The brutal death of George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of police in the United States, triggered the African Union Commission (AUC) to issue an extraordinary statement. AUC Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, in a statement on 29 May condemning the murder of George Floyd, reiterated “the African Union’s rejection of the continuing discriminatory practices against Black citizens of the United States of America”, and urged the US to ensure “the total elimination of all forms of discrimination based on race or ethnic origin”.
George Floyd’s murder has triggered outrage and furious protests in the US. His dying words — “I can’t breathe,” he said — not only express the physical suffocation from the knee that robbed him of his life as it pinned his neck to the ground, but also serve as a metaphor for black people choking under the weight of systemic racism and discrimination. This racism and discrimination that affects people of African descent across the world, in one form or another.
The AUC head was not alone in urging that the knee of racism and discrimination choking African-Americans is lifted so that they breathe a life of dignity as human beings. Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo expressed his hope that “the unfortunate, tragic death of George Floyd will inspire a lasting change in how America confronts head on the problems of hate and racism”, which, according to him, is “systemic”. In a tweet, the AUC deputy chairperson Quartey Thomas Kwesi described George Floyd’s death as an “unwarranted execution” perpetrated “for no other reason than BEING BLACK”.
This outpouring of grief and the call for justice was not limited to our continental union and governments. People on our continent joined those mourning Floyd’s death in the US in expressing their solidarity. Social media is awash with the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd.
Needless to say, the expression of solidarity from the continent is also a manifestation of its attachment with Africans in the diaspora and people of African descent. It is also an acknowledgment of the interdependence of the fate of the continent with the fate of people of colour the world over. In an Africa Day lecture delivered eight years ago, the renowned Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o made a compelling case that “the standing of Africa [read Africans and peoples of African descent] in the world” is associated with “the attitudes towards blackness in Africa and the world today”.
The sanctity of human life
For us on the continent to be true to the statements Faki and various governments in Africa have made about over the heinous murder of George Floyd, we should start with the principle of “respect for the sanctity of human life” under article 4(o) of the AU’s Constitutive Act, which, during this period of the coronavirus pandemic, has been observed more by breach.
Enforcement of the Covid-19 response measures has been heavily securitised in a number of countries. The resultant heavy-handed approach of security personnel led to various violations including killings, torture and inhumane treatment, gender-based violence and various forms of assault and harassment. In some of these cases, including in Kenya and Uganda, it led to the presidents of these countries expressing regret for the violent acts of security personnel.
Since the introduction of the Covid-19 response measures in March, a number of people have been robbed of their lives by the brutalities of state-security personnel in several African countries.
In Nigeria, apart from the tens of people who lost their lives because of excessive use of force by security forces as reported by the National Human Rights Commission, the killing of 16-year old Tina Ezekwe in Lagos has triggered an outrage.
Similarly, in South Africa, the case of Collins Khosa — who died after an assault by security forces — is seen as emblematic of the lack of regard for the sanctity of human life (particularly of impoverished people) that members of security forces displayed in dealing with the black civilian population.
There is an outcry for justice in Kenya for the fatal shooting of Yasin Hussein Moyo, a 13-year-old boy, and the killing of a homeless man, as well as tens of others. Six people, including an 80-year-old woman, were killed in Uganda.
As the brutal killing of George Floyd triggers protests in the US and other parts of the world for what it constitutes and represents, it is incumbent on us in our respective countries to have a much-needed conversation about these killings and other acts of violence visited on our civilian population during this Covid-19 lockdown period. These conversations should be accompanied by an outpouring of outrage.
As the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the leading human rights body of the AU, we issued a statement expressing concern about these acts of violence by the police and other law-enforcement personnel. The statement also condemned “any excessive use of force and subsequent violations of the human rights of individuals” and urged “all states to take appropriate measures to put an end to such acts of abuse of authority by the police and other security forces against the civilian population”.
In nearly all cases of killings or other forms of brutality reported on the continent during the enforcement of Covid-19 response measures, the victims are invariably the most vulnerable. I find this as outrageous as the brutal killing of George Floyd on account of his identity
These violations affect in particular socioeconomically impoverished people, those working in the informal sector, those living in slums and homeless people. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, the current AU chairperson, was spot on when he argued that a “process of dehumanisation is at work where those in power violate the rights of the vulnerable people in all societies”. Speaking during the launch of the anti-racism campaign of the ANC and its alliance partners on June 5, he argued that “the unjustified use of violence by security forces against civilians, including in our own country, is one such example [of dehumanisation]”.
How can we express outrage about the murder of George Floyd but remain silent on that of Tina Ezekwe, Yasin Hussein, Collins Khosa and many others on our continent who also lost their lives because of the brutal use of force by security forces? Would failing to condemn these brutalities manifest an admission that those on the receiving end of the violence don’t deserve respect for the sanctity of their lives?
I subscribe to Ramaphosa’s view that the killings of Khosa and others in South Africa, as well as many others in other African countries, “do rely on a … contempt for the intrinsic human worth of the victim”. In other words, these brutalities represent violations not only of the right to life but also of Article 4(o) of AU’s founding treaty on the respect for the sanctity of human life.
Regrettably, both these killings and the lack of expression of outrage about them (when compared to that shown towards George Floyd’s killing) reflect what Thiong’o calls an attitude towards ourselves as Africans: our part as Africans in dehumanising fellow Africans. This represents our states’ lack of a complete break from the colonial past, hence the racism embedded in the military and police force in Africa, which was, in the words of Thiong’o, founded on “a complete disregard of the African body”.
Those responsible for the killings of Tina Ezekwe, Yasin Hussein, Collins Khosa and many others on our continent should be made to face the full force of the law. It is also incumbent on us — both as state actors with primary responsibility, and as non-state actors — to remove the institutional and historical disposition of security forces to resort to the unjustified use of force against the civilian population, particularly impoverished people, and create conditions for full adherence by state institutions with the principle of the sanctity of human life. Without these, the descent of the brutality of security forces against civilians into a major human rights crisis will not be arrested.
Solomon Ayele Dersso chairs the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. He is also the founding director of Amani Africa, an Addis Ababa-based continental policy research think tank