Ethiopian perspectives on London riots

By Eskinder Nega / August 12, 2011
Had it transpired anywhere in the US, home to world-famous Uzi-brandishing street gangs, hardly any other person but victim and family would have paused to take notice. But fatal police shootings are still rare in the UK. They tend to raise many eyebrows.

Operation Trident Officers, who are tasked with tracking gun related crimes in London’s formidable African and Caribbean communities, had no reason to suspect that the pending August 4th, 2011, arrest of Mark Duggan, 29, would be anything but routine.

How events exactly unfolded when Duggan was approached by the police is not yet clear. But shots had suddenly rung out and by the time it was over Duggan was dead; a police officer had been wounded; and a police radio had been wreaked by a bullet.

Mark Duggan was no criminal. The police had no record of him. He was well liked by friends and neighbors. The gun fight dumbfounded his world-famous community in north London, Tottenham.

This is London’s most diverse neighborhood; more than 300 languages are reportedly spoken. It’s also where city’s highest unemployment rate is concentrated. Little of London’s fabled wealth is evident here. Crime, petty as well as organized, and dominated by rival armed gangs, thrives on the backstreets.

Tottenham had its first riot in the mid-80s following the death of a black woman during a search of her home by the police. This was a week after the infamous riots of Brixton, and much to the shock of Britain a police officer was killed by protesters, a first in more than 150 years. And suddenly, not only did Tottenham, mostly immigrant and non-white, but also the police, mostly white and indigenous, had reason to be angry. Worse, there was ample room for more bitterness over the subsequent trial of three minors and three adults charged with murder of the police officer.

The two sides more or less remained at odds ever since. Residents complained of alleged police heavy handedness while law enforcement officials quietly mulled over alleged un-British disregard of law and order. An explosion was inevitable.

Protest began two days later, August 6, 2011. It was peaceful at first. Three hundred people gathered at Tottenham’s police station demanding “justice for Dunggan’s family.” The authorities responded with police on horseback. They did not expect serious resistance. It was a colossal miscalculation.

Provoked, protesters reacted with devastating ferocity. Two police cars were immediately torched. And before anyone could give serious thought to what had happened, violence had spread all over Tottenham. Three hours later, more than forty fires had been set around Tottenham. Another two more hours and the protests had degenerated into widespread looting. Anarchy was threatening to overwhelm parts of north London.

Britain was shocked. The public could see no rational for the lootings. Outrage rather than copycat riots was expected for the next day, Sunday, August 7, 2011. But that was exactly what did not happen.

The riots first spread to Enfield and Brixton. Police were attacked, fires set and stores looted. Oxford circus, Chingford Mount, Ponders End and Islington were soon under siege by rampaging youth. The police were distressed. They did not have enough personnel to contain a city wide rampage.

Worse was to come on Monday, now the third night of riots. Scotland Yard reported “that areas of north, east and south London were affected.” Birmingham and Manchester joined on Tuesday. The speed with which the riots spread was simply breathtaking. Despite loud criticism by the fiery British tabloid press, no law enforcement apparatus could have been prepared for it.

This is where yet another crucial lesson lies for Ethiopia’s archaic ruling party, the EPRDF. Despite reprehensible lootings by rioters and the omnipresence of hysterical tabloids, there is more to the English riots than mere criminality. Unemployment and hopelessness are underlying causes. If protests break out in Ethiopia for any reason they will also spread swiftly and uncontrollably like they did in England. There is repression, corruption, inflation, unemployment and rising hopelessness to serve as underlying causes. But unlike the apolitical British protests, Ethiopia’s will most probably be quickly overwhelmed by the political issues of repression and change. And as has happened in Egypt and Syria there will then be no turning back.

The longer reforms are delayed, the more the imperative for Ethiopia, peaceful transition to democracy, will be at stake. The British will not prevent further riots by merely increasing the number of police on the streets. Social ills will have to be tackled earnestly. Neither could the EPRDF relay indefinitely on the strength of its security network to prevent an explosion. Both Meles Zenawi and the EPRDF have overstayed. Change is inevitable and should be accommodated rather than resisted futilely.

But six months have now passed since the demise of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt. And the much predicted protests have yet to break out in Ethiopia. Does this mean that analysts have after all been off mark? Or has the increased police presence on Addis’ streets effectively deterred protests permanently?

Not necessarily.

The repression is as unrelenting as ever. Food inflation has reached the atrocious 50 % mark. Unemployment shows no sign of declining. Small businesses, the backbone of the expanding service sector, are suffering perceptibly. The specter of famine dominates the headlines. Corruption is getting worse. There is growing tension within the ruling party. And overshadowing all these is the Arab Spring, which has inspired the restive urban youth. The analysts have always been right. These factors matter more than the repressive capabilities of the state. The threat of an explosion will continue to loom large for the foreseeable future.

The police and security services both in Ethiopia and Britain should be given a break. It’s not for them to solve the underlying problems their countries face. In democratic Britain the remedy lies in economics and social policies. In authoritarian Ethiopia it lies squarely in politics.

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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of some of the newspapers shut down during the 2005 post-electioncrackdown. After nearly six years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: