Africa is integral to US foreign policy under Joe Biden’s presidency, secretary of state Anthony Blinken reminded officials during visits to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal last week. His trip coincided with fatal bomb blasts by suspected terrorists in Uganda, and a military crackdown on democracy protesters in Sudan.
Blinken touted US support for the fight against climate change and covid-19 in Africa, and the need for security and human rights. He signed a five-year, $2.2 billion “development assistance agreement” with Nigeria and used a ceremony marking more than $1 billion in US investments in Senegal to promote Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ domestic agenda.
It was a typical diplomatic visit to Africa, high on style and formality, and possibly forgettable. But in Nigeria, outside meetings with government officials, Blinken waded into at least one recent issue that the public cares about: police brutality.
Blinken arrived in Nigeria days after a landmark, yet sober event: a panel set up by the Lagos state government to investigate violence against anti–police brutality protesters in October 2020 determined that security agencies in fact abused their authority.
The police and army “shot, injured and killed unarmed helpless and defenseless protesters, without provocation or justification, while they were waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem, and the manner of assault and killing could in context be described as a massacre,” the report concluded.
In an interview with Channels TV, Blinken said the existence of the report was “a very important and powerful thing because it brings transparency to allegations of abuse by the security forces.” But the report must be followed up by actions from the state and federal levels, he said.
Blinken suggested two follow-up actions: the enactment of reforms to avoid a repeat of the violence, and work by Nigeria’s leaders to increase trust between citizens and security forces, and the state by extension. Accountability and justice would be key.
“That trust is so vital because, of course, Nigeria faces very difficult security challenges in virtually every part of the country,” Blinken said.
One year after the EndSARS protests, Nigerians have yet to see promised police reforms because officers continue using questionable tactics to harass and intimidate citizens, particularly young people working in a thriving tech industry. Officers of the supposedly disbanded special anti-robbery squad (SARS) still appear to roam streets in Lagos and other parts of the country. The Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwo-olu, set up a committee to review the EndSARS panel’s report and produce a “white paper.” No one has been held accountable.
When asked if documented abuses by Nigerian security agencies could weaken US support for anti-terrorism in Nigeria (by, for example, no longer supplying US-made Super Tucano aircrafts), Blinken deflected, stating instead that Nigeria is a valued player with whom the US must maintain a regular relationship.
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