It was The Elephant, a four-year-old African website, that made the connection between George Floyd and Mohamed Bouazizi.
“The Tunisian hawker who set himself on fire in an act of protest against police corruption and ill-treatment” ignited the 2010 Arab Spring, wrote Kenyan journalist Rasna Warah. Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis seemed to be sparking a similar “American Spring of sorts”, she went on.
Using broad generalisations and language that the western media generally reserves for events in the developing world, Warah described the demonstrations in 650 cites across all 50 American states.
The protesters are “demanding racial justice and equality in a country that has been divided along colour lines for four centuries, since the first slave ship arrived on America’s shores,” she said.
The streets of American cities are “flooded with paramilitary security forces…which shot at protestors…(turning them) into battlegrounds”, added Warah, a former editor at UN Habitat. The US is beginning to appear like “Egypt during the Arab Spring…and Sudan during its recent revolution”.
“The United States has been Africanized (by) Donald Trump, who has all the traits of a narcissistic African Big Man (and) threatened to call in the military to quell the violence. (If this had happened in an African country, the international media would have had no hesitation in labelling him a dictator.) America is beginning to look like a failed African state.”
Rasna Warah, Kenyan journalist in The Elephant
Warah may have a point.
Consider Gambia’s demand for a “transparent, credible and objective” investigation of the 29 May police shooting to death of one of its citizens. Momodou Lamin Sisay, son of diplomat Lare Sisay, died after a car chase in Georgia. Police say the dead man pulled a handgun, but his father disputes this. The Gambian press has been reporting the case, alongside the anti-racism protests in the US.
Warah’s searing commentary is of a piece with other reflections by African writers and thinkers on the protests in the United States. There is shock, the search for broader lessons and a decided sense of grief.
Western media outlets that focus on Africa have been recalling the 1999 shooting of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in the context of Floyd’s death. Diallo, 22, had aspirations to study computer technology. He was unarmed and reaching for his wallet when he was shot 41 times by four, white New York Police Department plainclothes officers. Quartz Africa noted that Diallo, who spoke five languages and had been to school in four countries across Asia and Africa, has been reduced in US media accounts to “an African street peddler”. From 1999 to 2020, little has changed for black people in the US, it added.
Kenyan journalist Uduak Amimo lamented the failure of Africans all these years to stand together with black people in the United States. “As a continent, we have failed our African American brothers and sisters,” he said, “offering next to nothing in the way of meaningful solidarity to ensure their dignity. This is our shame. This is our problem”.
Ayisha Osori of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa also noted the renewed sense of “the tribulations of people of African descent”, while Mayra de Lassalette, an Angolan journalist in Washington, DC, said: “Ironically, George Floyd died on Africa Day”.
Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development-West Africa, focussed on the lessons for Africa from “the heavy-handed response by US security services”. He said, “What Africans can learn from recent US events is that democracy must never be taken for granted and that the rights of all citizens must continually be fought for”.
Miles Tendi, associate professor of African politics at Oxford, criticised “the stark double standards that exist when it comes to protection of human rights”. The US, UK and their allies recently condemned the Zimbabwean government for human rights violations, Tendi said, but British foreign secretary Dominic Raab refused to do the same for “Trump’s response to the killing of George Floyd”. He declared that “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”.
Ronald Kato, a Ugandan fellow of the China-Africa Press Centre, was critical of America’s militarised mindset. “Given that senior African security figures travel to train in the United States,” he said, “and that many African security forces receive training from the US military — we can now conclude that the militarization of countries’ police forces has its roots in America”.
But Africans aren’t only offering harsh criticism of the United States. There is sorrow as well, for what Malawian journalist Jack McBrams describes as the ultimate “tragedy…because the United States of America used to be a beacon of what was right and just”.
It is significant that McBrams uses the past tense.
In Africa, just as much as in Europe and Asia, there is a growing perception that the American template is much less shiny and admirable than before.