September 1, 2021   7 mins

When Franklin Roosevelt stopped off in The Gambia, it struck him as a rather dismal old British colony. It was January 1943, and FDR was en route to the Casablanca Conference, where the Allies would issue their demand for “unconditional surrender” from the Axis powers. Travelling through the streets of Bathurst  —  now known as Banjul  —  he was appalled at the poverty. “Those people are treated worse than the livestock,” he said in dismay to his son Elliott. “Their cattle live longer!”

The experience hardened his belief that European colonialism was out of date. In August 1941, in discussions on the Atlantic Charter  —  which laid out the Allied goals for a post-WWII order  —  FDR stressed the inclusion of an article on self-determination, much to Winston Churchill’s anxiety. Roosevelt insisted that a precondition for a peaceful world was the development of “backward countries”, but that one-sided colonial trade agreements — like those of the British Empire — were why those countries “are still as backward as they are”.

American leaders have long liked to position themselves as opponents of European colonialism. John F. Kennedy, during the 1960 Presidential election, declared that the US should side with third world nationalist movements. After all, America itself is the product of thirteen colonies emancipating themselves from the British Empire and building a democratic republic. That revolution, which took place 245 years ago, has since been a model for movements worldwide. Vietnam’s nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh, for instance, explicitly invoked the American Declaration of Independence as inspiration.

America, then, claims to stand for a liberal international order composed of independent nations, dedicated to promoting peace, prosperity and freedom. In theory, anyway. In practice, America did not become a benign superpower after the Second World War; it became an empire in its own right. It did not liberate European colonies; it inherited them and made them American.

In Indochina, the US supported the French colonial regime, before replacing it as the occupying force — leading to the original forever war. In the Middle East, the US replaced Britain as well as France as the imperial power ne plus ultra — a project that, as recent front pages graphically demonstrate, hasn’t ended well. But American interventionism in Africa is less widely understood. A revelatory, meticulous new book by Susan Williams — based on declassified documents and new testimony — has done a lot to correct this.

Africa, Williams suggests in White Malice, has long been of “central importance” in the vision of American foreign policy planners. During the second world war, in response to Hitler’s armies conquering most of North Africa, the US built a number of air bases on the continent  — in Liberia, for instance  —  to prevent its enemies using West Africa as a platform to attack the Americas. The OSS (the forerunner to the CIA) established an Africa service with three field bases in Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia. And the Manhattan Project — the secret program to develop the first nuclear weapons — made the Congo, with all its natural resources, central to American foreign policy.

The Uranium used to create the first atomic bombs originated from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Katanga province in Southern Congo. In 1942, a band of OSS agents were assigned to secure the mine, holding the richest Uranium in the world, to stop it falling into Nazi hands. They were also tasked with covertly transporting the Uranium  —  disguised as “diamonds” —  to the US, via airports in Elizabethville and Leopoldville designed by the Americans to ensure reliable transport. Shinkolobwe’s role in the Manhattan Project, as Williams notes, “was shrouded in secrecy”. Journalists were not allowed any information about the mine — let alone to visit it. It’s name and location was wiped off the map in 1942 and security was akin to a “fortress”, with armed guards patrolling 24/7.

The Congolese miners were hyper-exploited. They were paid terribly, were frequently whipped by overseers and had little protection as they handled high-grade Uranium — which caused many to suffer long term health conditions. In other words, they were no better off than they had been under the Belgian colonisers.

After the war, the withdrawal of European empires left a void. And so most of America’s military bases in Africa remained. Pan-Africanism, on the ascendancy, was influencing civil rights and black radical movements among black Americans. The Soviet enemy was threatening to gain influence over the newly independent African nations. America, Williams writes, had to “recapture Africa”, putting it back into Western hands “by any means necessary”.

The CIA was anxious to get a foothold in these newly independent nations early to contain any possible spread of Communism. In the 1950s, the CIA’s African division developed an elaborate network of front organisations to acquire information and intelligence from across Africa. It funded journals and concerts, and established contacts with journalists, writers and businessmen who would become informants. For instance, Maurice Tempelsman (known for his relationship with Jackie Kennedy), who had big financial interests in Africa, sat on the board of the African-American Institute, a CIA front group. His business associate, George Wittman — whose company operated in a dozen African countries — was recruited into the agency in 1951, and helped produce a massive study of Ghana. The CIA also developed a close relationship with the apartheid regime in South Africa. It was they who informed the South African police as the whereabouts of Nelson Mandela.

Meanwhile American policymakers, like the European colonisers before them, believed that Africans weren’t quite ready for “orderly development” and “progress towards self-determination”. Williams quotes the vice-President Richard Nixon advocating that the US side with the “strong men of Africa”  —  the tyrants, in other words  —  to maintain stability and cultivate military regimes. This would counter the Communist threat. President Eisenhower agreed. Despite grandiloquent rhetoric in support of democracy, then, US foreign policy actively supported anti-democratic movements in Africa.

Because of this, the US was perpetually irritated by the two main heroes of Williams’ book: Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first leader of independent Ghana in 1957, and Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the DRC. Both were huge icons of anti-colonialism. And both were Pan Africanists, who believed in the dream of a united, strong and sovereign African continent  —  one that would be an influential power bloc on the world stage independent of both the West and the Soviet Union.

Nkrumah was initially well-disposed to the US; immediately after Ghana’s independence, relations were relatively “friendly and fruitful”. But by 1960, Accra was promoting an “African centric” foreign policy and Ghana was becoming the HQ for anti-colonial insurgents from all across Africa. With his quest for an atomic reactor, and his close relationship with Lumumba, Nkrumah was now seen as a “subversive”. His “tendency to support extremist elements in neighbouring African countries”, as a State Department document put it, troubled America.

The motivation behind Nkrumah’s nuclear program was the aim to modernise Ghana within a generation. According to Williams, Nkrumah got support from Canada to build a reactor, but US pressure ceased this collaboration, so he decided to appeal to the Soviet Union instead — raising US suspicions. It is worth noting here that the US gave a nuclear reactor to Congo in 1958, when it was still a Belgian colony, and also supplied enriched Uranium to apartheid South Africa for its nuclear program. It seems that, for the US, “a necessary qualification in Africa for access to a reactor”, as Williams notes, “was colonial occupation or white minority rule”. In other words, atomic energy was only appropriate in white hands, not sovereign black hands.

Throughout the 1960s, relations between Accra and Washington would deteriorate. Nkrumah publicly called the US a “neo-colonial” power in a book titled Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. He became paranoid and more dictatorial in his rule. The state monopolised the media; critics who “disrespected” the President were jailed. Economic mismanagement was rife; many state-run companies made losses. The cost of living rose dramatically, which led to protests on the streets, and repression in return. Discontent with Nkrumah’s rule within the armed forces produced easy allies for the CIA, who had been flirting with the idea of regime change in Ghana since 1961. In 1966, Nkrumah was overthrown in a military coup indirectly supported by Britain and America, while on an official visit to China. Shortly afterwards, the pro-Western military junta swiftly shut down the Kwembaya atomic reactor.

America’s main gripe against Patrice Lumumba, meanwhile, was his desire to keep Katanga  —  Congo’s richest province, where separatism was building  —  as part of the Congo. The province was the home of lucrative American and Belgian mining companies; Lumumba wanted to nationalise the industry. And so the CIA suspected Lumumba was a secret Communist and in “Soviet pay” — even though ideologically he was a nationalist. His reputation tarnished by these suspicions, Lumumba’s appeal for UN intervention during the Congo crisis of 1960 fell on deaf ears. With Belgian support, Katanga seceded. Around 100,000 people were killed. Lumumba was captured and executed by Katangan separatists in January 1961.

In 1960, as Williams reveals through recently declassified documents, the CIA had officially approved a plan to fund and help organise opposition to Lumumba — with the expressed purpose of overthrowing him and replacing him with a “moderate”, pro-Western strong man. The prime candidate mentioned for this role by CIA Director Allen Dulles was Colonel Mobutu, who organised a coup against Lumumba on later that year, but wouldn’t fully come to power until 1965  —  via another American-backed coup. Williams presents unequivocal evidence that Mobutu had been an informant for Belgian intelligence and the CIA for years previously.

The ousting of Nkrumah in Ghana and Lumumba in the Congo followed a similar pattern of US interventions: such “deliberate violations of democracy” had taken place in Iran in 1953 or in Guatemala in 1954. The CIA would support in various ways  — indirectly, and sometimes directly  —  the overthrow of governments that had been democratically elected. These governments were deemed unacceptable by America because they had the misfortune of believing that their nations deserved to exercise self-determination, not simply have it in name. The US would then help install brutal dictatorships — like Mobutu’s — that used torture to repress critics and treated the national treasury as their own personal piggy bank. For American policymakers, this was an acceptable outcome, even though it contradicted the values of their own constitution. Communism was kept in check. Black lives did not matter.

We are in the midst of a frenzied post-colonial “reckoning” but, with notable exceptions (like Vincent Bevin’s absorbing Jakarta Method, published last year), this reckoning has focused on events that took and take place on American soil. For all the interest in black people, there has been little interest, even on the Left, in the African continent — except as a historic victim of Europe. The enemy is 19th century colonialism, which gave rise to the slave trade; 20th century American imperialism has been largely ignored.

But as refugees pour out of Kabul, dragging the failures of American intervention into the spotlight, the revelations in White Malice are perfectly timed. Perhaps now we’ll collectively object to the fact that American companies  —  Apple, Google, Dell  —  are using child miners in Cobalt mines in the Congo. Perhaps we will realise that little has changed in America’s relationship to Africa since the Cold War.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.