By Rotimi Fasan
The images are not typical of the sorts associated with any part of the ‘civilised’ world. When you saw such pictures you thought of Africa, Asia, the restive parts of the Middle East or such other parts we’ve been told belong in the ‘developing’ or ‘third’ world. If you were told any such image was coming out of any part of the West you’ll call for some form of reality check.
And when realisation dawns on you that this is actually happening in the West, you’ll think of nowhere but Haiti, that backwater of the Western outpost yet to recover from the earthquake that has further pulverised it into social and economic anonymity.
You saw these images of brooding, hooded figures that pour across streets breaking into shops and looting them and you thought of Liberia, because that is the image of Africa that is often projected across the world- an image of grinding poverty, disease and mindless violence.
But the images of these brazen robbers called rioters pouring like rats out of side streets to loot highbrow shops and manhandle their owners; set vehicles alight and run ring round black-uniformed police where they stand with batons and shields as if transfixed- these images were of British youths shredding the long-held myth that Africa held the patent to violence, thuggery and state-induced anger. These youths are the British version of our own almajiri, or ‘area boys’ (of course not in the sense in which that term is used in local, Lagos Island, parlance). These British looters are what Nigerian authority figures would call hoodlums and miscreants- what the press would call ‘street urchins’.
In this age of reality shows, the images of looting British youths look like reels from B grade gangster movies. Initially called ‘the London riots’ when they started as violent local reaction to the killing by the police, on August 6, 2011, of Mark Duggan , a 29 years old man, the riots would in the following five days spread to major cities in the Uk: from Tottenham to Birmingham; Manchester to Liverpool, overwhelming the police and setting the British establishment from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to the leader of the Labour opposition, Ed Miliband and parliamentarians, scampering out of their summer hideaway. Of course in its sedate detachment, perhaps in consonance with the assumed dignity of the monarchy, Buckingham Palace affected a measure of outward silence. But London and other major UK cities burned!
The British police, to say nothing of the entire British government, were caught off guard. A society that always seemed poised to checkmate terrorism of the worst kind by extremist groups, raising the terrorist alert level as occasion demanded- a people that battled the IRA for decades and gave robust response to July 7, 2005- that society suddenly appeared lost and unable to respond to the violence offered by rampaging youths, armed most times with nothing more than their bare hands.
Indeed the police stood by and watched the looters operate, offering seemingly lame responses by way barricades and hot chases after looters. Suddenly there appeared more hoodlums on the streets of London and other centres of the rioting than the police could cope with, leaving Cameron with nothing but promises of more police and appeal to parents to keep their children indoors. The last part reminded one of election eve appeals by Nigerian authorities, especially the police, to parents on the need to ensure their children steer clear of trouble.
Like the Nigeria Police appeals, the British PM appeals would go unheeded by youths who saw the looting spree as some kind of a national holiday from law and order, an occasion to steal and see what amount of the wealth of the rich they could either destroy or corner for themselves. But it might be asked what happened to those weapons of crowd control such as tear gas, plastic bullets or water cannon? How come these were conspicuously absent? Yes, the ‘civilised’ world can’t shoot their own people at will but they produce such stuffs for dictators that populate the ‘third world’.
Older members of the British society have criticised the looters for their irresponsible conduct. Nothing could justify it, they say. The fact that many of these youths are jobless and no longer enjoy some of those social security perks that had helped keep many of them under rein for so long- the fact that those elements of grudging benevolence capitalism employed to conceal social inequities are no longer available count for little in the account of critics of the bottled-up rage of younger members of the society locked out of the promise of a better future.
Increasing absence of those entrenched measures of cushioning the harsh demands of hard-nosed capitalism is what is breaking the chains on the poor and bringing out the beast in them. Africa and those poor societies of Asia had no such provision for their citizens which is why they are unstable and their peoples appear ‘uncivilised’ as they fight for redistribution of societal wealth. But as the UK riots have proven, human beings are fundamentally the same.
Take away those things that define their humanity and the restraining power of the law and they would go back to the ‘state of nature’. The West should prepare for more of this as laws are continually fashioned that favour the very rich at the expense of society’s poor. The crumbling economies of Europe, of such countries as Greece and Spain and the introduction of austerity measures across the continent are the early warning signs.
The ascendance and intransigence of ultra right groups such as the Tea Party in the US will ultimately push the poor majority of the so-called civilised world to the barricades and we would all find out just how civilised that ‘civilised world’ is. Republican insistence on cuts on government spending while giving lavish tax cuts to the rich and impoverishing young Americans would in due course boil over. It may for now sound so far-fetched but what is happening in the UK might be the beginning of the West’s version of what is now generally called the Arab Spring. Things may not take that shape immediately.
But they might over time. Those who imagine that such eruptions could only happen in Africa of sit-tight leaders; those who fail to see the connection between such unrest and the enactment of corrupt policies that impoverish the vast majority would not see the point in this. But such would be surprised in no distant time.