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.


What Price for Peace in DR Congo? Stability and Destabilisation Under Mobutu

Eleven African countries have signed a new peace agreement in Addis Ababa determined to end the persistent conflict that has blighted the development of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades. The agreement has been welcomed with caution, with international observers fully appreciative of the challenges involved in bringing peace to a vast nation with unsecured borders, factional and ethnic division, a desperate economy and a bitter colonial legacy.

Its vast size makes the DR Congo a difficult nation to bring to peace
Its vast size makes the DR Congo a difficult nation to bring to peace

It is difficult to imagine a time when DR Congo was relatively secure and stable. Under colonisation – first as the Congo Free State (1885-1908), a personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium, and then as the Belgian Congo (1908-1960) – the country was mercilessly plundered by European overlords notoriously brutal in their character.

Mutilation was a frequent punishment in Belgian Congo, one of history's most brutal colonial regimes
Mutilation was a frequent punishment in Belgian Congo, one of history’s most brutal colonial regimes

On gaining independence, Patrice Lumumba was elected as the country’s first democratic Prime Minister, only to be imprisoned and executed within twelve weeks of his coming to power (with the support of the former Belgian colonial authorities and the US government).

What followed over the course of the next six years has come to be known as the Congo Crisis. A variety of factions sought to take control of the country, including Belgian-backed Katangan separatists and a patchwork of communist groups supported by regional leftist mercenaries. The group which won out, however, was the American-backed faction led by Joseph Mobutu. When Mobutu took head office in November 1965 he orchestrated a ruthless purge of all his remaining opponents and centralised power around himself, using fierce rhetoric and a carefully-designed cult of personality to give credence to his populist rule.

Mobutu’s rule (from 1965 until shortly before his death in 1997) is widely acknowledged as one of the most corrupt and brutal dictatorships in African history, a continent renowned for its kleptomaniacal leaders. Renaming the country Zaire in 1971, adopting the African name Sese Seko, and frequently sporting his trademark leopard-skin hat at as a way to distance the Congolese from their colonial past, Mobutu’s premiership was as bizarre as it was frightening.

Mobutu's overarching goal (besides wealth accumulation) was the "Africanisation" of DR Congo
Mobutu’s overarching goal (besides wealth accumulation) was the “Africanisation” of DR Congo

Nevertheless, British Foreign Office documents suggest that Mobutu’s rule could have turned out very differently and that, indeed, it had made a promising start. A diplomatic cable dated August 1968 declares Mobutu “as good a Head of State as can be found in the Congo”. It goes on to mention his success in ousting his final internal rivals, including Rwandan mercenaries who even today cause constant security threats to the DR Congo with their incursions across the eastern border.

In conclusion, the report states that “the Congo is sufficiently stable to honour large-scale commercial commitments”. This is the crux of the matter, today as it was then. DR Congo is an enormously resource-rich country, with vast mineral deposits, potential for hydroelectric power development and fertile agricultural land. Without taking a too cynical viewpoint, international mediators want peace for the DR Congo as much for themselves as the Congolese people.

Despite the optimism of the British report, the illusion of stability under Mobutu soon melted away as he began to horde wealth for himself and plunged his people into a miserable existence of poverty and fear. As the British author acknowledged, support for Mobutu in 1965 had been based on the premise that DR Congo would “return in time to some form of orthodox democracy adapted to Bantu needs…There was, however, some disillusionment on this score when a few weeks later Mobutu announced that the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies had been dissolved and that he would rule by decree for a period of five years”.

It is often necessary for an undeveloped, post-colonial country to experience a period of authoritarian rule in order to put in place the economic framework needed for development. This has been seen in many East Asian countries, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia, where democracy has gradually followed strongman rule. Unfortunately, this pattern of development was never likely under Mobutu. Whilst he provided the short-term stability necessary to implement the economic changes that would revolutionise his country, he was ultimately uninterested in anyone’s fate but his own.

Mobutu’s overthrow in May 1997, just months before his death, came too late. DR Congo was already riven by regional factions, each determined to take advantage of the lawlessness that had pervaded vast swathes of the country outside the capital Kinshasa.

It is a case, therefore, of what might have been. DR Congo could have been a shining light for the world’s least developed continent. Now, it is arguably its most troubling security dilemma, a monster that has sucked in participants from neighbouring countries and created wretched living conditions for a traumatised and uneducated population ruled by the law of the gun.

It will be a miracle if the latest peace agreement succeeds. Even today, rival factions clashed on the Congo’s eastern border. The omens are not good.