An almost universal response to George Floyd’s death was the visceral indignation it provoked in everyone who saw the video. It was so inherently unjust, the revulsion and anger it triggered was global.
Syrians living in camps for internally displaced persons, whose own daily existence was precarious, showed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Across African capitals, there were vigils and where possible, protesters gathered outside US embassies. The response was so overwhelming, officials in Africa got in on the act. The chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission issued a statement, as did the president of Ghana.
That murder itself was but an outward expression of something more insidious – an utter lack of value attached to his person. It was a belief that his life meant nothing and could be taken by an agent of the state without justification and with impunity.
This was what drove the anger, and this is what African political leaders protested – that an agent of the state, any state, would assume powers to summarily take black lives, regardless of where those lives were. These actions need not be the direct act of murder, it must also include any policy whose outcome, by any reasonable standard, would lead to obvious loss of life.
The defence of black lives that led to official responses from African leaders to the Floyd incident ought not to end there. The risk to African lives both on and off the continent, usually without any response from their home governments, is almost an epidemic.
In April, this risk became visible when social media videos showed Africans being targeted by local authorities in China as efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 escalated. African netizens began voicing their outrage, tagging government officials in posts with videos showing Africans being denied accommodation and forced to sleep under bridges.
Femi Gbajabiamila, the Speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, met the Chinese ambassador to express his concerns and the video of their exchange was viewed widely.
Rampant abuse in Saudi Arabia
If the events in China were serious enough to warrant a response from African governments, one would expect African leaders to be apoplectic over the UK Sunday Telegraph’s investigation of the way Saudi Arabia is treating African migrants.
At the end of August the newspaper reported that “hundreds if not thousands of Africans” were being held in “heinous conditions reminiscent of Libya’s slave camps” as part of public health measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
While the videos coming out of China were limited to a locality in one province, the situation in Saudi Arabia appears to be an outgrowth of an official state policy. And with conditions 10 times worse than anything Africans experienced in China, as yet, there has been no response from African governments or people with responsibility for protecting African interests.
Migrants held in these camps sent the Sunday Telegraph pictures of rampant abuse. They told of beatings with whips and electrical cords and racial abuse with no recourse or end in sight. A young migrant allegedly hung himself. It is the Floyd story once again.
The condition in which these Africans are being held is but a reflection of the value the Saudi government attaches to African lives. Unless African governments attach costs to the devaluation and disrespect of African lives, this will not end.
The Kingdom has, in the last few years, increased its focus in Africa to counter its regional rivals, Turkey and Iran. In early 2018, Saudi Arabia created a new post, secretary of state for African affairs. The new role is responsible for coordinating the Kingdom’s engagement with the continent. The secretary has subsequently hosted African leaders and made regular diplomatic visits to the continent.
But Saudi foreign policy objectives on the continent have not been very successful. Protesters during the Sudanese transition rejected Saudi and UAE intervention. Outside Egypt, no major African power joined Saudi Arabia in taking a stand against Qatar. It is unlikely that this treatment of Africans will endear the Kingdom to African publics.
But this goes beyond the current episode in Saudi Arabia. The internet is replete with stories of discrimination and disrespect heaped on Africans travelling around the world.
The silence of African governments when their citizens are treated as less than human, is interpreted as tacit acquiescence by Saudi Arabia and other states. Their silence gives licence to others to take African lives, bruise African bodies, and enact policies that continue to treat Africans and people travelling on African passports as less than fully human.
Africans complain about the quality of equipment major airlines deploy on African routes. They have complained about the substandard treatment they receive when in transit. The processes Africans endure to obtain visas seem specifically designed to humiliate. But African governments have accepted these unequal and humiliating actions toward their citizens as part of the cost of doing business.
Who will speak on Africans’ behalf?
Why do African governments accept this? Would other countries allow their citizens to be treated this way in Africa?
Some African governments, like Nigeria, are on record defending their citizens from harassment and perceived discrimination. As recently as 28 August, the Nigerian government accused Ghana of “acts of hostility” and “harassment of its citizens.”
The Ghanaian president subsequently responded that he would be meeting with his Nigerian counterpart to resolve this amicably. Nigeria responded angrily to xenophobic violence against its citizens in South Africa. But most African governments only respond when outrageous treatment of their citizens become public.
European migration policy resulted in Africans being held in slave camps in Libya, and Europe has never been held to account for this. Cameroonian detainees at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in the US have been on a hunger strike. Has their government or the AU representative in the US asked to see them?
Since most African countries lack the heft of Nigeria, who would speak in defence of their citizens? What is the AU’s role? What direct benefits do ordinary African citizens obtain from the African Union, if the Union will not speak on their behalf? What other organisation has the convening power and legitimacy to lead a continental response when there are threats to African lives outside their home countries? What is an African life worth and who will defend its value?
The duty of governments
Maybe raising a fuss over how Africans are treated elsewhere will draw attention to how they are treated at home, a conversation some African governments will find uncomfortable. Yet Africans continue to desire a say in choosing their governments and expecting those governments to act in their interest.
In the most recent public opinion survey on the topic, Afrobarometer’s Pan-Africa Profiles finds that “large majorities of Africans continue to support democracy and reject authoritarian alternatives.”
The primary responsibility of those elected by African publics is to provide for the security of their people – security from threats at home, in the Mediterranean, or in Saudi Arabia.
Gyude Moore is a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development. He previously served as Liberia’s minister of public works