From the ACS in Liberia to Trump in the White House: America’s Engagement with Africa and why it Must Persist

In 1821, the American Colonization Society (ACS) founded a settlement at Cape Mesurado on the West African coast, with the express intention of populating it with free-born black slaves from the USA.

Established in 1816 by a group of politicians and other notable citizens, the ACS was unique in American history in that it drew support from both pro-slavery and abolitionist proponents. Several of the organisation’s founders were Quakers vehemently opposed to slavery, who believed that their black brethren would stand a better chance of prospering within a ‘free’ African society. For many slave owners, meanwhile, an African exodus of many potentially troublesome and agitating blacks could reduce the risk of slave rebellion.

Henry Clay: ACS founder and 1824 Presidential candidate, who held conflicting views on slaves. He would also state: ‘The God of Nature, by the differences of color and physical constitution, has decreed against it’.

Not only was the make-up of the ACS unique, but so was its core aim; directly engaging with Africa. Whilst American plantation owners had indirectly benefited from the Atlantic slave trade for over a century, neither they nor their political representatives – often one and the same – had taken any interest in the African continent itself. 1821 therefore stands as a seminal moment in US-African relations.

In 1822, a Methodist minister named Jehudi Ashmun became the first governor of the new colony which would soon be renamed Liberia. By the middle of the 19th century, more than 13,000 black Americans had emigrated to West Africa with the assistance of the ACS, determined to embrace this new land of liberty and freedom.

1839 map of Liberia…with some familiar names

Liberia’s first non-white governor Joseph Jenkins Roberts – born in Norfolk, Virginia – declared independence in 1847, creating Africa’s first republic. Ironically, given the origin of the majority of its settlers, Liberia drafted a constitution in line with that of the USA.

Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Therefore a project both noble and opportunistic in nature signalled the start of American engagement with Africa. Indeed, the so-called Americo-Liberians would remain in control of the ACS-inspired state until a 1980 military coup led by indigenous Army sergeant Samuel Doe ushered in two decades of bloody repression and civil war, culminating in the barbaric leadership of Charles Taylor.

As with the more gluttonous European colonies in Africa, the influx of outsiders unbalanced a delicate tribal framework that would lead to trouble. At least in the case of Liberia, succour was provided to thousands of black families that would otherwise have been subjected to decades of discrimination and persecution in the land of their birth.

Nevertheless, the adverse affects of early American policy in Africa can be further demonstrated by the recognition granted by the Chestur A Arthur administration to Belgian King Leopold’s ‘philanthropic’ Congo Free State. As history shows, this became one of the most brutal and exploitative states in history, a fact ultimately revealed by another American, George Washington Williams.

The victims of King Leopold’s Congo Free State

The 20th century saw engagement intensify as the geopolitical map of the world became increasingly condensed by the onset of modernity. Cold War intrigues would undermine the American image in Africa, the CIA-directed murder of democratically-elected Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba one of the nadirs of post-WWII US politics. 

In recent decades, however, the US role in Africa has become increasingly constructive and supportive. Development aid has helped drag millions from poverty, created job opportunities aplenty and led to a wholesale improvement of regional infrastructure. Meanwhile, American military expertise and technology have been used to combat extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram which, though they remain undefeated, have been constrained in recent years. American training provided to African Union missions and joint exercises with national militaries have further developed the security apparatus of many states.

A U.S. soldier trains a Chadian soldier in a mock ambush during Flintlock 2015, an American-led military exercise, in Mao

This positive trend may soon end. Though the Obama administration failed to live up to weighty expectations  – prompted in large party by the President’s Kenyan heritage – American financial and technical commitments to African remained undiluted.

Now, President Trump desires to slash the aid budget to Africa. Not only will this jeopardise the lives of the millions already battling impoverishment but it will undermine the President’s core foreign policy goal of combating global terrorism. It is a well proven discourse that poverty, and a lack of opportunity to escape it, drives young men (and some women) into the arms of terrorist groups. Reducing military support for the continent will only further degrade the capability to fight the urelenting extremist groups that wreak chaos and misery.

Al-Shabaab continues to make Somalia a war zone

And what of unpredictable crises such as the Ebola outbreak or the droughts that spread devastating famine? Will these now be considered irrelevant to the American national interest?

As America threatens to withdraw, China is eagerly bolstering its African footprint, securing wide-ranging economic, energy and military deals with desperately poor countries in need of investment and, crucially, strategic partners in their bid to improve the lives of their citizens.

Almost 200 years after the establishment of Liberia, American engagement with Africa is at a critical juncture. Unencumbered by the contentious colonial histories of the European powers, Africa is a continent America should look to exert its influence over for mutual benefits.

Withdrawing development aid and military assistance is not going to achieve this and it is hoped that US legislators will not allow it to happen.

The Trump administration, however, seems to have made clear the importance Africa commands in its horribly narrow worldview. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s refusal to honour a meeting with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission smacks of the arrogance and short-sightedness of the most repressive colonial regimes of a century ago.

Sadly, it looks like Africa must continue to suffer.


World Watches on as Africa Starves: the perpetually misunderstood continent

The UN has declared or warned of the impending potential for famine in several African countries, once more refocusing – if only temporarily – the attention of the international community on its most impoverished continent.

In most of the countries at risk of starvation, civil war and communal unrest are exacerbating the dire situation. In Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and parts of Nigeria, brutal violence and associated population displacement are decimating society and destroying the means of production. This in turn is having a spillover affect in neighbouring countries, forced as they are to cope with a massive influx of desperate refugees.

South Sudan is not a fertile country; the Juba government has been accused of fomenting famine

As has so often been the case, the international alarm bells have been rung far too late to allow an effective response to the famines. Instead of prevention, the best that can now be hoped for is an alleviation of the worst ailments. Sadly global political capital to help appears limited at best in this new nationalistic era, as the Trump administration’s stance on international aid epitomises.

At the heart of the conflicts rupturing many African states are tribal and ethnic quarrels that have existed since the days of colonialism. This relates not just to external hostilities – the hatred of the ‘other’ – but also to intra-ethnic/tribal conflict.

Power-sharing agreements between the political affiliations of different ‘tribes’ and ‘ethnic groups’ is a laudable idea, yet is seldom practicable in Africa. The disintegration of the world’s newest state, South Sudan, despite an attempt at dual governance between members of the rival Dinka and Nuer tribes, is testament to this sorry state of affairs.

The Central African Republic’s Civil War has involved a multitude of ethnic groups and regional bodies, all possessing their own armies

Untouched by the outside world for centuries, these communal complexities were deeply embedded in African culture and society by the time of the European arrival, whose colonial administrators either could not or would not acknowledge them.

The European imperialists amalgamated masses of disparate groups together within fabricated borders. With other groups they implemented divide-and-rule, whereby rival tribes were played off against one another, weakening any unified challenge to European predominance.

Nowhere are the complexities of the longstanding African power systems more evident than in the writings of the Victorian explorers of the mid-19th century, those whose travels predated the colonial era.

The European arrival irreversibly altered the power dynamics of African society

For the dozens of intrepid adventurers who lost their lives in the African interior – whether because of illness, starvation or an untimely meeting with an unwelcoming chieftain – there were a handful of more skillful (perhaps luckier) navigators whose names live long in history.

All of them commented on the intricacies of African society; of the rival clans and chiefdoms, of the similar yet distinct languages, of the curiosity and hostility towards the ‘bwana’. Bartering their passage into the ‘heart of darkness’ with the help of local guides and porters, not to mention Arab slave traders, they stumbled forth in search of scientific and geographical wonders.

Jack Speke – who had already failed to make headway in Somaliland due to a hostile reception on Richard Burton’s exploratory mission of 1854-55 – rendered with the utmost clarity the impossibilities for Europeans to understand the African political system of the time.

Speke reached both Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria

Working his way towards the Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria) at the head of his own mission in the early 1860s, Speke recorded in his journal not only the harsh climatic challenges of African travel, but the myriad complexities of understanding, and winning passivity, from local polities.

Every district through which he passed was seemingly home to innumerable tribes, each with its own loyalties to other, more powerful kingdoms further inland. Far from being the primitive subsistence, hunter-gatherers of contemporary literature, many of these African societies were inherently complex, stable, rich and, importantly, culturally and ethnically distinct from their neighbours.

Having painstakingly reached the formidable Kingdom of Buganda, during which time he had been delayed and outwitted on numerous occasions by opportunistic chieftains, Speke’s luck began to change. Winning favour with the King’s mother, Speke was ‘given’ two Wahuma girls for his possession:

Speke believed that the paler-skinned and straighter-nosed Wahuma (Hima) originally came from Ethiopia, and that many centuries before his arrival at the Nyanza, they had risen to power over the darker Bantu already settled in Buganda, Karagwe and Rwanda. Although it was true that the Hima had come from the north, they were members of a Luwo clan originally from southern Sudan, rather than from Ethiopia. But after moving south, they had indeed formed ruling dynasties around the Nyanza in the centuries after AD 1200. Thereafter, they adopted Bantu speech and were culturally absorbed by them. (Jeal, P. 156)

The road to Buganda

Despite his experience of the African interior, and his sympathy towards African people and their customs, Speke was still somewhat unaware of the nature of the societies through he which he trod and in which spent so much time.

Speke and his explorer brethren would of course be followed by the more rapacious imperialists whose thoughts seldom strayed beyond commercial endeavour and native subjugation.

As such, tribal enmities were contained within fixed, fabricated borders as the violence and hatred bred by colonial institutions served to destroy the heart of Africa.

This sad reality has been perpetuated into the post-colonial period, with Africa and the Africans still largely viewed as unmanageable and unknowable, a lost cause to be overlooked and brushed aside.

Misunderstood, mistrusted and mistreated; we seem to have little idea about the extent of the miseries in the African interior today, lives dissipating and extinguishing before our averted eyes.

Do we really care?


Jeal, T. Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (2011)

Mugabe to Rule From Beyond the Grave: the Kim Il-Sung of Africa

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace has suggested that he could rule from beyond the grave. Such a comment shouldn’t come as too much of a shock given the equally bizarre, repressive and demagogic reign Mugabe has had. Perhaps more surprising is the acknowledgement that he is actually going to die at some point, having defied both death and deposition to rule into his ninety-fourth year.

Grace Mugabe is Robert’s second wife and has cemented a formidable reputation of her own

Africa is no stranger to kleptocratic and confounding rulers, of course. From the cannibalistic ‘Emperor’ of Central Africa Jean-Bedel Bokassa to The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh – whose claims that he would rule for a thousand years should Allah decree it were cut short by a shock election defeat in December 2016 – the World’s least developed continent has been plagued by mismanagement from within the highest echelons of political power.

Bokassa at his ‘coronation’ as Emperor (l) and the sunglasses-loving Jammeh (r)

To think that Mugabe’s ruinous rule could continue indefinitely is enough to terrify even those blessed with the strongest of constitutions. He has led one of southern Africa’s most prosperous economies to the brink of extinction, carried out numerous acts of political repression, stifled civil society and encouraged grotesque human rights abuses.

It is perhaps no surprise that his wife is now making these fanciful claims given that she apparently has an eye on the presidency. Invoking the eternal fear of her husband may perhaps dissuade some of her rivals from attempting to oust her before she can seal the top spot.

Whether such a ploy can work is doubtful. Mugabe has been effective in maintaining his grip on power. Yet he has not developed the sort of ideological personality cult that surrounds possibly the most successful posthumous ruler of his day; Kim Il-Sung.

The North Korean communist supremo, who ruled his country (in person at least) from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994, retains the title of ‘Eternal President’ in the rogue state now ruled by his maniacal grandson, Kim Jong-Un.

Kim Il-Sung at the Front during the Korean War – Chinese and Soviet backing set the platform for his dictatorship

Fostering a personality cult centred on his unique Juche philosophy, the elder Kim was able to command unswerving loyalty from almost every North Korean citizen, despite a brutal totalitarian regime characterised by periodic starvation, forced interments, and a complete prohibition on the exercising of free will.

Both his son Kim Jong-Il and his grandson Kim Jong-Un have adeptly followed in his footsteps, both safe in the knowledge that the founder of their dynasty retains a critical – if not exactly active- role in ruling his state from the next realm.

The monstrous bronze monument of Kim Il-Sung on the Mansu Hill near Pyongyang reinforces his superiority over the mere mortals he continues to command, a reminder that nothing changes in spite of his physical absence.

Kim Il-Sung has been joined in eternity on Mansudae by his late son, Kim Jong-Il

It is this uniquely persevering hold on a people that has allowed North Korea to operate outside the boundaries of international law and retain a regime of unfathomable brutality without any insurrection or military coups. Kim Jong-Un is taking this ‘freedom’ to the limits, most recently firing a series of ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.

Unfortunately for Grace Mugabe, Robert will not bequeath her the genetic legacy or instruments of repression necessary to make her a conduit for his rule from wherever his spirit eventually flees.

You will rule from your grave at the Heroes Acre because you are a uniting force for us.

Truer words have undoubtedly been spoken, yet there is an underlying reality implicit in Grace’s sentiment. Despite overseeing a country mired in misery and suffering, the Kim’s have prevented the disintegration of the North Korean nuclear state and the upheaval such a scenario would cause.

Robert Mugabe has clung to power in Zimbabwe through the harshest measures, and still his demise threatens to unleash a bloody power struggle that could rip the nation asunder.

In a bitter twist of irony to draw to a close the life of one of modern history’s most tyrannical despots, perhaps some are silently wishing that his rule continues in perpetuity.