Was the Yellow Vest boxer Dettinger a superhero hero or a villain? The jury of public opinion is out on that.
How do you deal with a fellow like Christophe, who was jailed a few days ago in Paris after he was found guilty of assaulting a police officer?
Dettinger is a former French boxing champion who found himself right at the centre of the controversy surrounding the so-called Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests against the policies pursued by President Emmanuel Macron.
This movement has been a regular weekend feature on the streets of various French cities since December, with protesters out on the streets demonstrating against rising fuel costs, deteriorating economic conditions and the “elitist” style of Macron’s leadership. Though the numbers on the streets have dwindled significantly, the tone of the marches has become more belligerent and more violent.
In that rising violence, police officers have shown little restraint in dealing with the protests, often seen on video beating up unarmed civilians. Which is what Dettinger says he saw. He says he saw police officers beating up a woman who was already on the ground, and he jumped into the fray and beat up two or three of them, knocking at least one of them to the ground.
In court, the former pugilist confirmed this, saying, “I wanted to stop an injustice, but I ended creating another,” an indication he was regretting the fact that one of the officers he kicked was already on the ground. He got one year in jail.
Now, some people will see Dettinger as a hero, a muscular Superman come to the rescue of a damsel in distress at the hands of a violent police force whose brutality has been demonstrated again and again.
(In a parenthesis, Macron’s own bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, was caught on video last summer beating up protesters while disguised as a policeman. He was sacked, and now he has re-emerged as a London-based international consultant on arms deals.
In his reinvention, Benalla has been described as an expert in “private Franco-Turkish co-operation in Africa… a brilliant man... he knows the inner workings of a state.” Media reports now say that Benalla has been to a number of African countries, where he has been received by those countries’ heads of state and transacted business related to arms deals.)
So, it is easy for a section of the public to empathise with Dettinger, as an understandably negative response to the sleaze and brutality of the powerful. But being seen in public beating and kicking an agent of law enforcement has to be recognised as where the line must be drawn.
The mitigation that must have come out of the reports that a woman had been beaten by the policemen whom Dettinger beat up explains the brevity of the sentence, for otherwise it would have been closer to three years.
The question that arises here is whether a member of civil society, seeing a security agent doing wrong, has the right – or, indeed, duty – to take matters into his own hands and by doing so thwart such wrongdoing? The jury will remain out for a long time on this, and each of us will have an opinion.
Too many countries on the African continent – literally all of them – inherited their police forces from the colonial apparatus, complete with their command structures, procedures, apparel and swagger.
Very few have deigned to effect reforms to make these forces more society-centred and people-oriented, though cosmetic measures in some countries have replaced the word “force” with “service.”
In situations where corruption is the order of the day and the canker permeates all levels of public life, those who have the licence to wield state violence tend to become a law unto themselves. Very rarely are they held to account for infractions they may have committed.
Some crooked cops have seen this as an opportunity to feather their nests through cabals that have brought members of law enforcement too close to crime chiefs.
In Africa, we need to relook into the systems that guard us, and possibly retool them with the view to making them serious civil forces, totally devoted to the security of their society, and willing and able to take a stand against those in their midst who tarnish their reputations.
They do not have to emulate the heroics of Alexandre Dettinger, who may have gone too far in his chivalry, but they can always dissuade the misplaced enthusiasm of a Benalla.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]