• Young people across Africa are rising up in protest against state-sanctioned repression and brutality.
  • Here are three ways the international community can support this clamour for change.

On 10 November 1995, nine Nigerian environmental justice activists were publicly executed under the repressive military regime of General Sani Abacha. The activists, among them the renowned Ken Saro-Wiwa, were advocates for the cleanup and remediation of the Ogoni area of southern Nigeria, where spillages from oil exploration activities were causing devastation to the area and threatening public health.

The world took notice, and responded. While maintaining a position of non-interference, multilateral institutions and western governments supported internal demands for democratization across the African continent by tying aid and critical support to specific reform mandates. Nigeria was suspended from the commonwealth, ambassadors were recalled, military training and aid were suspended, and an EU-wide arms embargo was instituted. In three years, Nigeria would be rid of General Sani Abacha, and transitioned to a full democracy.

Unfortunately, while most of the continent remains largely under democratic governance, repressive institutions remain entrenched, violating rights and freedoms. In Angola, police are reported to have killed at least seven people, including teenagers, under the guise of enforcing COVID-19 restrictions. And in my home country of Nigeria, a rogue police unit, the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), stands accused of torture, extrajudicial killing and unlawful arrests.

It seems Africans have reached their limits for state-sanctioned mistreatment. In a series of historical pushbacks, young people all over Africa are demonstrating on and offline. They have taken to the street in hordes to protest peacefully. On social media the hashtags #ENDSARS and #VidasAngolaNasImportam have trended globally and provided a platform through which protesters have shared responsibilities for distributing food, health and legal services, and organsing cleanups.

The message is simple: enough is enough

Yet the peaceful demands to end brutality have been met with silence or a heavy hand by the government. In Angola, more than 100 anti-government protesters have been arrested. In Nigeria, the response has been more tragic. On October 20, 2020, the world watched in horror and silence as an Instagram account live-streamed the extrajudicial executions of at least 12 peaceful Nigerian protesters in Lagos by military staff. Dozens of people have been killed since the wave of peaceful protests started on 8 October. Since the pandemic began, human rights organizations have reported an increase in police abuse across Africa.

How should the Nigerian government respond to the protests?
How should the Nigerian government respond to the protests?
Image: Africa Polling Institute

Africa's youth are insistent on overturning the status quo. Words are no longer enough. Governments around the world have condemned these atrocities, but this does not constitute justice. These words will not restore life to the dead citizens or provide comfort for the affected families. The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a framework that establishes and upholds the sanctity and dignity of human life. It should therefore not be a radical idea that countries that fail to observe these statutes should not be accepted into the community of nations.

There are many ways the international community can support the clamour for change from Africa’s young people; here are three of them.

1. Punitive instruments

Historically, the use of sanctions, asset seizures and alienation to shame bad faith actors across the continent has been demonstrably effective. For instance, the Magnitsky Act – passed by the US Congress in 2012 – gives the American executive branch power to impose targeted sanctions or visa bans on individuals who have committed human rights violations anywhere in the world.

Across Africa, many of its political leaders are notorious for being dependent on Western countries for health services, to educate their children and to store money. Wielding punitive instruments from global powers will send a strong message of solidarity to African youths, many of whom are cut off from the same opportunities to access these services abroad.

2. Donor conditionalities

Donor conditionalities are often integral to foreign assistance. For example, the US Government's Millennium Challenge Corporation selects countries based on stringent indicators like good governance, economic freedom and investment in its citizens, and provides economic assistance.

However, enforcing conditionalities is easier said than done. Foreign aid continues to find its way into Africa; the continent receives an estimated $135 billion in development assistance each year. Ensuring that donor conditionalities are enforced in line with human rights compliance will achieve results. In the US, for example, the Leahy Law “prohibits the government from using funds for assistance to units of foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights”.

3. Direct engagement

Foreign assistance has often been criticized for its red tape and lack of grassroots engagement. Direct engagement is important in generating support among African youth. Global leaders should expand programmes that support young Africans via financial support, knowledge exchange and training. This will strengthen their internal capacity to hasten an end to police brutality. Supporting them beyond statements and posturing and engaging their communities, meanwhile, will increase political participation.

For example, the #ENDSARS protests were driven by expansive support from the African diaspora, through donations totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars, to aid grassroots organizations . The EU-supported Digital Explorers partnership sends young Nigerians to Lithuania and facilitates knowledge exchange between the ICT sectors in both countries. These should become the norm and not the exception.

History has not been kind to those Africans who fought for freedom and fair treatment, but this juncture provides an opportunity to address the errors of the past. The universal solidarity for Africa's youth at this critical moment offers hope and inspiration. The global community must act and throw its weight behind Africa's young people. They simply cannot afford to be the weak link.