Africans wrestle with implications of Black Lives Matter protests

Demonstrations across continent prompt renewed focus on police violence and colourism

 Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters and supporters protest outside the US embassy in Cape Town, South Africa. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters and supporters protest outside the US embassy in Cape Town, South Africa. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

 

Across the African continent, the killing of George Floyd in the US has prompted protests, but also debate about what a Black Lives Matter movement should focus on here, with activists highlighting everything from police brutality, to colourism, to the relics of colonialism and the functioning of aid organisations.

On May 29th, African Union chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat condemned Floyd’s killing, calling on the US “to intensify their efforts to ensure the total elimination of all forms of discrimination based on race or ethnic origin”.

Africans suggested that was hypocrisy, arguing that police violence is commonplace in Africa too and victims regularly die from it.

On Monday, about 200 people marched in Kenyan capital Nairobi, expressing solidarity with the US while pointing to their own experiences. At least 15 people have been killed by Kenyan police since coronavirus restrictions began to be enforced, including a 13-year-old boy who was shot with a stray bullet.

On Saturday, a Black Lives Matter protest in Ghanaian capital Accra was broken up by police and the organiser, Ernesto Yeboah, was arrested. A small protest in Uganda’s capital Kampala on Tuesday ended with about 15 people being detained.

In Nigeria’s capital Lagos, two weeks ago, a teenage girl was shot and killed by police during the night-time coronavirus curfew. Her name, Tina Ezekwe, is one of a list repeated by Nigerian activists. Similar protests took place in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town in South Africa, Monrovia in Liberia, and Dakar in Senegal.

Demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest outside the US embassy of in Pretoria, South Africa. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook /EPA
Demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest outside the US embassy of in Pretoria, South Africa. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook /EPA

Meanwhile, Ugandan TV station NBS apologised for having “rubbed many of [its] viewers . . . the wrong way” after its staff appeared on air wearing “All Lives Matter” T-shirts. “A colonised mind is dangerous,” tweeted Ugandan activist and journalist Rosebell Kagumire in response. “This is a case study on refusing to read black struggle and why we need to teach critical race theory in African schools.”

TMS Ruge, a Ugandan entrepreneur and development writer, said the Black Lives Matter movement is splitting African societies in two. Leaders, who have been in power a long time, remain keen to appease their former colonisers, he said. Challenging them is a younger generation who want change.

Online, activists also argued that charities and aid organisations operating across Africa are overdue a reckoning regarding racist practices.

“Development programmes are very much part of the problem of enforcing separate tiers of inequality,” said Mr Ruge, pointing out that foreign development workers can earn between 10 and 20 times the amount of a local worker with the same qualifications.

“The reverse isn’t true when Global South development workers are stationed in Geneva or Washington or New York,” he said. “They’re paid less and have to fight for respect and equality. So it’s quite ironic when [those organisations are] putting out solidarity statements when inside their own organisations is a picture of structural inequity.”

Kenyan lawyer Maina Kiai, a former United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, criticised the UN for encouraging its staff not to participate in Black Lives Matter protests. “What exactly does the UN stand for then?” he tweeted.

There is also a growing call for tributes to colonialists to be removed across Europe. On Tuesday, a statue of King Leopold II was taken down in Antwerp, Belgium.

The Belgian monarch, who died in 1909, presided over the exploitation of Congo and the deaths of at least 10 million Congolese. More than 64,000 people have signed a petition calling for his statues in Brussels to be removed, giving a deadline of June 30th, the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence.

Protesters gather outside the US embassy during a Black Lives Matter protest in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA
Protesters gather outside the US embassy during a Black Lives Matter protest in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Being debated alongside this is the level of racism or colourism within African societies. Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean activist and journalist, wrote on Twitter that she was called a “barya” or “slave” growing up in Eritrea, because her skin was darker than all her siblings.

“If you were dark-skinned you were viewed as a thief, liar or very ugly,” she said, adding she wanted to inspire others to share their experiences.

According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organisation, about 40 per cent of African women bleach their skin.

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