A young local girl, dressed in traditional clothing, washes her hands and drinks water from a borehole, in Nsanje District, southern Malawi
Artillery Row

What does Black Lives Matter mean for Africa?

BLM have few words for the continent with the largest number of vulnerable black lives

One afternoon at a bar in Addis Ababa, my two best Ethiopian friends I was with introduced me to the waitress serving us and with whom they were obviously on good terms as repeat customers. As the three of them laughed and joked with each other, I shook hands with the waitress as my friends told me her name was Barich

The vast majority of Ethiopian names translate to a wonderful cornucopia of meanings, ranging from the more ordinary, such as the name Orange, as in the fruit (birtukan in transliterated Amharic, and one of my favourites), to the more impactful, such as the name Fikirta, meaning love, to the more hyperbolic, such as Gennet, meaning paradise. I was familiar with a good number of Ethiopian names, added to which a swathe of them come from the Bible—like Bethlehem, Solomon, Galila—making them relatively recognisable to a foreigner. But I’d never heard the name Barich before, so, intrigued, after the waitress left with our latest order, I asked my friends what the name meant. 

“My slave,” they told me, laughingly, seeing my perplexed reaction. They explained it was the possessive derivation of the Amharic word bariya, which means slave, and a common nickname for Ethiopians of a darker skin colour and used as a term of endearment (Ethiopian complexions range from Nubian black, as in the waitress’s case, to Mediterranean swarthiness). 

By that stage, I was familiar enough with Ethiopia’s culture of mysterious juxtapositions and hidden meanings interwoven in the Amharic language—with its tradition of sim na werq, “wax and gold,” whereby the gold of real meaning is hidden beneath the wax surface of a phrase—and so didn’t dwell on the indelicate logic of this particular naming process.  

But, not surprisingly, the memory of it resurfaced with the Black Lives Matter movements in the US and UK throwing up all sorts of issues, accusations, and questions. One question that hasn’t accrued as much attention is how Black Lives Matter translates—or doesn’t—to Africa, which contains over 1.2 billion black lives. 

In considering this, Ethiopia presents a strikingly unique case—as is its usually want—and an example of the vagaries of applying the BLM movement to Africa. For a start, Ethiopia has long viewed itself as separate—and, with that, superior—to the rest of Africa that was colonized by Europeans. Ethiopians do enthusiastic xenophobia as well as anyone.  

And as the encounter with the waitress illustrated, there is the issue of how slavery in Ethiopia was widespread among the local population well into the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1923 on the eve of the League of Nations conference considering Ethiopia’s potential membership, that Emperor Haile Selassie—who recently suffered the Ozymandias treatment in a Wimbledon park—issued an edict ending slavery in Ethiopia. 

To this day, however, skin tone in Ethiopia, and how black you are, still resonates and has a big impact among Ethiopians. This is underscored by a prejudice—one that extends throughout Ethiopian society—that the blacker one is the less Ethiopian you are, with detrimental implications for those living around the country’s borders with the likes of South Sudan.

“The Ethiopian centre has always related to its periphery in a predatory way,” Dereje Feyissa wrote when a senior advisor at the Addis Ababa-based International Law and Policy Institute. “This is not only because of the geographic distance but also the historical, social and cultural differences which the discourse on skin colour signifies.”

This sort of so-called shadeism among peoples of the same race is by no means limited to Ethiopia, occurring throughout the world, from India to Brazil to Malaysia. 

At the same time, the complexities in Ethiopia mean that skin tone shouldn’t be over emphasised, says Gennet Negussie with the US-based Ethiopian Advocacy Network, a grassroots collection of organisations promoting democracy, human rights and justice in Ethiopia. She notes that most Ethiopian families contain a family member with darker skin, and how various Ethiopian leaders throughout history were darker skinned.

Far more pressing, Gennet says, has been Ethiopia’s history “of the oppressing class and the oppressed mass,” in which the “division between the ruling class and ruled was mostly dependent on a person’s socio-economic status and a person’s position in government.” 

That could have come straight out of George Orwell’s analysis of English power and politics in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, and such issues in the Ethiopian context have played a large part in fuelling political disturbances rocking the country since 2018. These have been led by the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, protesting against lack of political representation and a history of repression and marginalisation. The incident in the Wimbledon park was attended by Oromo Lives Matter protests. 

“In Africa, the countries are majority black, thus at the moment are not facing systematic racial injustices as blacks in the US or Europe,” says Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group. “The main issues many Africans face in their home countries is bad governance and leadership, lack of strong institutions, which leads to inadequate services, and poverty.”

Ethiopia illustrates, as across the rest of Africa, how the vast majority of abuses of power in Africa post-independence have been entirely colour blind, with fellow African denigrating fellow African. 

“How can Africans talk of the Black Lives Matter movement when their own government structures are stacked against ordinary people and the marginalised,” says Mushtak Parker, a UK-based economist and writer, who is originally from Cape Town in South Africa, and continues to write for The Cape Times.

“If you are struggling in a township—be it in Morocco, or in the likes of Nairobi or Cape Town—and you don’t have basic facilities, sanitation, employment, and you see the middle class enriching themselves, with inequality widening and which it isn’t just down to whites, as there is a very wealthy black middle class emerging; unless progress is being made on all that, people are thinking how is Black Lives Matter relevant to us.”

In short, Parker says, many Africans are just too busy trying to survive, which was the situation before COVID-19 came along to add further pressures. As a result, there is a “huge discrepancy” between the “chattering classes” speaking up for BLM and those at the “grass roots” in Africa.

“Africans have been so brutalised that even individual Africans are not aware that their lives matter,” says Epajjar Ojulu, a writer, researcher and analyst specialising in African development challenges, based in Kampala, Uganda. “The African elite are more concerned with how best to emulate Western modernity than with uplifting the lives of their people. In essence there is a new mode of slavery orchestrated by the African elite on their poor. So there is no way the current wave of BLM can take root in Africa.”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t outbursts of enthusiastic African support for BLM, Parker says, noting how, earlier this year, South African cricket became a focal point of Black Lives Matter when Lungi Ngidi, the Proteas cricket star, called on the South African cricket establishment to do its bit in the BLM initiative.

While Ngidi garnered much support from fellow players and from members of the public spanning the racial divide, he was also criticised by some former players who dismissed BLM as nothing more than a leftist political movement, similar, Parkers notes, to some responses toward the movement in America. 

Many Africans are hesitant about embracing BLM because they worry about stoking a victim narrative

Others note that when it comes to gauging the African response to BLM, a distinction should be made between African people and their governments.

“African people are very enthusiastic, as the campaign resonates with their own lived experiences,” says Onyekachi Wambu, a writer and journalist based in London. “[African] governments, probably less so, as they are wary—afraid?—to criticise governments that either provide aid, or can make life difficult for them.”

He adds that African people have actually been “pushing their governments to stand more in solidarity with the issues” faced by the diaspora. 

“Although BLM is localised, the aspirations and arguments can be broadly linked to the struggles by Africans in Africa,” Tewodrose says. “BLM is primarily targeting changing the racial discriminatory system in the West, but it is inspired and embedded in the global movement for racial equality. As such, some of the arguments made by BLM transcend the West and can be understood as arguments for addressing violence anywhere in light of the underlaying systems that are governing the world.”

But, at the same time, Parkers says, many Africans are hesitant about embracing BLM because they worry about stoking a victim narrative that could perpetuate prejudices that “blacks have nothing to offer.”

“Huge progress has been made in Africa,” Parkers says. “There are lots of success stories that Africans are proud of.” 

Such sensitivities are exacerbated by the fact that too often African successes are not appreciated by those outside Africa. Both Parker and Ojulu say the foreign media’s continual focus on calamitous events in Africa perpetuates the perception that black lives in Africa—and by extension, those in America too—are less valuable and do not matter as much.

Ojulu says she would be happy to see an “extension of the BLM campaign to the African continent” though “with a different message” that addresses the continuing misuse of national budgets that “currently concentrate on procuring arms, luxuries for the elite,” as well as the corruption that has plundered countries’ resources that could “otherwise be invested in healthcare, education, food production and social infrastructure.”

If such a shift in messaging could be achieved, Ojulu says, it “would give a moral justification to BLM as a global endeavour, because black lives in Africa should matter as much as black lives everywhere. Turning a blind eye to African lives brutalised every day is hypocrisy which erodes the rationale for the BLM movement.”

There is also a danger, Parker says, that BLM undermines itself by remaining too narrowly focused on abstracts such as dismantling institutional racism. “It’s got to be wider, more holistic,” which includes, Parker explains, the need to “show forgiveness and compassion.” This was demonstrated, he says, by the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by Nelson Mandela in 1995 under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, and by the “remarkable” way Mandela handled the wider South African socio-political landscape in which the three-year TRC was conducted.

For while the TRC process achieved great things under the chairmanship of Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Parker says it was helped along by the fact that Mandela had “already set the motions of reconciliation in place” during the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted by the Rainbow Nation for the first time.

“Mandela rightly saw rugby, dominated by racist sports segregation policies of both the British-ruled Union of South Africa and the Afrikaner-based Nationalist Party for over a century, as the great unifier of the post-Apartheid polity in a spirit of truth and reconciliation,” Parker says, adding that Mandela’s “supreme acts of reconciliation” paved the way for the wider success of the TRC process.  

Another challenge in applying BLM to Africa is how the lines between the movement that originated in America and other separate movements can become blurred to the point whereby BLM risks being misappropriated. This can mean, taking the example of Ethiopia, BLM being leveraged to capitalise on Ethiopia’s increasingly fraught political space or used as a smoke screen or excuse to further inflame ethnic tensions.

“The Oromo Lives Matter movement is trying to leverage BLM to gather support for their cause,” Gennet says.

All the above goes to illustrate how groups on either side of that colour line identified in 1903 by the American sociologist and black rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois as “the central issue of the twentieth century,” have much to learn, recognise and wrestle with if the BLM movement is to be appropriately applied to the original African home of black people and to specific African challenges, ranging from the dynamic of how African-on-African violence can perpetuate the prejudices of outsiders and their associated lack of respect for African lives and livelihoods, to the marginalisation of African countries—too often viewed as of little worth except as a source of resources—through the caprices of foreigners and local elites.

“At the core is an ideological struggle across the political spectrum,” Parker says, explaining this hinges on whether likeminded sections of society across racial lines and who are agree on the need for rooting out racism and promoting equality among all races, can win both the socio-political and electoral arguments. 

At the same time, Parker says the ideological struggle is deeper than mere electoral politics and “all to do with the politics of the mind and attitude of people—whether in America, Africa or elsewhere.” It is also, he notes, too easy amid the “cornucopia of extraneous factors, impediments and challenges” to lose sight of the fact that the struggle ultimately transcends race.

Indeed, each human of every skin colour is part of the same remarkable lineage that began in the roughest of diamonds that is the Horn of Africa, which 600,000 years ago served as the launchpad for our ancestors as they set off out of Africa. We are all part of that same astonishing endeavour and extraordinarily grand pilgrimage, about which we cannot know or predict where it may one day take the human race.  

“It would be a pity should ‘The Battle of the Lives’—Black, White and Brown—be merely reduced to the politics of race, resources and inequality, as important as they are,” Parker says. 

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