Looking back at a tumultuous year, Visiting Fellow Georgette Ledgister shows how the social and political unrest in the US reverberated in Africa in 2020.
By Georgette I. Mulunda Ledgister
It was one of the most bizarre memes I had seen all year, and quite frankly, ever. The image was of a Nigerian passport, and its photo showed Donald Trump donning a black agbada, a flowing wide-sleeved robe, dotted with a bright orange and red sunburst pattern, complete with an okpu agu, a knitted cap worn by Igbo men. Trump’s name appeared as Donatus Jidenna (a ubiquitous Igbo name) Alias Trump. While the passport image listed Trump’s birth month and year correctly, it incorrectly listed his birthday as June 6 instead of June 14.
Black Twitter and WhatsApp exploded with activity and reactions to the meme. Beyond the laughter, surprise, and even frustration that the meme initially elicited amongst social media users, the image of Donald Trump in a Nigerian passport is best understood as a symbol of the imbrication of race, world politics, and the transnational impact of a global pandemic in the infamous year of 2020.
Despite Trump’s disparaging comments about African countries, and accompanying immigration restrictions on the same, he has enjoyed surprising support from the Global South. The growing influence of evangelicalism on the continent, and historical distrust of the interventionist foreign policies of democratic administrations (like the Clinton administration) that supported and even initiated civil unrest, military coups, and violent armed conflict since the 1990s, swayed popular opinion in several African countries toward Trump during the 2016 presidential elections. While support for Trump decreased significantly over time, a video of a pro-Trump rally in Nigeria on election day 2020 went viral, garnering a retweet from Trump himself. Social media critics of Trump from the continent rejoindered with the passport photo of Trump, inviting Trump to consider Nigerian nationality in the event of his eventual defeat by Biden.
Apart from unusual memes, 2020 was a busy year for online expression. The COVID-19 pandemic elicited a surge of content on a variety of social media platforms, as a result of social distancing and public health restrictions on in-person gatherings. The flood of content that inundated Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok—to name a few—largely consisted of responses to the pandemic, social justice campaigns against anti-Blackness in the United States, virtual challenges, and as the November 2020 general elections approached in the United States, minute-by-minute updates of campaigns.
However, on Tuesday, November 3, 2020, the photo page of a Nigerian passport bearing the image of Donald J. Trump broke the repeating cycle of online content. The image was demonstrably edited to evoke satire more than authenticity. The shelf-life of the image in social media news feeds has long expired, yet its wide circulation offers a framework for analyzing just how small, and politically and socially interconnected the world became in 2020.
The “alone, together” mantra of a global pandemic year brought to the fore deep divisions that characterize sociopolitical life within and between many countries. In the United States, studies on the impact of COVID-19 on race were the prelude to broader and more sustained conversation on systemic racism in the first quarter of the year. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery on February 23, Breonna Taylor on March 13, and George Floyd on May 25 revealed that a racial reckoning in the United States was long overdue. Of these three murders that garnered widespread media attention, Ahmaud Arbery’s death did not come at the hands of police officers. However, Ahmaud’s killing comes in the wake of forty-five other fatal shootings of African American women and men at the hands of police, and was followed by 118 more by August 2020, including the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Many in the United States hoped that a racial reckoning was on the way, given a largely sustained public outcry. Responses to the murders of unarmed Black women, men, and children even extended to unprecedented corporate and institutional statements and donations in support of antiracist initiatives and the Movement for Black Lives. Yet, even as hashtags trended and donation dollars rolled in, the toll of fatal police shootings continued to climb. The racial reckoning that the United States hoped for had not come. Curiously, a form of reckoning or actions taken to redress the injustice that informs and fuels anti-Blackness did come—and it came from Benin, West Africa.
Protests against the systematic killing of African American women, men, and children that took embodied and virtual forms in 2020, were not limited to the United States, but extended to Europe and Africa in a show of transnational solidarity. In the midst of a pandemic that had already claimed millions of lives by June, pain and hope intertwined as people from all walks of life took to the streets of their respective cities, or their social media news feeds, to expose systemic racism and police brutality, and to advocate for social change.
In June 2020, justice seeking took another form in Porto-Novo, Benin, in the ancestral lands of the precolonial Dahomey Kingdom. Infamous as a notorious port for the transatlantic slave trade, Porto-Novo shares a border with Badagry, Nigeria, home of the Yorùbá, and remains a reminder to the world of the vicious and barbaric nature of racism, colonialism, and imperialism. The Fon people of Porto-Novo not only share land, kinship, and history with the Yorùbá people of Nigeria, the two groups also have cosmology (Ifá) and a literary corpus (odù) in common.
On June 15, Fon priests, priestesses, and diviners undertook a revenge ritual, invoking Gu Gbadagly (as the deity is known in Fon) or Ogun (as it is known in Yorùbá), not only to avenge the murder of George Floyd, but to empower Floyd to rise in the immaterial world and to mete out justice on his own behalf. The ritual not only served as a cosmic echo chamber that amplified the cries of justice from Black people in the diaspora, it reverberated with its own articulation of anger against police brutality and racism. Cosmologically, the ritual also provided an alternative to Western approaches to justice, and was intentional in its use of media to facilitate transnational participation in a quest of justice that historically has not involved the African continent.
The priestess, priests, and local leaders who participated in the ritual permitted the proceedings to be filmed, allowing justice to spread worldwide using the same medium through which Floyd’s murder had gone viral. The ritual was divided into two parts. The first involved recitation and invocations, which the male priests undertook on one knee, mirroring the position in which Floyd’s life was taken from him. The men took a knee, facing an image of George Floyd—an American that they claimed as a probable son of Dahomey, given the ritual’s location in the ancient slave port of Porto-Novo. The second part of the ritual involved the symbolic spilling of blood by the priestess, using an iron trident and the exposition of iron swords to invoke the presence and action of Gu Gbadagly or Ogun—the deity of war and iron, in Ifa cosmology.
The filming of the ritual lasted six minutes and four seconds, yet its impact is significant. The message the priests and priestess wanted to send was clear—the fight against racism was no longer a fight limited to anti-Blackness in the United States. Where Western justice systems failed Black people worldwide, practitioners of African religions were prepared to seek otherworldly and indigenous means to attain a justice that balances the scales—even if symbolically.
The Movement for Black Lives, with its accompanying clarion call that #BlackLivesMatter, became a flashpoint on the continent in the third quarter of 2020, when mostly young African activists—and particularly women—took to the streets in various African major cities and on social media to protest police brutality and the state-sanctioned abuse, exploitation, and killing of women, men, and children. #BlackLivesMatter provided a platform for social media users and influencers in Africa and in the diaspora to support simultaneous protests in at least eight African countries in September and October, such as the movements to #FreeCongo from its lethal and predatory mining industry; to #EndSARS, the infamous Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad used by Nigerian authority to quell nonviolent protests and to kill young dissenters, and #ZimbabweanLivesMatters, a movement to protest police brutality and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
However, the social rapprochement of Africa and the African diaspora in 2020—initially evident in the swell of mutual support around social justice causes—was not singularly constructive nor consistently awe-inspiring. As the attention of the world shifted toward what would become the fraught and contested November general elections in the United States, eight African countries were also gearing up for their own local, national, and presidential elections. Three other African countries had provisionally scheduled elections for the last quarter of the year, but had not provided dates.
While the United States progressed with record-breaking numbers of early voting and mail-in-ballots, fears rose regarding election fraud and whether or not Donald Trump would concede the election in case of a Biden victory. Questions regarding the viability of democratic institutions and processes in the United States, and anxiety regarding Donald Trump’s assertions that he would contest any election outcome that did not result in his reelection, made their way to the African continent. In keeping with the call-and-response pattern of exchange between the United States and Africa during much of 2020, African incumbents followed in Trump’s footsteps and began preemptively announcing their own electoral victories, often using force to do so. Even more worrying, the assault on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 by Trump supporters was followed by a parliamentary brawl in Ghana on January 7, 2021, in response to the country’s December 2020 presidential elections.
Although African countries did not experience the same alarming rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths as the rest of the world, travel restrictions limited the deployment of election observers who would otherwise have supported democratic processes on the ground, and perhaps mitigated election violence. At the dawn of a new year, uncertainty regarding the ongoing public health and economic impact of the pandemic, and concerns regarding the sociopolitical cohesion of Western countries and African countries remain high. The use and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, while it has generated a cautious hope in the United States and Europe, is still viewed with deep suspicion in Africa and in Black communities worldwide that have a long and traumatizing history with Western medical research. If the hard-fought confirmation of the election of Joseph R. Biden as the forty-sixth president of the United States is any indication of what lies ahead, the road to social, political, and economic recovery and healing will be long and difficult. Given the parallelism of significant sociopolitical events between Africa and the United States in the infamous year of 2020, it remains to be seen whether the year ahead will bode well for Africa, or whether the continent should brace itself for more difficulty in the coming year.
In light of the sobering future ahead, perhaps the Ghanaian Akan symbol of Sankofa can provide a sense of hope that is grounded in a wide-eyed realism regarding the past and what lies ahead in the days to come. The Sankofa symbol is that of a bird facing one direction, and turning its head in the opposite direction to retrieve an egg from its back. The proverbial wisdom that accompanies this symbol is an admonition to retrieve from the past the lessons one risks losing, and to bring these to bear on future progress. Don’t forget the lesson we’ve learned, Sankofa admonishes us, but “Go back and get it.”
Death by pandemic and violence marked the year 2020. Authoritarianism flourished under pandemic conditions, and marginalization and political oppression saw no signs of abatement. Yet even in this tumultuous context, people reached across oceans of distance—physical and political—to advocate for the good of the historically marginalized and for the good of humankind and the environment. Racial reckoning and social change are yet to come. Still, gains are already being made in the resounding cry that anti-Blackness, in all of its forms, must come to an end. At the dawn of 2021, we take a page from the proverbial wisdom of the Akan. We must look back. We must learn the lesson. Most importantly, we must work toward a more hopeful year than the one we survived.
—Georgette I. Mulunda Ledgister, Visiting Fellow, Weatherhead Research Cluster on Religion in Public Life in Africa and the African Diaspora
Visiting Fellow Georgette I. Mulunda Ledgister is a Research Associate and Visiting Instructor in the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School. She is a Congolese-American scholar of ethics, gender, and religion, and an inclusion and conflict response facilitator. Ledgister draws upon African indigenous knowledge to develop training models for organizations, companies, foundations, educational institutions, and faith communities. She equips leaders and learners to develop the skills and strategies to build more just, diverse, equitable and inclusive communities, and to tap into the creative and constructive possibilities of conflict.
- Donald Trump Nigerian passport meme. Digital image. Something to Laugh At. Published November 7, 2020. Accessed January 15, 2021. Credit: https://www.somethingtolaughat.com/video/donald-trump-leaving-the-country
- Video screenshot of African native doctors holding ritual ceremony to unleash voodoo on George Floyd's killers, Jun 15, 2020. Credit: Shauntv News
- Ghanaian soldiers intervened overnight to quell a clash between opposing parties in parliament ahead of the body's swearing-in set for January 7, 2021, witnesses said. Chaotic scenes erupted after a ruling party deputy tried to seize the ballot box during the vote for parliament speaker. The ensuing clash lasted several hours until the army stepped in, with national television broadcasting the drama live. Credit: Nipah Dennis / AFP via Getty Images
- Akan. Gold Weight in Form of Sankofa Bird. Brass, 1 x 2 3/4 x 1 1/4 in. (2.5 x 7 x 3.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Carll H. de Silver Fund, 45.11.5. Description: Gold was extremely important in the economic and political life of the Akan kingdoms of southern Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Until the mid-nineteenth century, gold dust was the primary form of currency in the region. In order to measure precise amounts of gold, an elaborate system of weights, usually made of cast brass, developed by the seventeenth century. Gold weights took many forms: simple geometric shapes; animals, such as leopards or birds; objects, such as chairs or swords; and human figures. The figures, animals, and objects are often associated with proverbs. The sankofa bird, with head turned backward, represents the proverb “One must turn to the past to move forward.” Credit: Brooklyn Museum (CC BY 3.0)