Monday, August 15, 2011

Parallels between UK riots and our post-poll chaos

Sunday Nation 14 August 2011

In December 2007, a full two weeks before our last General Election, I wrote the following paragraph in the Daily Nation: “Clearly, we are not living under normal circumstances today. All around the country, crazed mobs are running around armed with all sorts of simple and sophisticated weapons maiming and killing fellow citizens with abandon.”

In that article, I argued that there was nothing like “political violence” and all perpetrators of violence must be subjected to “strict, impartial and severe application of the law” and that “killers must be held personally responsible for their crimes”.

Of course that advice was not heeded, although many commentators today still insist that the post-election violence was unprecedented and unforeseen.

Memories of this time came flooding back to me last week as I watched and read about the riots that broke out in London after the killing of a young man suspected of criminal activity.

A London blogger wrote: “I’m huddled in the front room with some shell-shocked friends, watching my city burn. The BBC is interchanging footage of blazing cars and running street battles in Hackney, of police horses lining up in Lewisham, of roiling infernos that were once shops and houses in Croydon and in Peckham”.

I felt exactly like this in early January 2008, as angry youths barricaded roads and stopped all vehicles, selecting people of the “wrong” ethnicity for summary execution.

In Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa, Eldoret, Naivasha, Mumias and other urban areas around the country, shops were looted and burnt, and “non-indigenous” residents were given their marching orders.

Examining the underlying issues in both events, one comes away with the feeling that they share parallels at several levels.

Firstly, the trigger. A relatively “trivial” event resulted in an uprising that surprised even the perpetrators by its ferocity and rapid spread. In Kenya, it was a “stolen election”. In London, it was the killing of Marc Duggan.

Second, the sense of disenfranchisement and grievance among the perpetrators of the resultant violence and looting is an obvious parallel. In Kenya, the “Mount Kenya Mafia” was blamed for perpetuating the “marginalisation” of the rest of the country, and people from related communities paid for the “sins of their fathers”.

In London, the economic and racial minorities continue to live on the fringes of this relatively prosperous economy, and it is conceivable that seemingly minor slights would trigger the sort of riots that started in London early last week.

A final parallel is the reaction of the genteel middle class in both countries. In both cases, the looters and rioters were dismissed as “scumbags” engaging in “mindless violence” and the authorities issued threats of force.

These particular “scumbags” often have no sense of history or the global picture, and are only concerned about their welfare in the here and now.

They are not concerned with the growing economy, nor are they interested in the obvious fact that they may be better off than poor fellows in other areas.

Often, the “scumbags” have nothing to lose and are apt to continue with their “mindless” campaign until something gives. In the case of Kenya, we got the mongrel Grand Coalition Government. In the case of the UK, we shall wait and see.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University School of Medicine.

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