Assassination of George Floyd leaves US seen in Africa as racist pariah state

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the Prime Minister office after a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia February 18, 2020. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

The death of George Floyd may have happened many miles from Africa but anger is being felt there – and the United States is taking the heat. It is a potential setback for the US in its attempt to win over a continent where China is the largest trading partner.

African countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ghana, and others through the African Union bloc, have voiced their anger at the treatment of Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis last month.

The reaction internationally to Floyd’s death has become yet another setting for the increasingly hostile rivalry between the US and China, with officials from China joining the condemnation, which has continued in Africa in the past week through protests at US embassies in Kenya and South Africa.

China has also sided with African countries in advocating lifting US sanctions imposed on Sudan, over accusations of sponsoring terrorism, and Zimbabwe, for rights abuses and irregular elections.

Members of South Africa’s opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, protest outside the US embassy in Pretoria about George Floyd’s death. Photo: Reuters
Members of South Africa’s opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, protest outside the US embassy in Pretoria about George Floyd’s death. Photo: Reuters

On Monday, South Africa’s opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, led its members in staging protests outside the US embassy in Pretoria, and consulates in Johannesburg and Cape Town. They carried placards stating “Black Lives Matter” and “Black people are not slaves”.

In Nairobi, protesters drew parallels between police brutality in the US and in Kenya, where more than 15 people have been killed since authorities imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in March to fight the spread of coronavirus. At the weekend, Ghanaians held an anti-racism vigil in Accra, in solidarity with worldwide protests calling for justice for Floyd.

Seifudein Adem, a professor of global studies at Doshisha ­University in Kyoto, Japan, said the protests showed the degree to which domestic events in the US could damage its image abroad.

“Never before had injustice in one part of the world caused this much protest in other parts of the world,” said Adem, who is from Ethiopia.

“They indicate the emerging homogenisation of human sensibilities worldwide.”

Floyd’s death has reopened old wounds in Africa about the sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe and Sudan by the US and the European Union.

During an interview last month with American broadcaster ABC News, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien stirred controversy by labelling Zimbabwe – together with Russia, China and Iran – as an adversary that was using the unrest over Floyd’s death to interfere in US affairs.

Infuriated by O’Brien’s comments, Zimbabwe summoned the US ambassador in Harare, Brian Nichols, the next day to lodge a formal complaint, and the two sides failed to reach agreement.

Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo termed the comments by O’Brien “false and deeply damaging to a relationship already complicated due to years of prescriptive megaphone diplomacy and punitive economic sanctions”.

Zimbabwean deputy defence minister Victor Matemadanda tried to organise a protest outside the US embassy in solidarity with the late Floyd, although it was blocked because it contravened coronavirus lockdown rules.

Demonstrators bearing placards march past the US embassy in Nairobi on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters
Demonstrators bearing placards march past the US embassy in Nairobi on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Dr Chipo Dendere, assistant professor of political science in Africana studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said the US was unlikely to lift its sanctions on Zimbabwe “because of the continued torture of citizens”.

However, Harare has received the backing of African countries and China in its rift with Washington. The countries that form the Organisation of the African, Caribbean and Pacific States warned in a virtual meeting in early May that the sanctions on Zimbabwe and Sudan had aggravated the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus, by preventing them accessing financing from international lenders to fight the pandemic.

China, the only major economy to align itself with Zimbabwe after the southern African nation was sidelined by the West, said it supported African countries’ calls for sanctions on Sudan and Zimbabwe to be lifted.

“When Covid-19 is still spreading across the world, the US and several European countries have turned a deaf ear to the calls of African countries and people,” China’s foreign ministry said last week.

China has also donated millions of coronavirus test kits, personal protective equipment and medical supplies, to help African countries fight the disease.

Stephen Chan, professor of politics and international relations at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, said Africa could turn the US-China rivalry to its advantage.

“Africa is learning to play off China against the US to maximise its economic gain,” Chan said. “Notwithstanding the real tragedy in the US, this could be a win-win situation for Africa.”

Protesters in the Mathare slum in Nairobi demonstrate on Monday against police brutality. Photo: AP
Protesters in the Mathare slum in Nairobi demonstrate on Monday against police brutality. Photo: AP
In 2018, the Trump administration unveiled the Prosper Africa initiative to help American companies find raw materials and markets. It was intended as an alternative to Beijing’s

Belt and Road Initiative

, which seeks to open up trading routes by sea and land with Southeast and Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Beijing is Africa’s largest bilateral lender, funding projects such as motorways, ports, dams and railways under the initiative.

China’s US$208 billion of trade with Africa last year, according to Chinese government figures, far outstrips the last US figures, from 2018, when its trade with Africa was worth almost US$41 billion, according to the office of the US Trade Representative.

In February, US Secretary of State Mike  Pompeo visited Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia, countries where Beijing has pumped billions of dollars into infrastructure projects. Pompeo used the trip to make thinly veiled attacks on China and promote US businesses as a better option.

“China is likely to make more inroads ahead of the US because of the inward-looking policies of the current US government,” Dendere said of the fight for influence in Africa. “It is, however, up to African countries to decide how much they are willing to give China.”

Source: South China Morning Post