Ethiopian perspectives on London’s riots By Eskinder Nega

August 12th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

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 rang 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-1980s 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 lie 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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  1. Gambela Man
    | #1

    This full stop size midget (meles)from Arat kilo and his so called EPRDF scum, pretends to be about decentralization, which was presumably needed, self administration which was presumably needed and long overdue. But the meles regime is very much about Tigrean fascism, Nazism, racism, cruelty, theft, vandalism, corruption, maladministration, gun tooting behavior, assertiveness, decadence and all in all destructive politics.Meles is trying to destroy the very fabric of society up on which we are standing. Meles is shooting Ethiopia in the head. EPRDF like DERG-ESAPA sucks and must be given a death sentence. That is the only way forward, Arat netib

  2. Abebe
    | #2

    I live in England and I must say I have lost faith in the British democratic system after I saw the police exercising extrajudicial beatings in several locations. Here is some link if you want to have a look.
    I saw people getting bitten in by the police in Birmingham with my own naked eyes. So in my view, the story that was sold to us about the democracy that is practiced in Britain is only four meals away from dictatorship. I am really sad and confused and am losing faith in the country I called my second home.

  3. Tekle
    | #3

    As I was watching the report on London riot, I noticed one thing that reminds me of Meles Zenawi. Ashraf Haziq was bleeding from attack in the riot on the sidewalk of London , young men approached him seemingly to help him. But the boys robed Ashraf and left him to mend his suffering. The people who took power in Ethiopia are of the same nature as those who robbed Ashraf in London. Meles Zenawi and his gangs kept on robbing the poor nation of Ethiopia as the country crying for help and basic needs. The moral standard of of Meles Zenawi is similar to those robbers. Thank you Eskinder for the reflection.

  4. Netsanet
    | #4

    Honestly the attitude and motivations of rioters does not differ that much of a regular hedgefund manager. Therefore rioters should be considered as the ultmate form of entrepreneurialship initiative and should be considered as another actor of the free markets.

    That is also what most want for Ethiopia right?

  5. Ayalesew
    | #5

    It just comefermed to me that all the talk about human rights etc… is all talk and They can never point their fingers on Ethiopia again without dealing with their problem.

  6. JB
    | #6

    I don’t think that is a fare assessment of what happened in London. We can easily say that democracy is obtained after a certain level of social, cultural, economic and political developments after observing what happened in London. Even if you have 5% who live in poverty, they can seriously threaten the security and stability of a huge nation like Britain, which was on the verge of collapse until the police used some doggy methods to pacify the situation. Ethiopia is at a very early stage of development and it will take less than what happened in London for it to become chaotic. So my friend, I don’t want my business interest in Ethiopia to be affected by your silly theory and sure hope nothing like what you imagine will happen in Ethiopia.

  7. Sheger
    | #7

    Dear Eskinder, there is a difference. You can demonistiret in Ingland but not in Ethiopia. The Ethiopia Government is simply
    Asking for war not any kind of peacefull astugle if you call that, ( what happened in Londen) peaceful. Or what ever forced them to do that. We see this things all over weurop and so on. I don’t neseserly call that peacefull how ever I think people start to do that when they get pushed around and stope that rallies or may be not. May be they just do that
    How ever. That is not so peacefull. The GOVTS has to do is listen to the people and talk to them to find solution.

    But Ethiopia in this case is a much different country as least for the people that knows the truth about what really is going on.

  8. Apples and Oranges
    | #8

    Every country has its problems, but nothing in the world compares to what is happening in Ethiopia under the brutal, undisciplined TPLF regime. The only country that comes in mind to compare the current TPLF regime is Germany during Hitler era. At least in London, most of the Police beatings and the looting are recorded in camera, but in Ethiopia, all the looting, the ambush, beatings and killings of innocent Ethiopians is committed by the current illegitimate TPLF government it self in the dead of the night.

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