The brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in the United States have become a tipping point—galvanising the movement to end racial injustice across the world. The message of Black Lives Matter is echoing in neighbourhoods, cities and quarters that have long been indifferent to the realities of Black people. And it’s no surprise that in Africa, there is a reawakening of the struggle for decolonisation and racial justice.
In many African countries the idea of protests often threatens the ruling political elite who inherited the colonial power structures created by imperialism, including policing and punishment.
Demonstrators in African cities have braved police brutality to protest the murders and racial injustices in America. In Uganda’s capital Kampala, a Black Lives Matter event led to arrests. In Accra, Ghana, police violently dispersed protesters and their leader Ernesto Yeboah. In Kenya, protesters marched against police brutality in their own country, where police have killed at least 15 people and injured 31, in the name of enforcing a COVID-19 curfew imposed in March. In Nigeria, where police brutality and killings are a daily struggle, there were small protests outside the U.S. Embassies in Lagos and Abuja.
In Kibera, Nairobi, a mural in memory of George Floyd is up. And in Khartoum, Sudan, there’s one depicting American football player Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, which he did before games during the national anthem to protest police brutality. These protests in Africa reiterate the connectedness of the struggles of Black people around the world.
The protests have also taken root beyond the streets, with Africans sending messages of solidarity and calling for accountability. More than 100 prominent African writers signed a statement demanding that American legal institutions address police violence. The writers also asked African governments to “offer refuge, homes, and citizenship in the name of pan-Africanism” to those who choose it. The African Union Commission condemned the murders, and a group of African countries led by Burkina Faso pushed the United Nations Human Rights Council to hold a debate on racism and police brutality.
Why has this American cause ignited action in Africa? Historically, pan-African movements have been linked to the liberation of Black people in the Americas. From the African struggles for independence from colonial powers to the U.S. civil rights movement and the international fight to end apartheid in South Africa, Black consciousness leaders and intellectuals in both continents have repeatedly inspired, supported, and influenced each other. Malcolm X made at least four trips to the continent and W.E.B. DuBois’s activism and impact on African decolonisation and pan-African consciousness is well known.
While the political structures and economies of various colonial systems differed in the past as now, the exploitation and expropriation of black labour, land, culture and bodies has continued—however repackaged and reproduced across generations. That’s why the continued fight to end oppression in one place has an impact on the other.
For Africans on the continent, racism in America and other parts of the world is not some faraway event. They are confronted with discrimination around the world when traveling and at home, where the very unequal exploitative power that divided and disrupted African nations at the onset of colonisation in the 19th century persists.
Black Lives Matter has been the cause of our life, at least since colonialists told themselves they ‘discovered our lands’ and took control. The lives of Africans on the continent remain as racialised as anywhere else. From internalised racism and xenophobia against Africans in many African countries to structural racism in inherited education and cultural systems, the message is clear that colonialism was not a one-time event whose consequences ended at independence when white rulers packed their bags.
Neocolonial policies and rules, upheld in the way world economic systems are organised and standardised, have indisputably defined the political and economic lives of the formerly colonised. For example, the Structural Adjustment Programs forced on African governments by western financial institutions following independence continue to have debilitating effects on economies and lives of Africans.
Protests ignited by Black Lives Matter action have gone beyond solidarity to put a spotlight on the work that remains unfinished at home. In 2017, a media initiative called STORYTELD highlighted the colonial legacies in Uganda’s street naming as the country celebrated 55 years of independence. This was shortly after students in South Africa had started the Rhodes Must Fall movement to remove a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town and expanded into efforts to decolonize education. The call for attention to Uganda’s colonial street names didn’t gain much traction then.
But today, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, a petition to change the street names has gained more than 5,000 signatures. It reads, “we believe that the removal of visible vestiges of a colonial hegemony from public spaces is a crucial part of a process of decolonisation and ending an era of domination and impunity.” And in the island nation of Cape Verde—once home to famed anti-colonial revolutionary and intellectual Amílcar Lopes Cabral,—there’s a push for removal of pro-slave and colonial monuments.
It is not only in Africa that the connection between Black Lives Matter and colonialism is being made. Across the U.S., statues of Christopher Columbus have been beheaded and pulled down. In Bristol, England, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was forced down by protesters. And in Antwerp, Belgium, a towering statue of King Leopold II, whose brutal reign over Congo caused more than 10 million deaths, was first defaced and then removed.
Hopefully, these protests will bring forth new possibilities and paradigms to emerge away from the exploitation that has been the hallmark of so-called ‘human advancement.’ Those who have been privileged for far too long must respond to the rage on the streets. Africans don’t live single-issue lives confined to the colonial borders. We live in a globalised world, and Black lives must matter everywhere.
Cover Photo: A Maasai man, who said he had seen videos on Facebook about protests in the U.S. over the death of George Floyd, jumps next to a new mural painted this week showing Floyd with the Swahili word “Haki” meaning “Justice”, in the Kibera slum, or informal settlement, of Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)