Since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, several U.S. embassies in Africa have issued statements seeking to mollify African protests against the killings of black people by police and white vigilantes in the United States. The chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said the pan-African body rejects the “continuing discriminatory practices against Black citizens” of the United States—just as it did in a historic Resolution on Racial Discrimination in the United States of America made by African leaders at the Organization of African Unity’s first assembly meeting in 1964.
As mass demonstrations against police brutality and institutional racism continue and spread around the world, U.S. diplomats in Africa are reportedly concerned that the reality of violence against people of African descent in the United States creates a propaganda opportunity for China, particularly on the continent. But such thinking—verbalized by U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien—is an insult to the intelligence of all Africans, who are quite capable of judging America on its own failed merits.
Racial violence against African Americans is historic, systemic, institutionalized, and structural. This has been the case since the first Africans were enslaved and taken to America 400 years ago. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865 and the gains of the U.S. civil rights movement 100 years later, African Americans suffer the consequences of an economic, political, and social system that glorifies and privileges whiteness and uses violence to limit the freedoms, rights, and economic opportunities of black people.
The present unrest is but the latest wave in the struggle for justice and the structural change needed to protect the human rights of people of African descent. Africans know this.
They know it in part because they have experienced the same racism and militarism in U.S. foreign policy toward the continent from colonial times to the present. This history includes U.S. support for Belgian King Leopold II’s brutal rule of Congo at the end of the 19th century, which claimed as many as 10-15 million lives, and the U.S. role in the capture of Nelson Mandela by the apartheid South African state in 1962.
During the Cold War, the United States propped up military dictatorships and repressive one-party states in countries such as Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Liberia, Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya. It only distanced itself from the apartheid regime in South Africa after massive protests in the mid-1980s. More recently, U.S. President Donald Trump’s has subjected African citizens to travel bans and infamously referred to African countries as “shithole countries.”
The current protests come as the coronavirus pandemic has stripped away the facade of American exceptionalism and exposed deep and persistent racial inequalities in the United States—evidenced by the disproportionately high rate of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths among black people. Beyond the public health crisis, African Americans are also the most exposed to the consequences of the economic crisis that follows in the wake of the virus. The cavalier and inept response by the Trump administration and allied white Republican governors demonstrates a depraved disregard for black lives. Africans know this.
The individual victims of U.S. police brutality include people of African descent from Haiti such as Abner Louima and African immigrants such as Amadou Diallo, among an impossibly long list of other black Americans. Recently, that list has included children such as Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, women such as Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor, and men such as Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Historically, the hypermilitarized brand of policing in the United States has been primarily enforced against African Americans, Latinx Americans, and Asian Americans—not to mention the Native American nations for which law and order meant genocide. Africans are painfully aware of this part of U.S. history.
What is less well known in both the United States and in Africa is Washington is responsible today for ongoing violence against Africans in Africa. U.S. militarism on the continent inevitably results in the killing of unarmed civilians in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa, mirroring the police killings of black Americans in the United States. The growth of the U.S. military footprint in Africa is a white American knee on Africa’s neck. But Washington’s violent behavior in Africa is not captured on smartphone videos.
A sharp militarization of U.S. relations with Africa followed 9/11 and the so-called global war on terrorism. In 2003, the Bush administration established the first permanent U.S. base on the continent, in Djibouti. U.S. Africa Command was created in 2007. U.S. troop presence rapidly increased by nearly 170 percent. By 2016, special operations commandos in sub-Saharan Africa soon represented around 17 percent of those deployed globally.
Between 2015 and 2018, U.S. Defense Department counterterrorism aid to African countries more than tripled. Especially under the Trump administration, drone bases have proliferated, and airstrikes have spiked, particularly in Somalia and Libya. In the first two years of the Trump presidency, drone strikes in Somalia alone were more than double the total number of raids there during the previous two U.S. presidencies combined.
Construction on the $110 million Reaper drone base in Agadez, Niger, began in 2016 and was completed and operationalized last year—the U.S. Air Force’s largest-ever single construction project. Since the Barack Obama years, Africom has expanded drone bases across Africa for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—though they could also be outfitted with rockets. It is not entirely clear how many temporary or permanent drone bases in Africa are weaponized beyond Djibouti, Niger, Ethiopia, the Seychelles, and on U.S. ships off the coast of Somalia.
In the United States and in the African countries where the U.S. military is active, the public is largely unaware of these military arrangements. There is an intentional lack of transparency on the part of the U.S. military and the CIA, but there are between 6,000 and 7,500 U.S. troops operating in 50 countries in Africa and an unknown number of special operations forces in at least 33 countries. Between 29 and 34 bases across the continent house special operations forces and manned and unmanned aircraft. In 2016 alone, the U.S. military undertook 3,500 missions in Africa—a nearly twentyfold increase since the establishment of Africom—and that number has increased under Trump.
The unaccountable, hypermilitarized policing of African territories by the U.S. military resembles the urban warfare and police brutality against black people in the United States that are now the focus of mass protest. The consequences of the militarization of U.S. policy toward Africa include an unknown and growing number of civilian deaths, deepening conflict and poverty, and an increase in violent movements in Africa, particularly in the Sahel region. Amnesty International released a report last year on the increase in U.S. airstrikes and civilian deaths in Somalia that suggests that the secret war there may have already resulted in numerous war crimes.
Just three weeks ago, during Ramadan, U.S. drone strikes were reported to have hit a home of six residents in the town of Kunya Barrow, Somalia, and injured four civilians, including a mother and three children. Africom refused recognition of the civilian casualties and claimed to have “killed two terrorists.” During the past two decades, the United States has killed nearly 2,000 people in Somalia alone. It’s unknown how many were civilians: The U.S. government claims that the vast majority were terrorists or members of al-Shabab, but it has not provided evidence. Last year, Africom went as far as to say that despite more than 100 airstrikes since June 2017, it had not killed or injured a single civilian—a claim it was later forced to retract.
Why is no one held accountable for these possible war crimes? Is it because they are African and there is no video?
America’s official disdain for black lives, sustained for four centuries and enshrined in the original U.S. Constitution, has certainly spiked during the Trump presidency. It has not been limited to the continental United States, and it never has been. For Africans, awareness of America’s structural racism and its enforcement through violence is a consequence of direct experience. Throughout history, Africans have been the targets of this violence—whether enslaved, free, immigrants, or at home on the African continent.
Our demands today to end institutionalized racism and hypermilitarism in the United States must include a call to end the institutionalized racism of American foreign policy, too.