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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Buhari Absence and the Fear of a Yar’Adua Repeat: Nigeria on the Brink

In November 2009 Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua left his country to receive treatment at a Saudi Arabian clinic for pericarditis. He would not return until May 2010 and within three days was dead. In the interim period, Nigeria had fallen into a political crisis that threatened to unravel into violence.

Yar’Adua’s ability to appease his testy regional governors through oil-fuelled patronage politics had preserved an uneasy peace and averted a potential Nigerian civil war. His long illness and exile left a void that his inexperienced and virtually unknown Deputy President, Goodluck Jonathan, struggled to fill.

Umaru Yar'Adua and Goodluck Jonathan
Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan

Various governors and regional warlords began to form cabals and jostle for position in the line of succession, their eternal hope being control of the petro-state, Nigeria’s economy of course being heavily dependent on the export of oil. 

Jonathan eventually assumed the presidency, in the process ending an unwritten agreement to rotate the highest office in the land between natives of the South and North of the country, a major issue for an ethnically and religiously-divided nation.

Nigeria is broadly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north
Nigeria is broadly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north

The only way Jonathan could be assured of retaining power was ‘to put the looting machine into overdrive and distribute the proceeds widely to compensate for his lack of authority’. (Burgis, p.78)

Jonathan’s presidency would be characterised by a level of corruption unprecedented even in Nigeria’s nefarious history. He bought off regional agitators by granting them oil concessions, stifling the equal distribution of wealth to entrench a self-serving elite reliant on his continued patronage. This in turn led to a disenchanted and economically disenfranchised populace, many of whom began to turn to other groups who promised to represent their interests, most significantly the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the IS-affiliated Boko Haram
Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the IS-affiliated Boko Haram

Knowing that control over the granting of oil exploration and exploitation rights was more important than popular support in a so-called ‘resource state’, President Jonathan neglected the needs of his countrymen. Infrastructure remained primitive, educational standards stagnated and the healthcare system was left destitute.

It is perhaps for this latter reason that many of Nigeria’s top – and by extension wealthiest – politicians seek any medical treatment they require abroad. It was the case for President Yar’Adua and is now also so for incumbent President Muhmmadu Buhari.

Despite railing against the ‘medical tourism’ of the Nigerian elite, President Buhari has spent the last couple of weeks undergoing unspecified ‘tests’ at a UK clinic, amidst speculation that his health is rapidly deteriorating.

Buhari's absence has drawn civilians to the streets of the capital Abuja to protest against poverty and corruption
Buhari’s absence has drawn civilians to the streets of the capital Abuja to protest against poverty and corruption

With the Nigerian economy suffering as a result of the drop in global oil prices, and the Boko Haram insurgency continuing apace despite some setbacks, this latest uncertainty has conjured up memories of 2010 when the country appeared on the brink of disaster.

Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, another relative unknown, has the difficult task of managing the inherent instability of his ethnically and regionally-divided country at a time when global economic conditions are unfavourable to him.

Multinational corporations must shoulder some of the responsibility for the vicious cycle within which the Nigerian people are trapped; namely the resource curse, or ‘Dutch Disease’. Shell has been pumping oil in the Niger Delta since the days of British colonial rule. Ever since, successive governments – whether civilian or military led – have courted the investment of these energy giants and split the proceeds between a narrow clique at the very summit of society.

In 1983, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote:

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership. (Burgis, p.207).

Nigeria has suffered equally from colonial rule, corrupt post-independence leaders, exploitation by multinational corporations and the scourge of ethnic and religious division. If President Buhari fails to return then the final opportunity for true leadership will have arrived for Africa’s largest economy.

Who has the ability, or inclination, to exercise it, very much remains to be seen.

Source

Burgis, T. The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth (2015)