As the World Marches for American Victims, Police Brutality in Africa Goes Unnoticed
A spate of killings in Nigeria under lockdown has produced little but hashtag activism.
In Nkpor, a bustling commercial town in Anambra, in southeast Nigeria, the body of Chukwuebuka lay on the street under the scorching sun. Chukwuebuka, 20, was playing football in the street with his friends on April 15 when he was shot dead by the police who were enforcing lockdown rules. A police truck had pulled over to disperse them, but a trigger-happy officer shot the young man when he made his way to run.
Justifying the killing, the police said the patrol team acted in self-defense after being provoked and attacked by the young men when they tried to disperse them. But Chukwuebuka’s friends who witnessed the shooting say there was no provocation.
The last few weeks has seen protests across Africa, including in Nigeria, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests taking place in the United States that later snowballed across major cities around the world—London, Paris, Sydney, Berlin, Toronto. The African protests have been matched with powerful government statements. The killing of George Floyd, who died when a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, has stirred rightful outrage and cries for justice. But no one in other countries is seeking justice for Chukwuebuka and others killed through police brutality during the lockdown in Nigeria.
Friends of Chukwuebuka and a group of youth in the area defied the lockdown restrictions to protest his killing. But it lasted just for a day and produced only a brief flicker. Life returned to normal, just as it had two weeks earlier when another man was killed by the police enforcing lockdown rules.
But for Chukwuebuka, there was no national outrage or calls for independent inquiry and reforms, no mass protests or global solidarity worldwide. As a Nigerian, it shocked me that the death of Floyd seems to mean more the world than Chukwuebuka’s meant in his own country. This is how much a black life matters in Nigeria.
Chukwuebuka is hardly alone. During the first two weeks after lockdown began on March 30, 18 people were killed extrajudicially by the police, according to the National Human Rights Commission. The latest victim, not counted in that number, was Tina Ezekwe, 17, who was killed in May. Amnesty International has reacted by calling on the government to uphold human rights during the efforts to curb COVID-19.
This is not a new phenomenon. Nigerian police have a notorious record of human rights abuses, brutality, and even extrajudicial killings for the slightest of offenses, such as refusing to give bribes, holding an expensive phone, or driving a fancy car. Reports of police brutality are so common across Africa that they’re not meaningfully tracked.
Whenever anyone is killed by the police in Nigeria, fancy hashtag activism for justice trends for some days. A moment later, everything returns to normal, and life continues. There are no street protests demanding justice or the prosecution of the killers. The police and other security actors such as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad unit carry on as before. Hashtag activism is no answer.
In the wake of the killing of Floyd, the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission—a government agency that provides engagement and protects the welfare of Nigerians abroad, officially held a solidarity rally and memorial service to protest the killing and called for justice.
“This gathering is against violence, brutality and racial discrimination,” Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the head of the commission, said during the solidarity rally. “We call for respect and dignity for all races. Never again should we be made to witness what we saw on the streets of Minneapolis, the slow murder of an individual by a uniformed police officer.”
But there has been no memorial service for the hundreds of Nigerians killed through police brutality over the last few years.
The discrepancy isn’t limited to Nigeria.
South Africa’s international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, said the killing of Floyd presents an “opportunity to address fundamental issues of human rights, such as freedom dignity and equality.” The ruling African National Congress launched an anti-racism campaign which it said was created to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
But this move was immediately criticized, following the death of Collins Khosa, a 40-year-old resident of Alexandra township who was killed in April by soldiers after an altercation when he was caught drinking at a time when the lockdown banned alcohol sales. An inquiry constituted by the South African Defence Force recently absolved the soldiers of any wrongdoing.
At least 10 people have been killed by security personnel enforcing the lockdown in the country, a situation even President Cyril Ramaphosa, also the chairman of the African Union, described as regrettable during the launch of the anti-racism campaign.
South Africa has a harsh record of police brutality—and sometimes public brutality, too. Past waves of xenophobic attacks against fellow Africans from countries such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho have swept across the country, leaving deaths and ruin in their wake.
Some have tried to call attention to the issue. The Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition political party, held a protest in front of the United States embassy in Pretoria and said Africans must learn to respect the lives of their neighbors first. Black Lives Matter solidarity protests have also held in other African cities such as Nairobi, Kampala, and Dakar. Some have tried to highlight police brutality both in the United States and in African countries such as Kenya, where at least 15 people have been killed by police since the lockdown began.
“We must start caring about the lives of black people here in Africa first,” said Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters. “When you kill Zimbabweans, Nigerians, and Mozambicans here in South Africa, you’re teaching the world that it is OK to kill black people.”
At the memorial service and solidarity protest by the Nigerian government, a one-minute silence was observed for Floyd amid chats of “Justice for Floyd” and “Black Lives Matter.” But Chukwuebuka and others killed by the Nigerian police got not even a split second of silence from the government.
How can we express outrage over the death of Floyd but keep silent on the killing of our own people? In the United States, their lives would have mattered to the world—but not in Nigeria.
Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg, where he is an Open Society Foundations fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand.