For our “Africa Reacts” series, the CSIS Africa Program has asked prominent African journalists, civil society activists, and thought leaders to analyze the U.S. presidential election process. We believe it is critical to flip the script by featuring African views on U.S. politics—informing a new conversation about the future of U.S.-African relations.
This installment is different. The recent murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis—followed by nationwide protests and a heavy security response—has raised difficult questions about the persistence of racism, constitutional rights to protest, and the appropriate use of government security services in the United States. These developments have attracted scrutiny from abroad, and nowhere as critically as from the African continent.
In this edition, we have asked top African thinkers to provide their reactions to Floyd’s death, the protests engulfing the United States, and the U.S. government response. Many noted the decreased legitimacy of the United States in condemning human rights violations in African countries. Others commented on the inseparable ties between the U.S. civil rights movement and anti-colonialism movements in Africa. Finally, some analysts looked ahead, discussing the rise of authoritarianism across the globe, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The contributions in this commentary have been edited by the CSIS Africa Program for brevity and clarity.
Faten Aggad-Clerx, Contributor to African Arguments (@fatenaggad)
In a democracy, popular rejection of a critical institution like the police force would be enough to warrant deep political reflection and institutional reforms. But in the United States, the president, whose only objective seemingly is to hold on to power, is mobilizing religious and ethnic allies as well as security forces to preserve a system that is cracked. What is clear is that the country urgently needs a process of national reconciliation and deep institutional reforms before it is too late.
Simon Allison, Mail & Guardian (@simonallison)
For better or worse, the United States defines the world that we live in. It has forged an international system in its own image. But over the past few years, it has abandoned its position of international leadership—and now, it seems, of domestic leadership too. It feels like we are living through the last years of the Roman Empire. The fall of that hegemon ushered in a period of widespread instability and conflict; my fear is that the fall of this one may too.
Uduak Amimo, Kenyan Journalist (@UduakAmimo)
I welcome the African Union statement on the murder of George Floyd. But to be honest, I think it’s too little and far too late. His death is the latest in a long line of killings of Black men, women, and children, killings that have drawn no official response from the continent over the years, despite a commitment to ending discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and origin. That principle has been rarely invoked against the United States until now.
As a continent, we have failed our African American brothers and sisters, offering next to nothing in the way of meaningful solidarity to ensure their dignity. This is our shame. This is our problem. We owe our Black brothers and sisters an apology for centuries of neglect.
There are numerous articles going around about how white people can advocate for Black lives. Beyond the condemnation of systemic racism and racial violence in the United States from African leaders, I would like to see a similar focus and thinking on how Africans on the continent can advocate for African Americans and other people of African descent in the diaspora and at home.
Eromo Egbejule, Ozy Africa Editor (@EromoEgbejule)
I have always maintained that the truth is like a cube. Segregation and racism have always been deep-rooted in the American experience, manifesting in various forms from slavery until the present day where Black people are still at the bottom of the totem pole. But the United States has always been that cool kid that, as the Instagrammers say, knows how to “work its angles” to present itself in the best light. It has always shown the sides of the cube that give it the moral standing to police the world, and it has hid those sides of the cube that are less than flattering. But now, all sides of the cube are on display.
President Trump’s threats to send the military into the streets are proof of an underlying hypothesis that I’m finding to be resoundingly true across the world: when it comes down to it, leaders will disregard the oaths they took to serve all of the people and instead choose to preserve regime security over national security. Other leaders are taking lessons, sadly.
Idayat Hassan, Director, Centre for Democracy and Development–West Africa (@HassanIdayat)
The heavy-handed response by U.S. security services to public demonstrations against systemic racism is alarming. Rather than respond to legitimate public grievances, the government has resorted to the use of excessive force against peaceful protestors. Does this undermine the United States’ moral authority to issue reports against violations of human rights in other parts of the world? It will certainly be very easy for leaders in Africa, those with their own dictatorial tendencies, to justify future behavior by referencing the actions of the U.S. administration in the last few weeks. What Africans can learn from recent U.S. events is that democracy must never be taken for granted and that the rights of all citizens must continually be fought for.
Ronald Kato, Africa News (@RonnieKulabako)
Given that senior African security figures travel to train in the United States—and that many African security forces receive training from the U.S. military—we can now conclude that the militarization of countries’ police forces has its roots in America. The reaction of some U.S. leaders has also been interesting to watch. While they cheer on protesters elsewhere, they were quick to condemn their own rioters and arsonists.
Mayra de Lassalette, Angolan journalist in Washington, D.C. (@mayralassalette)
Ironically, George Floyd died on Africa Day. While we were all celebrating, he was begging for his life. This year it felt like the U.S. was even more engaged in celebrating such a meaningful event with us, organizing virtual concerts, promoting our artists to the world, and recognizing our time to shine.
On Africa Day, we Africans come together with messages of hope, reinforcing our dreams of progress, peace, and freedom. We celebrate the end of colonialism and segregation, and we take the opportunity to remind our leaders how urgent it is to build a continent that lives in the spotlight and fully embraces its time. But so far, “Africa time” seems to be relying on Western standards and approval. We have been looking up to the U.S. as the older brother that knows it all. The example of democracy, of freedom. The United States has been the nation with the power to call out others on human rights, on freedom of speech, on religious freedom, etc.
This same nation showed us in broad daylight a man being killed by police in another episode that roars injustice, protesters being run over by police cars, journalists beaten by police, and a leadership response that exposes a more divided country. It is true the house had been shaking way before Mr. Floyd’s death, but we still give the United States the “older brother title” and all the power that comes with it.
My questions today: Can Africans still trust the United States and its institutions in leading the world? If yes, why, and until when? George Floyd died on a very important day for Africans, and as Africans, we believe in signs.
Golden Matonga, Malawian Journalist (@GoldenMatonga)
Let’s start here: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In America, much of the controversy about the phrase by President Trump at the heart of protests was about the historic racial connotation as much as about glorification of violence.
Watching from Africa, one would wonder what was going on in the minds of the various strongmen across the continent watching the U.S. president threatening violence to Americans in a manner unheard of before.
But the real nightmare is that because America’s unique position as poster boy of democracy is undermined, the dictators in African state houses will feel emboldened.
Jack McBrams, Malawian Journalist (@mcbrams)
The fact that this is happening in the United States is a tragedy unto itself because the United States used to be a beacon of what was right and just; a country that the world looked up to and envied; a place where justice, law, and order meant something. But these events, and several others, are a clear indication of just how far the country has degenerated from being a leading light on rights and justice to anarchism. The biggest problem now is that the world, especially Africa, has no one to look up to for lessons in democracy. And that is the tragedy.
Idris Mohammed, Nigerian Researcher (@Idris4peace)
It’s time for racists to unlearn the idea of segregation because of the color of our skin, it is really tearing us apart. The United States is supposed to be the freest country in the world because of its long history of promoting democracy. Unfortunately, George Floyd’s death demonstrates just how little the United States cares about Black lives at home and abroad. How George Floyd died will remain an everlasting wound for our generation because we believe in the principle of equality, the main pillar of democracy. It is necessary for President Trump and his supporters to come up with policies that will erase the pain of this tragedy.
Aggrey Mutambo, Nation Media Group, Kenya (@agmutambo)
George Floyd’s death simply unearthed an existential problem that the United States has failed to address since the (official) end of the slave trade. While the spark was ignited by an element of police brutality, it continues to burn due to racism—and poor attitudes toward Black people—in the United States. This issue has been perpetuated mostly because politicians have failed to address it. I am afraid we will see similar protests in future unless Blacks and other minority communities are fully accommodated and respected.
Nanjala Nyabola, Kenyan Writer (@Nanjala1)
We are in a moment where the myths of the international political system are being tested and found hollow. First, the pandemic revealed the limits and the threat that big power politics pose for weaker countries—posturing and grandstanding by powerful countries has allowed a situation that could have effectively been managed if the international systems were allowed to work freely. It is telling that countries with big power ambitions are playing fast and loose with international institutions that many people in poor countries depend on for life-saving vaccines or health education. It’s a reminder that ultimately power contests are like that Swahili proverb—when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets injured.
Second, we are seeing in real time the vulnerabilities inherent in national policies that spend more on external fortresses than in securing the well-being of its own citizens. The government that was reluctant to provide meaningful health interventions for its citizens is now scrambling to flex its military might on those same citizens. The fundamentals of governance—who do we govern for, and why do we have governments—have gone out other window in favor of authoritarian power plays that ultimately will not work against a mass citizen mobilization.
Third, and more importantly, we are seeing that a feminist model of social organizing, one predicated on empathy, inclusiveness, and survival of all people, is the best model for navigating the choppy waters of this new normal. Neither the U.S. model nor the Chinese model is a meaningful alternative for African countries. Countries choosing humanist principles of governance are the ones that are coming out of this period the strongest. We return to the lessons of Kwame Nkrumah: “We face neither East nor West. We face forward.”
Tope Templer Olaiya, The Guardian Nigeria (@TopeTempler)
I am hurting because my long-held view is that the United States is a nation admired by all, even by her enemies. Its array of great and incomparable leaders through history speaks eloquently, even to the deaf about our common humanity. Same with the great works of citizenship by her citizens through the ages.
After she appointed a Black man as secretary of state, and yet another as president of the United States, I thought racism had been killed, but I was wrong.
The situation has gotten so out of control that I don’t know how to answer without a thesis. Suffice to say that what happened in Minneapolis is nothing but inhumane brutality in any moral code. How this incident will end or pan out, no one knows yet, but it’s sure going to be epochal.
Ayisha Osori, Open Society Initiative for West Africa (@Naijavote)
There is a renewed sense that the tribulations of people of African descent—particularly in the United States—are connected to the struggle to secure the dignity of Africans. It appears that only when the African dream of inclusion, justice, solidarity, and prosperity is realized in Africa will people of African descent walk this earth in the fullness of their stature.
In the mid-twentieth century, classical Pan-Africanism conceived of this struggle for Black dignity as both the quest for independence by anti-colonial agitators and the civil rights movement in the United States. Both campaigns were mutually reinforcing streams in a global quest for racial justice. Today, those two streams no longer reinforce each other, one having run dry while the other continues to boil. Now more than ever, Africa must get its act together, inspired by the unrelenting spirit of African Americans, to deepen democracy and build a more just, fair, and enabling continent.
Miles Tendi, University of Oxford (@MilesTendi)
The United States, the United Kingdom, and other international partners recently condemned the Zimbabwean government for an incident that violated human rights. Alleged state security officials were reported to abduct three women, including an opposition member of parliament, and beat and sexually assault them. The United States has put pressure on the Zimbabwean government to hold the state security officials accountable. Not long after this incident, the video of George Floyd being murdered in broad daylight by the police surfaced. The Zimbabwean government has seized on this, in effect turning the heat back on the United States, which had been putting pressure on the Zimbabwean government to hold those responsible for the beating of these women accountable.
The current U.S. crisis underlines the stark double standards that exist when it comes to protection of human rights. When a grave human-rights-violating state such as Zimbabwe is able to make great play of the human rights violations committed by America, which is supposed to uphold human rights principles more highly than other states, then you have a major problem for the human rights agenda. This hampers the United States’ ability to intervene in countries that violate human rights such as Zimbabwe.
When pressed to condemn Donald Trump’s response to the killing of George Floyd, the UK foreign minister had this to say: It would be a “media distraction . . . I’m not going to start commenting on the commentary or indeed the press statements that other world leaders make, or indeed the U.S. president.” He would not condemn the U.S. on human rights grounds. But this same UK government had condemned the Zimbabwean government for the recent events. The West’s moral authority on human rights is undercut by George Floyd’s death and the police brutality we’ve seen in response to protests. Moral authority is at one of its all-time lows for the U.S. and the UK.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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