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.

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Putin Courts North Korea: taking a leaf from Stalin’s book to test the courage of the West

Relations between Russia and North Korea are warming; Kim Jong-un looks set to make an official visit to Moscow, President Putin has written off vast amounts of North Korean debt, and there are plans for the Russians to build a transcontinental railroad and gas pipeline across the hermit kingdom. It is no surprise, of course, that this brightening in relations comes during a period of increased hostility between Russia and the USA.

Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea
Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea

Washington retains a persistent concern over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and has proven unable to bend the Kim dynasty to its will, either through strong economic sanctions (which the North appear to be bypassing) or via diplomatic concessions. That Putin now seems keen to forge closer ties with Pyongyang – two rogue states in league – could set alarm bells ringing on Capitol Hill.

Most analysts see Putin’s charm offensive as a political game to rile Washington. They argue that, should it come to supporting the North in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula, Russia would stay well away. Whilst this seems a rational theory, Putin has quite clearly demonstrated in recent months his refusal to kowtow to the demands of the international community or to act with any political convention. Indeed, it is worth remembering the period leading up to the Korean War to get a sense of the significance that the Putin-Kim relationship may potentially have.

In 1949, Joseph Stalin had no intention of supporting a North Korean takeover of its southern neighbour, which had been in the American-occupied zone after WWII. A direct confrontation with American forces was something the dictator was keen to avoid, as Putin would be today.

Yet the success of the communist revolution in China, and the promised support of Mao Zedong, allied with North Korean enthusiasm, led Stalin to sanction an invasion of the South in 1950. The proviso was that no Soviet forces would be engaged in open combat. Rather, Stalin used the North Koreans and Chinese as a proxy army against his ideological enemy whilst helping direct the war through the presence of Soviet advisers in Pyongyang and covert air support.

Stalin backed Kim's bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process
Stalin backed Kim’s bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process

Putin himself has shown a willingness to make use of proxy fighters, from Georgia to the Caucuses and, presently, in eastern Ukraine. He has also had no problem publicising Russian arms deals to Iran, despite widespread international opposition. Indeed, Putin shares a similar worldview to Stalin in that it is Russo-centric, predicated on expansionism and belligerent to the end.

Whilst Russia is unlikely to come to North Korea’s rescue should Kim make a foolhardy move against the South, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Putin will seek to create further Western alarm on the Korean Peninsula and, in the process, turn its attention away from Eastern Europe.

In recent years, North Korea has acted petulantly by shelling South Korean islands and sinking its ships. Russian technology and intelligence could make such ‘small-scale’ provocations more targeted, without risking a major US response. Cyber attacks – which the North has already shown a penchant for – are another possible arena of cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Put simply, the Russians have already done far worse in Ukraine and got away with it. North Korea has the added benefit of a functioning (if small) nuclear deterrent which will naturally inhibit any deadly response to attacks against the South. Should Putin also manage to attain Chinese support for any such cover operation (tacit or otherwise), he will gain the ability to influence the geostrategic balance in Northeast Asia.

America stood firm in 1950 and prevented a communist takeover of the Korean Peninsula. Stalin tested American mettle and was met with a ferocious reply. Times have changed and the disgraceful inaction over Ukraine (in addition to Nigeria, South Sudan and a whole host of other places) shows that the West has lost its bottle.

The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy
The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy

It may be logical to believe that Putin would not risk a close alliance with the world’s ultimate pariah state. Yet at this moment in time he must feel invincible. Until the West stands up to him, as it did to the Soviet leaders during the Cold War, he will not back down. If he cannot shape the world in Russia’s image, he will at least ensure that American predominance is tested in every region within which he is able to exert his considerable influence.