Alfred Olango’s murder in California was the latest incident in a pattern of violence against Africans that dates back at least to the early 1960s. More importantly, it is viscerally connected to the racist violence implanted deep in the DNA of US public life. So, why does Africa remain silent?
On 17 July 1964, legendary American civil rights leader Malcolm X was granted observer status at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Heads of State Summit in Cairo. Addressing the gathering of newly-minted leaders, he made a passionate appeal: “In the interests of world peace and security, we beseech the heads of the independent African states to recommend an immediate investigation into our problem by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.” Malcolm X wanted US racism to be investigated, condemned and subjected to international sanctions in the same manner that the OAU was canvassing against Apartheid South Africa.
“Our problem is your problem,” he told them. His speech drew from the historical experience of slavery in the US. Significantly, Malcolm also made reference to ongoing events at the time. Three Kenyan students and two Ugandan diplomats had been badly beaten by New York police who had “mistaken them for US Negroes”.
Malcolm would be assassinated just 16 months after this summit. His speech at the summit was prophetic, especially on two key points.
First, he advised the African leaders: “Your problems will never be fully solved until and unless ours are solved. You will never be fully respected until and unless we are also respected. You will never be recognised as free human beings until and unless we are also recognised and treated as human beings.”
The second was an astute observation, and a warning: “No one knows the master better than his servant. We have been servants in the US for over 300 years. We have a thorough, inside knowledge of this man who calls himself ‘Uncle Sam’. Therefore you must heed our warning: don’t escape from European colonialism only to become even more enslaved by deceitful, ‘friendly’ US dollarism.”
In the end, black historians tell us, only a “mild, non-binding” resolution was passed at the summit, at which leaders simply called for more resources to be devoted to tackling racism in America, while also “applauding” the US passing of the Civil Rights Bill that same year.
This outcome is in part attributed to the then Director of the US Information Agency, one Carl Rowan, who worked on the delegates to “de-toxify” them of the revelation of these truths. It is therefore not accidental that African governments have remained silent in the face of racism against African-Americans and Africans.
The current stream of deaths of black people at the hands of the various police forces in the US should force Africa to revisit Brother Malcolm’s speech precisely because it is part of a very old, awkward conversation.
Inconveniently, the most recent among the many cases taken up by the Black Lives Matter movement involves one Alfred Olango, a Ugandan in his 30s who died from five gunshots, delivered by Californian police in late September.
Alfred Olango’s father is starting the Alfred Olango Justice and Unity Foundation to focus on police reform. https://t.co/SAmEdtsj8l
— Black Youth Project (@BlackYouthProj) 2 November 2016
Amid the all-too-familiar aftermath of tears and conflicting accounts, the Ugandan government appears to have chosen diplomatic protocol over outrage, instructing its embassy in Washington to investigate before it takes any further action.
Olango’s death is inconvenient, as much in Uganda as it is in the US. He had originally fled northern Uganda as a 12-year-old. Like thousands of other northerners, he and his family were trapped between the mutual rampaging of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, and Ugandan government forces. What is more, some media outlets report, the Uganda government had turned down a number of requests from US immigration authorities to have this man repatriated, due possibly to his alleged extensive record of petty crimes.
What will the Ugandan embassy ask of the US authorities: “Why have your police killed someone we drove out of his country, did not want back, and whom we even once tried to kill?”
Racism in the US is systemic and structural. It manifests itself in the financial, housing and education sectors, and is well evident in the discrepancies in employment opportunities. It would therefore be naïve to assume that the other sectors of public life – in this case state police forces, many of whose origins date back to the “slave patrols”, when bands of poorer whites were officially organised by the slave plantations to hunt for and apprehend any enslaved Africans moving about without their “masters” permission – did not share a similar outlook.
No African leader could have been oblivious to the obvious racist attacks by numerous other American public officials on the first US president of African descent. But no African president seems to have spoken out in protest.
It was ever thus. It has been argued that the practice of “lynching”, in which a white mob seized and murdered a black person, usually male, usually by hanging for some alleged transgression, often under the noses of law enforcement, was a method of suppressing black entrepreneurship. The victims were often itinerant businessmen visiting strange towns. Records show numerous incidents in which towns and neighbourhoods with a predominantly black population would also be burned down by white mobs once the settlement began to thrive economically.
Beyond the direct violence, other strategies of economic sabotage continue to be deployed. These include frustrating the loan applications of black entrepreneurs. Paradoxically, said black entrepreneur will be surprised that he has no problem in obtaining financing on less useful, more burdensome consumer items like luxury automobiles.
Is the average African state not simply a grand expression of the former slave plantations of North and South America, where constant disruptions to the family life of the displaced Africans were orchestrated to keep them disorganised, so as to make money out of them? The US holds perhaps the longest continuing and carefully planned, record on this, since the ending of the previous period of directly enslaving Africans.
The post-colonial African state was built on the notion that whole African civilisations, nations and communities did not matter. The colonial project was an exercise in the negation of the African identity, extended most energetically by the current managers of the post-colony.
Consider the fact that of the 47-odd states south of the Sahara, only a small handful (Lesotho, Botswana, Uganda, Rwanda, Swaziland, Burundi, Somalia) carry a name that is related to native peoples resident there.
The rest of the founding names are labels referring to either geographical features that were of navigational value to the early European explorers (Namib desert, Mt Kenya, the rivers Niger, Congo and Gambia; the upper part of the Volta river, lakes Chad and Nyasa (translating to “lake” for Bantuspeakers, the Sudd swamps of Sudan, the Zambesi river, etc).
Or, these countries were named after the commodities with which they were associated: the Camaroes – “shrimp” in Portuguese – in the case of Cameroon; the Slave, Gold, and Ivory coasts; or even the individual that created them (North and South Rhodes-ia). Which is why in some cases, we still have more than one African country sharing a name with another, the consequence of inter-imperial rivalries (Niger/Nigeria, Congo/ DRC, the three Guineas).
And even where a name change aimed at restoring some dignity was made – Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Zaire – it would often still eschew reference to any of the black nations corralled within. The essentially anti-African design of these European-conceived states means that the antipathy towards a self-referencing blackness is in their DNA.
This is a challenge to the custodians of the African Silence Project. We need to talk about the fact that Africa does not talk about the US treatment of ALL types of Africans in America, despite all the evidence of a deep-seated hatred and contempt for Africans embedded within the US power structure.
We do not think about it too much, but in fact, the sheer volume of bloodletting in Africa, since the general attainment of Independence, has been truly egregious, by any standard. By and large, the place is governed by the most cynical of “leaders” for whom black lives simply do not matter, when set against the exigencies of acquiring, and then preserving, a presidency.
Even in exile, the contempt held by many Africans for the experiences of the struggle for dignity in the diaspora, is astonishing. Until the Mediterranean became the lethal but “equal opportunity” highway for poorer Africans, there had been a clear hierarchy of migration and refugee-dom. Basically, the higher up you and yours had been in the recently overthrown political food chain, he more likely you were to end up seeking asylum in a “developed” country. The poor simply crossed the nearest border into some refugee camp. We never say it, but many African refugees to Europe come from families that had previously been gorging at the trough of some fascist project back home, that then went belly-up. Much as they go on to then partake most enthusiastically of the civic rights and opportunities available in the countries to which they have fled, many remain fascists at heart.
I experienced this in the most visceral fashion decades ago when, as a volunteer in London for a campaign to highlight a recent (and yet another) unexplained death in police custody of a young black British man, I was handing out leaflets on a street corner outside the market in the (then still very black) neighbourhood of Brixton. I used to dress, look and speak like an ordinary black British youth. A middle-aged kitengi-clad West African woman, who had just been talking to a departing friend, made a point of detouring towards me, then, standing arms akimbo to show she would not accept a leaflet, gratuitously offering up a most extended and contemptuous sneer, before walking on.
Such people, the governments they create, and the very states that they manage, have never really represented Africa. For black lives to matter, be it on the continent, in the US, and wherever else there remains an entrenched racist worldview, there will have to be meaningful interactions between the ordinary black communities of those countries.
But first, we should start with a grassroots campaign demanding that the African Union finally step up and honour the request made by our great ancestor Malcolm X, by finally making Black Lives a Matter of global concern at the UN. 2015-2024, is, after all, the official UN International Decade for People of African Descent.
As the man told us: “If they are not respected there, then we will never be truly respected here. “Our problem is their problem; their problem is our problem.”