Society

As fury rages over US police, let’s also look in the mirror

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Police brutality. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

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Summary

  • George Floyd's death has sparked protests across the United States and many other parts of the world with demonstrators calling for an end to police brutality.
  • Floyd was known as a “gentle giant” who was trying to turn his life around after serving a five-year prison sentence.
  • Police violence against people of colour in the United States is nothing new.

This last week has been dominated by the news of George Floyd, the unarmed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes as he shouted, “I can’t breathe”. His death has sparked protests across the United States and many other parts of the world with demonstrators calling for an end to police brutality. Floyd was known as a “gentle giant” who was trying to turn his life around after serving a five-year prison sentence.

Police violence against people of colour in the United States is nothing new.

I want to look at racism and posit that it is all about power and the ability to use that power to deny a different class of people their human rights. I will use the story of Idi Amin Dada, who served as the President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979 to illustrate my point.

Idi Amin Dada was born around 1925 in Koboko, a town in the northern region of Uganda. His father Andreas Nyabire, a member of the Kakwa ethnic group, converted from Roman Catholicism to Islam in 1910. Amin joined an Islamic school at Bombo, in the central region but left after a few years with only a fourth-grade English language education.

After working a few odd jobs, Amin was recruited into the King’s African Rifles (KAR) of the British Colonial Army in 1946 as an assistant cook. In 1947, he was transferred to Kenya for infantry duty as a private, serving in the 21st infantry battalion in Gilgil until 1949. That year, his unit was deployed to northern Kenya to fight against Somali insurgents in what later came to be known as the Shifta War.

While fighting the Somali rebels, Amin learned cruel and brutal methods of dealing and subduing the enemy, making him a stand-out private. At 1.93m (6ft 4in), Amin was tall and powerfully built. By 1950 he was an astute sportsman with skills in swimming, rugby, and boxing. Although Amin was considered a model soldier, official reports also described him in rather unflattering terms as “virtually bone from the neck up and needs things explained to him in words of one letter”. In other words, he was the quintessential “noble savage”.

In 1952, Amin’s brigade was dispatched to fight the Mau Mau in central Kenya where he undertook foot patrols to weed out the rebels using ever more brutal methods. He was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and by 1953 he had been elevated to the highest rank that an African could achieve in the day, that of Afande (borrowed from the Ottoman Turkish “efendi”).

When Queen Elizabeth visited Uganda in 1954, Amin was named Best in Parade for his outstanding performance. His meteoric rise in the colonial army got to his head with the giddy feeling of power, resulting in Amin leading a movement among the native soldiers pressing for higher pay. This did not go down well with his white superiors who considered Amin to be a star soldier and therefore did not expect him to go against the establishment.

Nevertheless, the authorities still considered Amin to be useful and he was posted to the Kenya/Uganda border to quell the Karamojong/Turkana conflict. His means of subduing the warring parties were unorthodox, to say the least, as he threatened to cut off the penises of every Turkana who was engaged in cattle rustling.

The bloody manner in which he crushed the rebellion introduced a level of ferociousness that has never been witnessed again. But he was a good student with an even better teacher in the British colonial masters. He enjoyed the delegated powers but his outlook, behaviour and strategies were deeply influenced by his experiences in the colonial military.

After Uganda gained independence in 1962, President Milton Obote appointed Amin as the deputy commander of the army, eventually rising to full commander of the armed forces in 1970.

When Amin learned that Obote was planning to arrest him on charges of misappropriating army funds, he staged a military coup and overthrew Obote on January 25,1971. Amin ruled by decree and now that he had absolute power, proceeded to massacre his perceived enemies, predominantly from the Acholi and Lang’o ethnic groups, including religious leaders, journalists, artists, lawyers, judges, students, and foreign nationals. His rule was characterized by rampant human rights abuses, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, and economic mismanagement. It is estimated that up to 500,000 people may have been killed during his regime. He was overthrown on April 11, 1979.

Amin was descibed in the Western media as the “Butcher of Uganda” and is regarded as one of the cruelest despots in world history. But history also shows that this monster was the creation of the colonial establishment.

Returning to the George Floyd case, I argue that racism is about having the power and influence to deny another class of people their human rights, be it in the realm of social, economic, health, education, or religion. When the African slaves were shipped to America they were regarded as chattels and it was never intended that they would ever attain the status of equal citizens with their white owners. Notwithstanding, the Bill of Rights and many other pieces of legislation advocating for equality, the original narrative has never changed, and white people continue to have the power and influence to maintain the status quo overtly and covertly. The mistake was for the African Americans to aspire to equal status with their masters.

And before we start waxing lyrical about racism and police brutality in America, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror. Just this week an unarmed, homeless, man was killed by the police in Mathare. And in case you forgot, all those who involved in corruption, tribalism, human rights abuses, and economic mismanagement are guilty of using their power and influence to deny Kenyans of their constitutional and human rights.