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America's unrest in international context: Taking democracy for granted no more

America's unrest in international context: Taking democracy for granted no more
© Bonnie Cash

The year 2020 will be forever marked by the coronavirus, with more than 100,000 lives lost, tens of millions out of work, and the country adjusting to a new normal. But for me, it will also be remembered as a time when young Americans decided not to take their democracy for granted and when their voices were heard around the world. 

These young Americans join an activist generation abroad — particularly in Africa — that has been drawn to the streets in America’s image, because democracy — with all its imperfections — remains our greatest export to the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the truth that a novel viral infection anywhere can quickly be a contagion everywhere. So too, the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, under the knee of a white police officer has shown that in our globalized age an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.

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In death, George Floyd has turned the national spotlight onto the fundamentals of our constitutional democracy, including the persistence of racism, the right to protest, and the character of our local and national security forces in the United States.

Like the R0 — the “R-Naught” — of the coronavirus, the demonstrations of solidarity and outrage over Floyd’s killing multiplied exponentially, driving largely young people to the streets in the U.S. and then all around the world — despite the social distancing demanded by the pandemic.

These millennials and Gen Z were counselled that the coronavirus was their generations' war, but unlike their grandparents before them, they would not be called upon to bear arms; their sacrifice would be one of personal freedoms — to just stay at home.

With the tragic death of Floyd — in the middle of a once-in-a-century contagion that was already shedding light on the inequities in our society, as Americans of color are dying three times the rate of whites from COVID-19 — a generations’ war was re-defined.

At an historic moment, as American political leaders were trafficking in division, looking at every milestone in the disease progression (or regression) to score points and seeing the violence and vandalism in the aftermath of Floyd’s death as either a regrettable act of civil disobedience or an act of terrorism, America’s young people found common ground and claimed the streets. They did it without celebrities and without the scripted words of wannabe trailblazers.

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Many have turned to the troubled 1960s for their reference point, but I turn to a more recent and hopeful Africa, a continent of 54 diverse nations, where a young empowered generation has likewise demanded that their voices be heard — and thereby changed their societies.  

The U.S. protests coincided with the one-year mark of the massacre of Sudanese civilians camped outside an army command in the capital of Khartoum: 3 June 2019. Led by young professionals, the majority of them women, the Sudanese were demanding that the military cede power to a civilian government following a coup that deposed the country’s long-time dictator, Omar Al Bashir. After two-months of staged demonstrations, the army command ordered the Rapid Support Forces to clear the area: 127 demonstrators were killed and 700 injured. The global condemnation that followed forced the army to stand down, and a plan was agreed to form a transitional government, with the appointment of a civilian prime minister.  While that country today faces many challenges and an uncertain future, it is on a better path because of the actions of many brave Sudanese.

What happened in Sudan is part of the rise of an activist generation, a phenomenon that BBC’s former Africa Editor Fergal Keane suggests is the most important development in African politics in the last two decades. These protests are not single events, they endure.

In Senegal, in 2011, the nation’s young people were fed up: with unreliable electricity, corruption, and an 85-year-old president, Abdoulaye Wade. They put their demands to music with Senegalese rappers and formed Y'en a Marre (Fed Up). Despite Wade's attempts to stifle dissent, he was defeated at the polls by Macky Sall in 2012.

In 2015, Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré, who had ruled the country since 1987, announced his plans to revise the constitution to run for another term, and Balai Citoyen, or the “Citizen's Broom,” was born. Like in Senegal, the youth embraced the country’s musicians and local artists. Compaoré was forced to resign from office, and Burkina Faso held democratic elections later that year.

Sudan, Senegal, Burkina Faso are just a few examples.

Africa has not seen the kind of large-scale protests over Floyd’s killing that have erupted across the United States and in parts of Europe; however, many Africans have expressed dismay about the persistence of racism in America and debated their own responsibility to black Americans — their diaspora. Closer to home, some fear that a loss of U.S. moral authority will make it easier for some leaders in Africa — those with their own dictatorial tendencies — to justify future repression by referencing the actions in the U.S. over the last few weeks.

Meanwhile, America’s great power competitors such as North Korea, Iran, Russia and China have moved well beyond disapproval towards shame, with China submitting that, “U.S. repression of domestic unrest has further eroded the moral basis to claim itself 'beacon of democracy.' The era that the U.S. political elites could exploit Tiananmen incident at will is over."

These are gut-wrenching times for our country, with our pain and disagreements left bare for the world to see, but as author Charles Edel writes, “America's appeal has never been that it is a perfect democracy, but rather that it has the ability to struggle with its own failings and hold itself to a higher standard.”

And unlike in those nations where authoritarians rule, We, the People, can hold our leaders accountable through the ballot box.

“What Africans can learn from recent U.S. events is that democracy must never be taken for granted and that the rights of all citizens must continually be fought for,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development–West Africa.

Let’s hope it’s an enduring lesson for all of us.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson