African leaders reacted to the killing of a black man in Minneapolis police custody with a mixture of outrage and dismay, prompting two U.S. embassies on the continent to issue unusual statements about the incident and reflecting the global diplomatic fallout of American police violence and racial injustices.
The head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, condemned George Floyd’s death in a statement, saying he “firmly reaffirms and reiterates the African Union’s rejection of the continuing discriminatory practices against Black citizens of the United States of America.”
“This is one too many. We may be black, but we are people too,” another top African Union official, Kwesi Quartey, said in a social media post. “Africa demands a full investigation into this killing.”
In a highly unusual move that reflects the degree of distress in the countries they are posted in, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Uganda also issued statements on Twitter, saying the embassies were “deeply troubled” by the death of Floyd in police custody and that “[g]overnment officials should not operate with impunity in any country.”
Several U.S. diplomats said it is rare for U.S. embassies abroad to weigh in on domestic U.S. issues. But in this case, the embassies were compelled to respond after seeing how African leaders reacted to Floyd’s death with anger and dismay. “I think some of these posts had to say something because so many Africans are appalled by the footage,” one U.S. official said.
Long-standing racial injustices in the United States also pose a problem for Washington’s soft-power standing in Africa and its position as a vocal proponent of human rights across the continent. (The Trump administration was swift to condemn the targeting of African immigrants and students in China in recent months in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.)
The United States and international human rights watchdogs have also repeatedly condemned issues with excessive force by police in both Kenya and Uganda. The State Department’s 2019 annual report on human rights calls out both Ugandan and Kenyan security officials for human rights violations and extrajudicial killings.
Floyd’s death at the hands of police and the protests and rioting in Minneapolis that followed showcased how U.S. embassies are often forced to address political strife and injustices in the United States, even if such issues have little or nothing to do with their official missions. In those cases, several diplomats said, embassies try to strike a careful balance of trying to uphold American values they profess in foreign countries even as those values are strained or undercut at home. Officials said U.S. embassies aren’t always required to clear statements or social media posts with Washington first.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called Floyd’s killing a “very sad and tragic death” and called for an investigation. But he later followed up with tweets threatening to shoot looters in Minneapolis—posts that were flagged by Twitter as glorifying violence in an unprecedented move for the social media giant.