‘END SARS NOW!” they chant in Nigeria. SHUT IT ALL DOWN! They chant in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE! they continue to chant on streets across America. People power has come alive on streets in these two African nations over this past week. Their voices are raised alongside the thousands who have protested – and continued to protest police brutality in America.
In Nigeria, the streets came alive with protests as thousands held signs, honked their horns and demanded the disbandment of the brutal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The protests were ignited after video went viral of SARS beating a man, who later died. In Namibia’s capital Windhoek hundreds of young women and the men who support them are standing against femicide and sexual and gendered based violence. Here, the intersecting violence of police brutality in response to street protests against sexual violence elevates the absence of safety for global black women. This is a crucial reminder of the extent of a lack of safety for women in Namibia – echoing an experience for global black women – who break their silence to protest injustice, risk their health in the midst of a pandemic and face police violence even as they protest.
The protests against police brutality in Nigeria mirror the global action that followed the casual calculated cruelty of police officers murdering a black American man as one knelt on his neck for 8 mins 46 seconds. NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE! was that battle cry.
People power is the common thread that binds these protests from Nigeria to Namibia to America. The digital allows us to access the global. The two hashtags – #EndSARS and #ShutItAllDownNamibia swept across Twitter with people across the world standing in solidarity with those in these two African nations – one in West Africa, and one in Southern Africa.
I – like thousands – have been witness to my sisters in Namibia’s capital Windhoek, demanding an end to a brutal elevation of femicide, gendered and sexual violence since COVID locked us in, locked us down and ignited upward spiraling statistics of gendered violence. Every statistic is a sister, a story, her struggle – and with the protests – a broken silence. Namibia’s capital Windhoek records 200 cases per month of gendered violence. In a nation of 2.5 million, 3 rape cases are reported per day – and as always it is the unreported cases that paint the fullest picture. Equally, I have been able to stand with my brothers and sisters as the hashtag #EndSARS dominated social media, and video of protests emerged to put pictures to the hashtag, the narrative and the collective demand.
In Nigeria, the SARS unit was founded in 1992 in a bid to combat robbery. Since then its members have been accused of extra-judicial killings, torture and extortion. Activists and human rights groups have condemned what they describe as gross human rights violations by the unit. The violence by the police is considered an extension of the brutality meted out by Nigerian security forces on its citizens.
From Nigeria to Namibia to America, police have used teargas, rubber bullets and targeted peaceful protesters. Global streets are alight with the anger of injustice mixed with the vulnerability to a pandemic, and the collective demand for substantive systemic change.
Dismantling systems that condemn the victims and condone the perpetrators is the collective cry. In America, the ongoing call connects police brutality and defunding the police, in Nigeria, the connection is between the call to dismantle SARS and the ongoing alleged violence by their security units; and in Namibia it is the ineffective systems that further traumatize and criminalize survivors of sexual and gendered violence.
What connects these protests? People power. Underestimate it at our peril. And so often we do. Here in Africa – and certainly in Ghana, I think we imagine power belongs to the oga and not the citizen. The big man or woman, the big car, the fat check, the corporate influence, the political influence. That carries more weight than being a citizen. It shouldn’t but it does. What the protests reminds us of is that the citizen – as a collective, as organized, as focused – is the real power. It offers an additional reminder. There can be an emotional economy with the connective tissues of rage, vulnerability, injustice, organized targeted action and focused demands, that translate into the initial crucial steps of change, by citizens. It is in this moment that an Emotional Economy functions to serve a larger justice focus, and succeeds in bringing us together.
As the call in Namibia regarding ending gendered violence and protecting Namibian women and girls continues, the black American hip-hop artist Megan Thee Stallion dropped a video and opinion piece in The New York Times called ‘Protect Black Women’. The video’s message is clear: black women are in service to, nurturers of, builders within and upholders of community, organizations, family, and society. But, when they need to be upheld, protected, and supported – where is the world then?
Refreshingly in Namibia, seeing young women and some men on the streets is a heartening visual of some of the support being received. However, what is equally clear is when it comes to violence against black women – whether in Namibia, Nigeria, Ghana or across America – too often the call is to privilege the feelings and the future of the perpetrator, and to neglect the trauma and the legacy of that trauma on the black woman survivor. That reality is part of a flourishing Emotional Patriarchy – where the feelings of men are privileged and centered. That can be African men in Namibia or black men across America, just as much as it is white men due to the systems of enslavement, colonialism and apartheid that have shaped our relationship to ourselves and each other.
This ongoing struggle for a black woman’s humanity to be seen, honored and empathized with – particularly when she is the victim of a crime, brutality or injustice – is part of an ongoing issue. It is why Emotional Justice is for black men and boys. But Emotional Justice centers black women and girls. That centering is crucial as a corrective against a marginalizing that has long term lethal consequences for a thriving community and a healed humanity. Our collective humanity is stripped away when we continue to discard, belittle or trivialize the traumas of black women no matter their geographical location.
As a global black people, we are standing up against systemic violence rooted in unchecked power. That standing up is required in defense of a democracy whose politicians and policies fail to recognize its citizens – all of its citizens – are the lifeblood of what makes it flourish and not flounder or fail.
People power against systemic brutality is what has moved nations throughout a global history. It is always, has always and will always be one of the most powerful forces within any nation. An individual person may feel small, unheard, unacknowledged, powerless – but it is the joining together that transforms the individual’s power into an institutional force that cannot be ignored, overlooked or dismissed.
In Nigeria, the announcement that SARS would be disbanded came after several days of protests. In Namibia, a petition was just delivered to the government for whom gender violence is now a central political issue. All change starts with steps, requires perseverance, and expanding strategies. That is what this represents. Victories in a long struggle, but victories nonetheless.
The steps of people power harnessed to strategies for structural change make the loudest noise and have the most long-lasting impact. People power via protest is one of the many steps, one of the many strategies and stories that mark the progress of global black people.
Namibia and Nigeria, march on, fight on. With you on your side, you cannot lose.
Esther Armah is Executive Director, The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice (AEIJ); a global institute providing equity education in the context of Race, Gender, Culture using the visionary ‘Emotional Justice’ framework. AIEJ does this via Projects, Training and Thought Leadership. Website: www.theaiej.com Email: [email protected] Twitter: @estherarmah.