2020: The Year of International Controversy and When the Whole World Could Not Breath

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By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Modern international relations began in 1648 with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, while contemporary international relations started in 1870, with the outbreak of Franco-Prussian war. In this era of modern and contemporary international relations, the world has been witnessing more of crises and conflicts of survival, largely characterised by wars and health hazards. The decades of the 20s have been quite notorious.

For example, On January 21, 1720 Sweden and Prussia signed a peace treaty to end their war, the Great Northern War, between Russian and Swedish empires (1700-1721). On May 25, 1720, the Grand St. Antoine, a Ship, reached Marseille, France, and by so doing, brought Europe’s last major plague outbreak. On June 9, 2020, Sweden and Denmark signed a peace treaty. Thus, the Eighteenth Century had its own share of global challenges.

The Nineteenth Century was not in any way different. The decade of the 1820s began with the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, followed by Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 and the Radical War in Scotland in 1820. The Gregorian calendar began on January 1, 1820 and ended on December 31, 1829. In the same vein, on May 20, 1820, the agreement done between Spain and the Quadruple Alliance (Britain, France, The Netherland and Austria), on February 13, 1820, by which Spain’s claims over Italian possessions of the French throne and the Austrian and the Duchy of Savoy trade Sicily for Sardinia were resolved, came into force. Thus, the world of 1820 was not different. It was a world of cholera outbreak.

Additionally, the 20th Century was not better. It was worse. The year 1920 witnessed the good news of the establishment of the League of Nations, but also sadly, the first worst terrorist attack on the United States in its political history. In 1920, the US Constitution was amended twice in a single year and women were given the right of vote. As good news as this could be, on September 16, 1920 at the corner of the busiest Wall Street, an improvised explosive was detonated from a horse-drawn cart. The whole width of the Wall Street was enveloped with flame. Thirty-eight lives were lost. On the right to vote, even though it was as far back as 1638 that the struggle for right of women to vote began with the demand for such right by Margaret Brent and her women’s suffrage movement, it was not until 1920 that the right was conceded. But this right never meant the right for everyone to breath.
And true enough, the year 1920 was not only the year the Ku Klux Klan, a genocidal domestic terrorist organisation, was revitalised, but also the year US President, Woodrow Wilson suffered medical challenges (brain damage, partial blindness, paralysis, etc, as a result of internal blood clotting) and his wife, as First Lady, became the first woman, de facto President of the United States for about one and a half years. And perhaps most importantly, the year 2020 has been the mother of all the decades of the 20s. It was a special year the whole world could not breath for various national and international considerations.

Inability to Breath: the National Dimensions
The notion of inability to breathe in 2020 is traceable to George Floyd, a hip-hop and 46-year-old artist, who was inhumanly and very brutally killed on May 25, 2020 by a Minneapolis policeman, following a telephone call to 911 by a store employee that George Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. When the policemen arrived, four in number, one of them, Derek Chauvin, pinned him down beneath the police patrol vehicle while the three other officers were happily watching the thorough bastardisation and brutalisation of a fellow black American. The brutalisation took many forms: violent arrest on the basis of the yet-to-be verified allegation of spending a counterfeited $20 bill; struggle between the accused and the policemen to the extent of pushing the accused under the running board of the police vehicle; kneeling down on the cervical vertebrates of George Floyd for not less than eight minutes, in such a way that the vertebrates were completely dismembered. He was more than half-dead before going to finally die in police custody.

The essential point about the foregoing narrative is that when Derek Chauvin knelt down on the neck of George Floyd, as if he was praying to God or defending the rule of law in America, George Floyd was dying gradually and he cried out, ‘I cannot breathe.’ This was how the notion of inability to breathe became an emerging conceptual issue in international relations. How many countries of the world can actually breathe in the current globalising world of imbalance of power? Which people in Africa can lay a good claim to breathing well? In which way is George Floyd’s inability to breathe different from the inability of the people of Nigeria to breathe?

In an interview granted to the University of Harvard Gazette, on June 4, 2020, by a Sociology Professor, Orlando Patterson, of John Cowles University, Professor Patterson said that ‘the killing of George Floyd was ‘especially chilling, because of the nonchalance, the sense of complete indifference, the disdain for someone’s life that the police officer showed as he killed Floyd. We have seen videos of brutality in the past, but this one came right after a series of police killings, and it simply reached the breaking point’ (vide Liz Mineo report entitled ”Why America Can’t Escape its Racist Roots).
This is precisely the origin of inability to breath which is being manifested in democratic governance in various forms and in international relations. The manifestations can be explicated at two complementary levels: national and international. At the national level, the examples of Nigeria and the United States are good illustrations. At the international level, the Brexit and COVID-19-induced inability to breathe will serve as illustration cases.

As regards inability to breathe in the United States, it started with George Floyd as noted above, even though there was the case of a black woman, Breonna Taylor, who was shot at by three Kentucky policemen (Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove) in a botched raid on March 13. As noted in a lawsuit report by Ben Crump, a lawyer who was also representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery, another black man killed in Georgia earlier on in February, the Louisville police officers forced their way into the Breonna Taylor’s house in Louisville, Kentucky, and ‘blindly fired’ her and her boyfriend, Walker. Breonna Taylor was an EMT worker and was not armed. Walker had a licensed gun. Both of them were fast asleep when the police came and claimed they came with a warrant of arrest. They claimed to have knocked at the door several times but no one responded, hence the decision to force their way inside forcefully. Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend, believed that the intruders were simply burglars and therefore fired at the policemen in self-defence when they forcefully entered the house. The police mercilessly shot at Breonna Taylor eight times and took her life. She could not breathe at all.

In this regard, what does inability to breathe mean? If there was a warrant of arrest and the carrier of the warrant could not get access to the house, what prevented the law enforcement agents from blocking access into and from the house until the suspects in the house would be compelled to come out? If the policemen forced their way in, but only to discover that the wanted suspects were not inside, would the forceful break-in have been lawful? How would people that were fast asleep be expected to hear any knocking, if the knocking was not violent? If the knocking were to be violent, would the violent knocking not have necessarily sent signals of danger to Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend, and therefore of the need to prepare for self-defence?
The truth of the matter, so far, is that the real suspect being looked for was neither Taylor nor Walker, but a suspect who, at the material time of killing, was in the custody of the Louisville police. Additionally, the residence of the real suspect was more than one kilometre away. The belief of the policemen was that the car of the real suspect was being packed near the place of Breonna Taylor. With this type of flimsy excuses to aggress black people, the movement of the ‘Lives of Black Women Also Matter’ has continued to gain strength and ascendancy. Indeed, many people could not breath in the United States as a result.

The inability to breathe was complicated by many complex factors: protests, led by black movements, against the killing of George Floyd; the killing of a 29-year-old Jacob Blake, by a white police officer seven times on his back outside an apartment in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23rd, 2020 in the presence of his three children. This development prompted more protests, compelling President Donald Trump to advise all state governors to take effective measures to nip in the bud all protests, and failure to do so would warrant the deployment of the use of the US military forces to contain the protests.

At the level of Nigeria, inability to breathe does not simply emanate from police brutality, as encapsulated by the #EndSARS protests, but especially from insecurity and dishonesty-driven governance of Nigeria, at both the state and federal levels of government. Political governance in Nigeria is hardly about protection of the people but that of manifestations of opportunism and exploitation and killing Nigeria softly and gradually.

And true, in Nigeria, people put in public positions to protect the people and ensure national security are precisely the very people also thwarting the objective. Government, more often than not, thinks after decision-taking, and hardly before. In 2020, there was the case of abduction of the Government Science Secondary School Boys in Kankara, Katsina State, the home State of President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB).

On December 11, 2020 hundreds of gunmen, riding on motorbikes, arrived at the boarding secondary school, held more than 300 boys in the school in hostage, and herded them away on motorbikes without anyone being able to accost anyone of them. The abduction of the ”Kankara Boys”, as they are now referred to in Nigeria’s political lexicon, is quite thought-provoking and does not allow law-abiding Nigerians to truly breathe.

First, PMB was coincidentally or otherwise in Daura on holiday. Daura is about 209.4 km via Daura-Katsina road, Katsina State, and yet the hoodlums had the effrontery to attack when PMB was nearby. Second, presidential men claimed that only ten pupils were abducted, whereas 344 pupils were eventually released. Government said it never paid any ransom but one of the abducted pupils revealed the contrary as his captors later made it clear. Alleged bandits reportedly wanted to be well treated rather than in ransom paying. In the eyes of many observers, kidnapping is now a big business in Nigeria and this is why Nigerians will not be able to breathe in the foreseeable future

Inability to Breath: the International Aspects
At the international level, especially at the plurilateral level, inability to breathe in 2020 was largely driven by bad governance and intolerance of opposition parties, increasing insecurity and inability to effectively contain it, as well as by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the plurilateral level, for instance, there were the cases of the abduction of an opposition leader, Paul Rusesabagina in Rwanda and the ECOWAS intervention in Mali.

Regarding Rwanda, Mr. Paul Rusesabagina, who had been living in exile following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, alleged that he was first kidnapped in August 2020, blind-folded and had his legs tied up. He was arrested in Belgium and whisked to Rwanda, expectedly to be tried for genocidal crimes. Some reports also have it that he travelled to Dubai, from where he returned to only find himself in Rwanda unknowingly.

Why it is difficult in Rwanda to breathe was not because of alleged offences of genocide, but apparently because Mr. Rusesabagina had co-founded the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), based abroad, and had been very critical of the government of President Paul Kagame. This is the aspect that has been very painful for the government of President Kagame and probably why terrorist charges are now brought against him. He was accused of 13 offences, including terrorism financing, recruiting child soldiers, forming a rebel group, and complicity in murder.

In an attempt to justify his innocence and non-involvement in terrorism, Mr. Rusesabagina, a citizen of Belgium and holder of an American Green Card, said: ‘we formed the National Liberation Front (NLF) as an armed wing, not as a terrorist group as the prosecution keeps saying. I do not deny that the FLN committed crimes but my role was diplomacy.’ More importantly, he said, ‘the agreement we signed to form MRCD as a political platform included the formation of an armed wing called FLN. But my work was under the political platform and I was in charge of diplomacy.’

It is useful to note in this regard that Mr. Rusesabagina played a very constructive role in protecting in his hotel more than 1000 Tutsi fleeing execution during the 1994 genocide. For his role, he was acknowledged as a hero for using his position as hotel manager to save lives. He was awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom. As observed by the Aljazeera, Rusesabagina ‘has faced criticism from Rwandan authorities in the years since he began speaking out against alleged human rights abuses by Kagame’s government.’ Here lies the bottom of the inability to breathe. In Africa criticism of the government is not part of acceptable democratic culture.

On the aspect of ECOWAS roles, how can the ECOWAS countries breathe with the situation in Mali in 2020? The principle of subsidiarity and the rule of non-admittance of any change of government by forceful means necessarily required the interference and intervention of the ECOWAS in the quest for an enduring solution to the unrest in the country.

First, on August 18 and then in December 2020, there were allegations of coups d’état. The August 18 coup, led by the Leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, Assimi Goita, and which enjoyed popular support, but internationally condemned, actually led to the demise of the elected government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. The United Nations Security Council condemned the coup in its resolution on Mali. The ECOWAS imposed sanctions on the Goita junta and gave a deadline of September 15, 2020 for the appointment of a civilian president and return to civilian rule. In the same vein, The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (The International Organisation of French-speaking Countries) suspended Mali’s membership of the organisation and called for the immediate release of President Keita.

Even though the August 18 coup does not qualify to be called a military coup, but a military-led people’s coup, the December 2020 coup was, more or less a fear of a coup in the making. Put differently, there was no coup but an imagined or suspected coup. However, in which ever way it is looked at, insecurity cannot but breed instability, instability cannot be helpful to constructive development. And most importantly, it does not allow anyone to breathe well.

Another plurilateral question was the UK-EU Brexit deal, which has put a final end to the Brexit transition process begun in January 2020. With the deal, the United Kingdom is no more part of the EU customs system and the EU Single Market. Law-making is now the exclusive responsibility of the UK parliament, and by so doing, putting an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of justice. And perhaps more interestingly, there will be no more free movement of people and goods, but the Brexit deal provides for zero tariffs and quotas on goods, as well as continued UK participation in some of the activities of the EU, but subject to required contributions by the UK.

And true enough, the foregoing measures have their merits and demerits. For instance, there will be border checks between the UK and the EU Member States henceforth. There will also be a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The British can no longer seek employment or work in other European countries, etc.

The story of COVID-19 is globally well known as a potent manifestation of inability to breathe. Millions of people have been infected. Millions of people have also died. What is therefore noteworthy is the aspect of international controversy over the true intention of COVID-19 vaccines, and over the origin of the virus: is it natural or manufactured for purposes of war?
Without whiff of doubt, 2020 was a year of controversies nationally and internationally. While President Donald Trump made strenuous efforts to bring US esteem down by ridiculing the US electoral system for personal selfish gains, the political selfishness in Nigeria is best explained by self-deceit and presentation of lies and wrong interpretation of facts as truths.

One current illustration of this observation is what Bishop Mathew Kukah reportedly said about the use of coup making in changing Government in Nigeria. A failed or wounded WASCE student cannot interpret Bishop Kukah’s statement, as reported, as advocating military coups. It is only Nigeria’s political hypocrites that can always have the effrontery to misinterpret his simple expression of English language, not because of lack of intellectual acumen, but because political survival in Nigeria is always defined by untruths. Government is fighting corruption but the fight has its politics of protection. Government is fighting terrorism and banditry but those who are aiding and abetting the vices are also in government, etc. Whoever is not honest with himself can never be able to be honest with other people. Nigeria of today is a terra cognita for political dishonesty and therefore will not be able to breathe in the foreseeable future because of this.