The initial response was slow, although the British prime minister did eventually call a special meeting of parliament to debate on the riots.
The politicians in both sides of the divide have struggled to maintain a united front in the debates, at least in public, although cracks are surely just beneath the surface, with the conservatives blaming the looting on criminality and consumerist society, while those on the left seem to think society has not given the poor any reason not to loot or feel like they are part of society they live in.
These ideological conflicts can lead to lively debate on the issues and consensus building when trying to address these concerns. The important lesson to learn from this is that a modicum of unity by politicians is sometimes necessary when a nation is facing a major crisis.
The law in Kenya and other parts of Africa should also be amended to ensure that the small and medium size enterprises are protected from cases of political violence and upheaval, either by providing incentives to the insurance players, or setting up a fund to help compensate the business class from such wanton destruction.
• Social networks
The use of the social networks by the looters has been very efficient, by using applications such as blackberry messenger to communicate and organize themselves. This has led to calls to ban these looters from the social networks. In Uganda, the leading party is accusing the opposition of trying to lead an “armed insurrection” using twitter.
The lesson here is that social networks can be used for both good and evil by the general population. Hence legislation to guide how to protect the general population from crooks that use the internet to liaise and organize their criminal activities, without violating the right of the innocent. The right to privacy in social networks such as facebook and twitter seems to be nonexistent. Activists are being arrested in Zimbabwe and Uganda for notes and updates they posted on these sites. This is a very worrying trend.
.Of course it must be mentioned that the positive efforts such as #riotcleanup and the identifying of looters on flickr have also been done using the same social networks
Activists and the general public in Africa have to know that they may be putting themselves at risk when they tweet or post negative things about their governments, especially in countries with a history of oppression and dictatorship.
• Ethnic relations
The killing of a black man (Mark Duggan) by the police threatened to bring about race riots, however the situation seems to have been avoided. The murder of 3 Englishmen of Asian origin in a hit and run where the main suspect is an afro-Caribbean ha s threatened to bring about ethnic tensions. This reminds me of such cases in parts of Kenya such as kuresoi and other parts of the rift valley region, where a crime perpetuated by a member of one community can lead to reprisals and revenge attacks. The Kenyan youth and civil society at large have a duty to play to promote dialogue and peace among these communities. This will help downplay tensions between the communities, especially in the political contests that are ahead in the next general elections.
• Haves and have-nots
The most important thing Africans can learn from the London riots, however, is that the creation of a deeply unequal society such as Kenyans is a time bomb. The government must do all it can to promote economic development, creation of jobs and inclusiveness of all segments of the society to the economy. Right now we have a two tier education system, where the rich go to the best schools while the poor go to the worst. What is the government doing to correct this? Is giving more schools the national status the answer? Am highly pessimistic, but time will tell.
The other major issue is that of consumerism. Consumerism, according to Wikipedia, is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods and services in ever greater amounts. Many societies, Kenya included, are consumerist societies and this leads to people always wanting more and more goods so as to achieve a temporary high. This promotes greed and dissatisfaction among many people with their lives. Given an unguarded supermarket or shoe shop, how many Kenyans, or Africans would have acted in the same manner?
The British society will not find it easy to deal with such a problem. Is consumerism a bad thing? No doubt it promotes innovation and spending, which are necessary to economic development. But parents must curtail their and their children’s desires to spot the latest fashions, phones and designer clothes lest it damages our self esteems, sense of proportion, happiness and envy towards the more affluent in society.
In conclusion, the British government has been much more responsive, and united when dealing with these riots than many African countries would have. However, the issues their society faces, such as the vast underclass, poverty, dire economic times and an increasingly weak political class in the face of globalization, increasing power of MNCs and regionalism, as well as unemployed yet educated young population, are challenges all both sides of the north south divide are grappling with. How will our societies and governments deal with these?