/ 19 July 2020

Black lives must matter in Africa too

Senegal Us Racism Demo
Alexis kneels with his baby at a protest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in Dakar on June 9, 2020. (Photo by John Wessels/AFP)


The solidarity between Africans and their kin across the Atlantic is not a new phenomenon. Africans and African Americans have long supported each other’s struggles for political and civil rights. 

George Floyd’s gruesome execution at the hands of United States police evoked an outcry in Africa. The Africa Union condemned his killing and called for an end to racial discrimination in the US. In several African countries including South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, and Ghana, protesters rallied in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Historic displays of such unity abound. During the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia between 1935 and 1937, African Americans boycotted Italian shops, held demonstrations and raised funds for Ethiopia.  Determined to uphold Ethiopia’s status as the sole independent African nation at that time (except for Liberia), thousands of African Americans enlisted as recruits to join the Ethiopian resistance abroad but were ultimately prohibited from doing so by the US government.

Martin Luther King Jr attended Ghana’s independence ceremony in 1957 and returned to the US reinvigorated to continue the civil-rights struggle. He was further convinced, through Ghana’s experience, that the civil rights movement could achieve its objectives through non-violent means.

Similar to the US where African Americans are still experiencing racial discrimination and inequality more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was signed, most African countries have not yet realised the promise of economic liberation that the leaders of their independence movements envisaged. Furthermore, income inequality is greater in Africa than in any other region of the world, except for Latin America. Income inequality in Africa looks set to deepen with the World Bank’s prediction that sub-Saharan Africa will suffer its first recession in 25 years this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. In this region, in which unemployment protections are rare, the pinch of the recession will be severe: South Africa, Mauritius, and Cabo Verde are the only sub-Saharan African countries that provide unemployment protection.

The pandemic has wrought hardships all over the globe. At the same time, it seems to be providing all of us, in every corner of the world, an opportunity to reassess our present situations and make amends. At this juncture, Africans must draw inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement to wage their own fight for equality and a decent standard of living in the Motherland. For it is only when the “Africa brand” becomes attractive that Africans and people of African descent everywhere will be accorded the respect and equal treatment they deserve from the rest of the world. As long as Africa remains underdeveloped and mired in conflict, African Americans who progress socioeconomically will stand the risk of being told to “go back to Africa”.

Colonial dispossession

The prevailing inequality and poverty in Africa are largely the legacy of the colonial system, which concentrated power and resources in the hands of a few. For instance, the colonialists developed the regions they inhabited to the neglect of other areas and favoured certain ethnicities over others. They dispossessed lands and stripped assets from the masses. African communities continue to lose their rights and access to land and forests to large, multilateral corporations, with the connivance of African governments.

Poverty and inequality in Africa also increased as a result of the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions after the debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s. As a condition for their loans, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund required African countries to adopt free-market reforms such as privatising state-owned enterprises, deregulating state-controlled industries, easing regulations to attract foreign investment, introducing tax cuts for the rich and for corporations, and devaluing currencies to reduce balance of payment deficits. 

Free-market reforms had to be coupled with austerity measures that decreased public spending, thereby deepening inequality. Critics also accuse developed countries of using structural adjustment programmes as a tool of neocolonialism by conditioning their loans on reforms that open up developing markets to exploitative investments by their multinational corporations.

To profit from these foreign investments and retain capital for tackling poverty and inequality, Africans governments must reduce or eliminate the tax incentives and exemptions they award to multinational corporations in the name of attracting investments. A report by the Tax Justice Network-Africa and Action Aid found that the majority of these corporations would invest in Africa even without tax breaks. According to the report, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal lose as much as $5.8-billion each year through these tax incentives.

African countries must also stanch the flight of capital from these multinational corporations to tax havens by reviewing, renegotiating, or cancelling tax treaties that expose them to profit-shifting or treaty-shopping. Africa loses at least $50-billion annually through illicit financial flows — more than the official development assistance it receives.

Africa’s capital is not lost to foreign entities alone, but also to corrupt African elites and politicians, many of whom enter politics with the main objective of plundering their states. African journalists and ordinary citizens must expose corruption and agitate for justice to be meted out to offenders. A case in point is the daughter of Angola’s former president, Isabel dos Santos (Africa’s richest woman), who is facing accusations of looting oil-rich Angola’s state-owned businesses during the course of her father’s 38-year presidency. Meanwhile, 48% of Angolans live on less than $1.90 a day.

Surviving this new era will require Africans to participate actively in the governance process. The current modus operandi of voting during elections and then suffering in silence until the next elections is no longer tenable. Africans must move from sporadically dissenting using social media to persistently demanding their rights and equal access to jobs and decent wages, social protections, and improved social services.

And although Africans must continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement, there is also the need for them to raise their voices against injustices in other African countries. Police brutality in Kenya must draw a backlash and condemnation from other African citizens and governments. So too must terrorist insurgencies and civil wars, which are drivers of poverty and inequality across the continent.

African Americans and Africans must not renege on their parallel struggles for equality, justice, and dignity. A solution does not lie in African Americans relocating to Africa. Nor can Africans find reprieve by migrating to the United States to free-ride on the victories achieved through the struggles of African Americans. Only when they both fight to the end will African Americans and Africans truly overcome.