Africa Brief

From Algeria to Zimbabwe and countries in between, a weekly roundup of essential news and analysis from Africa. Delivered Wednesday.

Nigerian Security Forces Shot Protesters. Will They Ever Face Justice?

New evidence emerged at a judicial panel, but the culture of impunity continues.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
A protester gestures as he holds a placard at a live concert at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, on October 15, 2020, during a demonstration to protest against police brutality and scrapping of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
A protester gestures as he holds a placard at a live concert at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, on October 15, 2020, during a demonstration to protest against police brutality and scrapping of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Pierre Favannec/AFP via Getty Images

From Algeria to Zambia, covering everything from democracy-defying dictators to the continent’s tech-savvy youth, this is Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief. I’m Lynsey Chutel, a journalist based in Johannesburg. I’ve reported from more than a dozen African countries over the last decade, and I hope to draw on those experiences to write this newsletter.

FP’s Africa Brief aims to highlight the most important events on the continent and why they matter for the rest of the world. Each Wednesday, we’ll take a look at the news of the week that was and analyze what it means for the week ahead. Africa Brief will also offer insights on technology and culture, occasional infographics, and a handy calendar of regional events.

Here’s what we’re following this week: New revelations about Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests could force accountability for the military, former South African President Jacob Zuma tries a new tactic to stay out of jail, and why some music fans may be skipping this year’s MTV Africa Music Awards in Uganda.

From Algeria to Zambia, covering everything from democracy-defying dictators to the continent’s tech-savvy youth, this is Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief. I’m Lynsey Chutel, a journalist based in Johannesburg. I’ve reported from more than a dozen African countries over the last decade, and I hope to draw on those experiences to write this newsletter.

FP’s Africa Brief aims to highlight the most important events on the continent and why they matter for the rest of the world. Each Wednesday, we’ll take a look at the news of the week that was and analyze what it means for the week ahead. Africa Brief will also offer insights on technology and culture, occasional infographics, and a handy calendar of regional events.

Here’s what we’re following this week: New revelations about Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests could force accountability for the military, former South African President Jacob Zuma tries a new tactic to stay out of jail, and why some music fans may be skipping this year’s MTV Africa Music Awards in Uganda.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Will Nigeria’s Army Face Accountability for Shooting Protesters?

Last October, footage of Nigerian protesters being shot in the dark with live ammunition was met with shock around the world. The governor of Lagos state quickly set up a judicial panel, which is now examining allegations that the army used lethal force during demonstrations against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)—a corrupt and violent police unit. But even as victims bare their injuries during the panel’s hearings, military officials continue to evade responsibility.

New evidence. Testifying before the panel last week, a surgeon from a hospital that treated wounded protesters disputed a key part of the military’s defense. Babajide Lawson, a trauma surgeon at Lagos’s Reddington Hospital confirmed that he treated patients for gunshot wounds, adding that his unit was overwhelmed with “mass casualty” on the night of Oct. 20, 2020, but the hospital failed to submit case files—potentially undermining key evidence.

This is not the first time the panel’s investigation has been frustrated. Last year, the judges were forced to pay an unannounced visit to the crime scene to personally inspect bullet casings—forcing the army to admit it had used live ammunition. In the past, military officials have given confusing testimony; this time they simply did not show up.

No accountability. If the panel fails to hold the military to account, Nigeria’s security forces could continue to benefit from the impunity they have long enjoyed. Judicial inquiries are well-meaning, but they are often a toothless exercise in procedure rather than vehicles for delivering justice.

Between 2009 and 2018, Nigeria hosted over 20 different such inquiries—meant to investigate everything from Boko Haram to vigilante violence, as well as abuses by security forces. The perpetrators, as Amnesty International found, were rarely held accountable.

Last year’s protests forced President Muhammadu Buhari to disband the SARS unit, and for a moment it seemed, as Oluwatosin Adeshokan wrote in FP, that this could be Nigeria’s Arab Spring moment. But disbanding SARS has done little to change the culture of violence and impunity among Nigeria’s security forces. And that’s what protesters demanded when they first began to gather in Lagos and other cities last year.

A youth revolution? In many ways, the protests—which grew into a broader anti-corruption movement—represented what the country could be: A united front of young Nigerians transcended religion and ethnicity, used technology to connect with each other, and engaged a large and powerful diaspora to raise funds. All of this was spurred by a group of women known as the Feminist Coalition. Acting together, these groups have an opportunity to bring change to Nigeria.

As Nelly Ating wrote in FP this past October, “The youth are now aware of their power more than ever”—a power they could exercise in the next election in 2023.


This Week in Africa

Feb. 6-7: African leaders will meet for the annual African Union Summit. For the first time, the event will be virtual, with none of the side meetings and hobnobbing that takes over Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, each year.

Feb. 8: Somalia is scheduled to hold parliamentary and presidential elections, pushing ahead despite fears over the coronavirus and the ever-present threat of al-Shabab.

Feb. 9: Militia leaders Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona go on trial at the International Criminal Court for committing war crimes in the Central African Republic between 2013 and 2014.


What We’re Following

Former South African President Jacob Zuma appears at the Pietermaritzburg High Court in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, on June 23, 2020.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma appears at the Pietermaritzburg High Court in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, on June 23, 2020. KIM LUDBROOK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Zuma remains defiant. South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma has effectively dared police to arrest him. Earlier this week, he defied a Constitutional Court ruling ordering him to appear before a commission that’s seeking to uncover the extent of corruption in South Africa’s government and state-owned companies—much of it during Zuma’s tenure. With each new witness came more shocking revelations. Last week, South Africans heard how the State Security Agency bribed journalists and a judge to influence factional battles within the ruling African National Congress.

Nigerian farmers triumph over Shell. After a 13-year legal battle, a Dutch court ordered global oil giant Shell to compensate farmers in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta for polluting their land. The appellate court in The Hague ruled that Shell Nigeria was responsible for oil spills that ruined arable land and water sources. The court ruled that the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, was also liable and ordered the company to install a new pipeline to avoid further spills.

Awkward alliance ends in Congo. The prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, stepped down on Jan. 29. His departure could mark the end of a tussle between President Félix Tshisekedi and former President Joseph Kabila. Although Tshisekedi won the 2019 election, the former president’s allies remained a powerful force in the National Assembly. Tshisekedi’s ability to muster support for a motion of no-confidence against Ilunga is a sign that his reform agenda—focused on transforming the judiciary, ending violence in Eastern Congo, and securing IMF and World Bank assistance—may finally have support.

Will new variants evade vaccines? As the global race to vaccinate populations against COVID-19 stumbles over distribution and supply hurdles, several variants of the coronavirus are affecting the efficacy of vaccines already on the market. The variant discovered in South Africa has been particularly troubling and is blamed in part for the surge of infections across the continent. The Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccines appear to be less effective against the South African strain. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was more promising, but it requires ultra-cold storage facilities that few African countries can afford.


This Week in Tech

Leapfrogging vaccine deliveries. As Africa starts to receive its first doses of COVID-19 vaccines, there is a nagging question: Will the continent’s governments be able to store and distribute them? Africa’s lack of infrastructure has historically been a hindrance to development, but it has also inspired innovation—including the use of drones to fly medication to remote areas.

In Malawi, semi-autonomous drones have already delivered vaccines and malaria medication, while in Rwanda, drones are used to cart blood samples from remote regions. This could speed up already lagging testing and brings with it the infrastructure needed to transport vaccine doses. In South Africa, the pharmaceutical company Cipla has been experimenting with shipping containers as clinics and offered to repurpose them for inoculation programs in areas without health facilities.


This Week in Culture

Is MTV out of sync? MTV Base plans to hold this year’s Africa Music Awards in Uganda, just weeks after security forces beat young pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets and opposition candidate Bobi Wine—a popular musician whose socially motivated lyrics drove him to politics—was held under house arrest.

Wine was recently released and filed a petition at the country’s highest court on Feb. 1, challenging the legitimacy of President Yoweri Museveni’s victory in the Jan. 14 election. The singer and opposition leader has repeatedly called on the international community for support, but MTV has remained surprisingly tone-deaf.

Each year, the flashy ceremony brings together musicians from across the continent and the diaspora with performances from chart-topping African acts and international guests. In Africa, MTV Base has never shied away from the issues affecting young people, from HIV/AIDS in Kenya to protests demanding an end to university fees in South Africa. Choosing Uganda to host the awards (albeit virtually) on Feb. 20 seems out of sync with what’s happening on the ground—and fundamentally at odds with the very audience the brand has cultivated.


African Voices

Sisi’s last stand. For many Egyptians, the dream of the Arab Spring was deferred by the reign of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Writing in FP, human rights activist Abdelrahman Mansour argues there’s hope that Sisi’s repression could end now that there is a new administration in the White House.

Questions for Bill Gates. India and South Africa are lobbying the World Trade Organization to drop intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines, which could save millions of lives in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. So why is Bill Gates, the most powerful nonelected official in public health, refusing to back their efforts, asks Simon Allison in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.

White privilege in African studies. The idea of white academics dominating a field devoted to studying Africa seems so laughable that the Kenyan poet and author Mukoma wa Ngugi has written a short comedy sketch about it on the African literary site Brittle Paper. “African Studies as a discipline is led by a conservative ideology,” he argues, “and it has been a parasitical relationship where the parasite presents itself as the host, and the host as the parasite.”


That’s it for this week.

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Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel

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