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.


Presidential Election Highlights Decline of the Duopoly: American Politics Needs a Third Way

In this day and age it is difficult for any politician to escape scandal, although even by modern standards US presidential hopefuls Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump have courted it in large measure.

Trump and Clinton go head-to-head in St Louis
Trump and Clinton go head-to-head in St Louis

The various controversies surrounding the two candidates for US President have so far dominated the race to the White House and once more surfaced in the recent debate in St Louis. In a particularly hostile exchange, both Clinton and Trump had their shortcomings brutally exposed on national television.

Trump seized on Clinton’s supposedly untrustworthy nature, particularly with relation to her use of a private email server whilst Secretary of State, during and after which time she deleted thousands of potentially pertinent emails. She was further castigated for her alleged disregard of a child rape victim (the alleged attacker of which she had got acquitted during her legal days), and for intimidating the women who accused her husband Bill of sexual assault.

Clinton was fortunate to escape with a warning for her use of a private email server whilst in office
Clinton was fortunate to escape with a warning for her use of a private email server whilst in office

Trump, on the other hand, has far more openly made a rod for his own back. A 2005 video, in which he can be heard making obscene remarks about how celebrities such as himself could grope women, was unsurprisingly a hot topic. Clinton followed this by listing her opponent’s many supposed prejudices, including against Muslims, immigrants and ethnic minorities. There was also a recurring accusation that Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns meant that he was basically paying none anyway.

Of course under the scrutiny of the modern media it is difficult to be a pristine politician…indeed you’d have to be pretty boring to be anything but. Consequently, such unsavoury debate is to an extent unsurprising. Yet the clouds hanging over the heads of the two candidates are of such severity that it raises questions about their suitability to be President. Might this have been the year for a serious Independent challenger? A white knight stepping out of the shadows?

The last meaningful performance by an Independent candidate for President was Ross Perot in the 1990s. In 1992, the wealthy industrialist took over 19.5 million votes from the public and yet still ended up empty-handed in the Electoral College. Running under the Reform banner in 1996 he managed 8 million votes.

Perot's economic nationalism and personal appeal garnered an upswell of support in 1992
Perot’s economic nationalism and personal appeal garnered an upswell of support in 1992

Such an effort – admittedly backed like Trump by huge personal wealth – is not to be sniffed at. The only other Independent to have gained a measure of acknowledgement was John B. Anderson who won 5.7 million votes in the 1980 election, although it should be noted that he had initially failed in a challenge for the Republican nomination.

Neither Independents nor Third Party contenders have stood a winning chance to compete for the Presidency since the pre-Civil War days, when the Democratic and Republican parties were tearing themselves apart on major issues such as slavery. The 1912 election was an exception, with four parties fighting on an almost equal platform. But again this was more to do with factional splits within the major parties than a genuine outsider straining for glory.

Woodrow Wilson comfortably won in 1912
Woodrow Wilson comfortably won in 1912

This year’s Independent hopeful is former CIA operations officer Evan McMullin, currently polling between 1 and 2%, although he is making a real push in his native Utah. From the Third Party hopefuls, the Libertarians and Greens are polling in the 5-7% region.

Such statistics are hardly a precursor to an historic anomaly and yet it could be argued that Clinton and (particularly) Trump are themselves Independents, their policy positions changing at a whim and not always reflective of large elements of their party. Trump is particularly guilty on this count, for instance dismissing the view of his own running mate on how to tackle the war in Syria.

A recent piece in Foreign Affairs suggested that the corrupt debacle that is modern Brazilian politics can partially be explained by the ease with which politicians can change parties and policy position. This has ensured that there has never been a consistent party platform for any single political grouping, hence the Brazilian electorate’s susceptibility to elect charismatic but dubious populists like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.

Lula and Rousseff - now both embroiled in corruption scandals - embody the populist bent that is becoming typical of most democracies
Lula and Rousseff – now both embroiled in corruption scandals – embody the populist bent that is becoming typical of most democracies

The reality in the world’s larger and more established democracies is actually not too dissimilar. Whilst party allegiance is undoubtedly stronger and more fixed, changes on policy position and personal preference makes it difficult for the electorate to decipher many of the differences and similarities between the major parties.

In our era of intense scrutiny and keyboard warriors, it is apparently too tempting to try and please everyone. Politicians as a whole have become less principled and ideological. Policy ceases to exist in their minds or rhetoric; the vast majority cannot be told apart.

This year’s Presidential election is about as populist a showdown as could be seen. There is still very little inkling about what either of the candidates would do if they actually won power.

This is not to clamour for an Independent President, for such a political shock would surely prove disastrous, passing legislation a continual headache. What we miss, though, is a greater degree of diversity, clear policy platforms to inform an undereducated electorate, and a challenge to the Democratic-Republican duopoly. A fairer chance for the outsiders is essential for the political future of the United States.
Clinton will almost certainly win and at this stage she must be considered the lesser of two evils. Yet the American political system has been humiliated by the ease with which two huge but deeply flawed personalities have taken control of respective parties with minimal challenge, aided by a shedload of money.
Trump has never held political office and appears to lack even basic knowledge of policy and international affairs
Trump has never held political office and appears to lack even basic knowledge of policy and international affairs
Having been elevated to ascendacy by the people in the primaries they must pander to them now. It must be hoped that Trump continues to self-destruct so that Clinton does not have to allow her rhetoric and political stance to veer towards fence-sitters who might otherwise have followed ‘The Donald’s’ lead.