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.


Burundi Descends Into Mayhem: the World Watches On

Burundi continues to avoid international headlines despite slipping further into internal conflict that threatens to mutate into all-out civil war. Ever since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial – his opponents allege unconstitutional – third term last year, political violence in the impoverished African country has escalated.

Scene of the assassination of a Burundian general by opposition forces
Scene of the assassination of a Burundian general by opposition forces

After his 2015 announcement that he was to run for the presidency again, Nkurunziza was temporarily displaced by a coup before being reinstated by loyalist soldiers. Ever since, arbitrary arrests, political assassinations, grenade attacks and hounding of innocent civilians has engulfed Burundi, with its African Union (AU) colleagues looking on helplessly.

A recent decision to hold talks between the government and opposition forces under the mediation of former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa have been delayed because of the refusal of either side to hear the other out. In short, more significant international pressure is required to prevent Burundi relapsing into civil war, which killed some 200,000 people between 1993 and 2006 and displaced thousands more.

Overshadowed by the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, the Burundian civil war (also involving ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis) created thousands of refugees and a bitter legacy
Overshadowed by the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, the Burundian civil war (also involving ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis) created thousands of refugees and a bitter legacy

One country that has seamlessly manoeuvred itself into a position of influence on the African continent in the past few years is China. Whilst Burundi does not host the natural resources that China craves, Beijing is still its most important trading partner.

Burundi-China relations date back to shortly after the former’s independence from Belgium in 1962 although ties between the two made an inauspicious start. During preparations for Burundi’s independence celebrations in October 1962, the Communist Chinese ambassador for Tanganyika – one Ho Ying – made the short trip across the border to Bujumbura in anticipation of leading the Chinese delegation. However, the Burundian government – supposedly under pressure from the USA – decided instead to invite a Nationalist Chinese delegate from Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan.

Ho Ying withdrew citing ‘the imperialist scheme of using the Chiang Kai-shek clique to undermine Sino-Burundi friendly relations’ and it was not until December 1963 that Mao’s China established formal relations with the Kingdom of Burundi.

Despite pumping several million dollars’ worth of Official Development Assistance into Burundi, and in spite of claiming a desire to increase cooperation with Bujumbura, the Chinese have stopped short of providing a constructive or influential alliance. Typical of its foreign policy in general, China has chosen to overlook the growing crisis and wait out the consequences, content in the knowledge that its economic support will always be welcomed, if not actively required.

This approach has severely hampered Chinese attempts to be seen as a responsible global power. Indeed, Beijing tends to adopt a low-key attitude in all its foreign affairs, with the exception of asserting its ambitious territorial claims. Its belligerence over such claims is equally, if not more, dangerous than its procrastination over regional troubles such as those currently affecting Burundi.

Nkurunziza with Chinese President Xi Jinping
Nkurunziza with Chinese President Xi Jinping

Africa needs to be seen to deal with Africa’s problems. However, where a global power is able to exert its influence in a positive manner then there is no shame in accepting help. Unfortunately for Burundi – and many other states that have critical economic relations with China – such assistance is unlikely to come soon from Beijing.

This opens up the potential for continuing political violence which could degenerate into a bloody, and ethnically-divided, civil war the likes of which have been seen in the region before. Perhaps Bujumbura would have been better served maintaining ties with Taiwan, rather than Taipei’s mainland cousin.