Lessons for a Burning Britain

800px-Tottenham_riots_August_6thby Tolu Ogunlesi, in The Huffington Post (photo from Wikipedia):

A few weeks ago, at the height of the News of the World scandal, I appeared on the BBC's World Have Your Say to talk about how – or if – unfolding events in the UK were shaping the way Nigerians regarded their colonial overlords. Not long after that I contributed to a Guardian article on a similar theme.

Apart from a few newspaper editorials and columns, I didn't get the impression the average Nigerian had much of an opinion regarding the phone-hacking. (It's hard to say how much this may have had to do with the fact that Nigeria doesn't have a voicemail culture)

On the day David Cameron visited Lagos, while his citizens were demanding his urgent return home to deal with the crisis, Lagosians seemed more concerned about the traffic his presence in town was causing. “Why do they block the road [because] a dignitary is in town? Do they block roads in London when [Nigerian President Jonathan] visits?” one Facebook status queried.

The ongoing riots (like the parliamentary expenses scandal) are another matter though. Nigerians – like the rest of the world – have opinions about that. Some of it is self-deprecating (Blackberry messages joking that Nigerians-in-London are turning down an evacuation offer from their government; preferring a temporarily-burning London to their perpetually dysfunctional homeland); the rest drawing on something close to Schadenfreude (reports of the Gaddafi regime insisting that Mr. Cameron has “lost his legitimacy and must go”; and of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad describing Britain's treatment of the rioters as “savage”).

No doubt it seems like a rare opportunity to reverse the classroom hierarchy and make the pontificating British face the blackboard. Last year, the BBC broadcast a documentary, Law and Disorder in Lagos, in which “Louis Theroux investigates just who wields the power on the streets of Lagos in Nigeria – and it's not the police.”

How strange to see, barely a year later, the police losing total control of the streets of London. The eerie familiarity of the scenes and images of 'Britain Burning' makes me feel qualified to issue warnings: Nigeria, where I have lived most of my life (having spent my first eighteen months in Falklands-War-era Britain), is already sitting blissfully on such a time bomb.

Last year the British Council released a report on Nigeria's youth. One of its observations: “In the worst case, Nigeria will see: growing numbers of restless young people frustrated by lack of opportunity; […] and a political system discredited by its failure to improve lives…”

Talk about irony. Now, one imagines, is the time to commission a similar one on Britain's youth – if the British Council still has enough funds, post-cuts, for such a venture.

Mounting evidence points to the fact that today's Britain is home to a generation of children and youth cast adrift on a sea of radicalising disenfranchisement. Not long ago the Evening Standard found that “1 in 4 children in London leaves primary school at 11 unable to read or write properly” and “1 in 5 leaves secondary school without being able to read or write with confidence.”

“Many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future,” criminologist John Pitts told the Guardian. “Much of this was opportunism but in the middle of it there is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.”

Tottenham-based activist Symeon Brown has described the violence as a “mass act of civil destruction and disobedience by a group who have existed under the surface of Britain for years…” and who “have no stake or identification with this society, no interests and thus nothing to lose.”

It may therefore be disingenuous and tragically misleading to tag the actions of the rioters/looters, shocking and criminal as they might be, “mindless” violence, or dismiss it as “criminality” (as Piers Morgan keeps doing in a shrill, increasingly annoying, Twitter voice).

Admittedly, the manifestation has been wholly criminal, fuelled no doubt by shocking police helplessness. But let's face it, beneath the whirring baseball bats, the smashed glass and settling ashes, lies a coded message to the Establishment; an incoherent declaration of war.

After Nigeria's presidential elections in April, bands of young people – many were actually children – went on rampage in Northern Nigeria. They were out to kill, not loot, making Britain's youth seem rather benign in comparison. What defined them the most was that they were young people with no “legitimate future”; and nothing to lose (and, in their own case, the added complication of extremist religious indoctrination).

I'll be damned if rage and hopelessness can be classified into “first world” and “third world” categories. Clearly, it is high time Britain started to ask itself tough questions – about class, inequality and social mobility. Instinctive patriotic defensiveness hardly helps. (I'm recalling the backlash that greeted Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, when he described Britain as a “cesspit”, and a “breeding ground of fundamentalist Muslims.”)

The general impression seems to be that the blitz of spending cuts will do nothing but worsen the inequality, and exacerbate the feelings of social alienation and economic exclusion.

“Africans as a whole are not only not averse to cutting off their nose to spite their face; they regard such an operation as a triumph of cosmetic surgery,” wrote Sir David Hunt, British High Commissioner to Nigeria, when his tour of duty came to an end in May 1969.

Those words now sound like they were made to be bandied at the British. Here's hoping the country, with its well-intentioned nose-modifying, doesn't end up spiting its already disfigured face.


Follow Tolu Ogunlesi on Twitter