by Jesse Robertson
At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, European powers convened in the “scramble for Africa,” dividing the continent amongst themselves. This meeting formalized the “new imperialism” of the late-nineteenth century: it was driven by demand for raw materials and new markets, and legitimized by a crude moral imperative to save supposedly backwards peoples from their own ignorance. While the ideological and economic justifications for having colonies wavered during the interwar years, European colonial rule crumbled in the aftermath of the Second World War, leaving behind a power vacuum and new opportunities for self-determination across Africa.
Ghana’s independence from Britain on March 6, 1957 signaled a sea change. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Ghana to attend its independence ceremony and marveled at the revolutionary optimism. “This event,” he said, “will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world…segregation in America and colonialism in Africa are based on the same thing—white supremacy and contempt for life.” The spirit of a Pan-African and internationalized struggle continued at the All-African People’s Conference in December of 1958, where hundreds of delegates met in the Ghanaian capital of Accra. Ghana’s prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, and rising star Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the Congolese National Movement, spoke stirringly on their continent’s bright future. With good reason, many believed something better was possible.
U.S. intelligence agencies wasted no time subverting surging African nationalism, as British historian Susan Williams painstakingly details in White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa. Williams draws extensively from archival research and declassified documents to show how the CIA, operating on behalf of myriad geopolitical and financial interests, deposed a generation of idealistic African leaders. White Malice is structured around the stories of Nkrumah, Lumumba, and their respective nations, which offer demonstrative case studies of the CIA’s malign presence. By early 1961, Lumumba had been exiled and assassinated, barely six months after he had been democratically elected as the Republic of the Congo’s first prime minister; and Nkrumah faced ongoing campaigns to destabilize both his government and the larger Pan-African project.
The U.S. attempted to distance itself from the old European colonial regimes—at least rhetorically—as it engaged with the postwar Third World. Appealing to its own national mythology, it emphasized its commitment to the spread of freedom. However, the U.S. had also taken responsibility for the global capitalist system and was preoccupied with ensuring that “freedom” was sympathetic to its interests abroad. The Soviet Union simultaneously offered an alternative path to modernity that Odd Arne Westad suggests allowed “poor and downtrodden peoples [to] challenge their conditions without replicating the American model.” From the perspective of U.S. policymakers, independence in the Third World was dangerous. Newly independent nations could move towards the wrong form of modernity if not properly guided. Intervention, particularly in the form of covert action, became a fast-track corrective for unsavory political developments. William Casey, former Director of Central Intelligence, confirmed that the Cold War’s “primary battlefield” was “not on the missile test range or the arms control negotiating table, but in the countryside of the Third World.”
Uranium catapulted the Congo into two global conflicts. The Shinkolobwe Mine in the Haut-Katanga province was a source of incredibly rich uranium ore. During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. wartime intelligence agency and precursor to the CIA, set up shop in the Belgian Congo in order to both supply Congolese uranium to the U.S. for use in the Manhattan Project and keep it out of Nazi hands. As the Cold War fused economic and foreign policy objectives, the CIA similarly sought to protect American strategic interests in Africa. But Patrice Lumumba intended to make Congolese resources benefit Congolese people after nearly a century of exploitative Belgian colonial rule.
The U.S. began to pour money into Lumumba’s political rivals, inciting chaos and instability that benefited its directives. CIA activity in the Congo, Williams writes, “ranked as the largest covert operation in the agency’s history, costing an estimated $90-$150 million in current dollars.” Williams documents the web of intelligence and funding spun out of the CIA station in Léopoldville during this time in granular detail: CIA proprietary airlines trafficked white mercenaries and materiel; agents tracked Lumumba’s every move; and the infamous spymaster chemist Sidney Gottlieb developed toxins to poison Lumumba. The “Special Group”—an interagency government committee often cited by intelligence officials as the “principal mechanism for the control of covert operations”—decided to keep “all options” open for Lumumba’s removal. In July of 1960, just one month after Congo’s independence, fighting broke out. Belgian-backed secessionists in Katanga clashed with the supporters of Lumumba’s nationalist government. Observing the mounting tensions, Nkrumah declared that if the Congo were “compromised…by the imperialist and capitalist forces” it would “expose the sovereignty of all Africa to grave risk.”
Lumumba was captured by separatist soldiers in December 1960 and imprisoned in Thysville. On January 17, 1961, he was executed. In even the most generous reading, covert action fueled the volatile events that led to his assassination. The “success of US aims,” Williams writes, was “matched by the failure of the joyful hopes for freedom…felt by millions.”
The consequences of CIA intervention in Africa extend beyond the Cold War. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney argues that European colonialism robbed Africa of both its vast material riches and political power. White Malice shows us that covert action did the same. Short-sighted and self-interested U.S. foreign policy in Africa came at the expense of African people. American corporate investments in the Congo (then renamed Zaire) boomed under Joseph Mobutu’s regime—Chase Manhattan, Ford, General Motors, Gulf, Shell, Union Carbide, and several other large concerns doubled their holdings by 1970. Meanwhile, Zaire remained one of the poorest countries in the world despite its vast natural wealth. Its growth rate from 1960–70 was less than 2.7 percent and per-capita gross national product was just $90 dollars.
Financial corruption was matched by sheer violence. Mobutu consistently ignored U.S. requests for him to intervene in genocides occurring in Burundi and Uganda, while aligning himself with both Rhodesia’s white supremacist regime and apartheid South Africa. After Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1974, a bloody civil war broke out between its rival political factions. The decades-long conflict was a Cold War proxy that left an estimated 800,000 dead and displaced millions. The grim consequences of covert action are often attributed to African political immaturity and “tribalism,” for which Western development and aid are a tonic. And covert money continues to flow in many cases because it creates the very conditions that necessitate its continuation in the eyes of policymakers. To this day, the U.S. maintains a staggering military presence in Africa—the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has a yearly operating budget of $276 million and maintains relations with 53 countries—and strategic interest in the continent’s vast natural resources.
Methods of imperial management do not stay put—the practices of political and social control deployed on the frontiers have a curious habit of finding their way back to the core. While the CIA sabotaged African political movements abroad, a parallel process was underway at home. The FBI waged a war on the Civil Rights movement and American left through an extensive network of surveillance, disruption, and assassination known as COINTELPRO. Malcolm X noted the connection between—and radical potential of—the domestic and foreign struggles for freedom:
The racial sparks that are ignited here in America today could easily turn into a flaming fire abroad…You cannot confine it to one little neighborhood, or one little community, or one little country…What happens to one of us today happens to all of us.
The globalization of U.S. covert action and intervention, of which Congo and Ghana were crucial nodes, institutionalized an often unaccountable and self-serving foreign policy that laid the foundations for future unrest and conflict. Revolution, counterrevolution, and their reverberations link the past and present. In White Malice, Williams tells an essential history that is usually repressed in public discourse rather than acknowledged, offering counterfactuals for what could have been and, importantly, what still can be.
Jesse Robertson holds a degree in history and ethnic studies from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. His research focuses on the history of the United States in the world and the American West, paying particular attention to how imperial encounters have shaped politics and culture.
 Susan Williams, White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa (New York, NY: Public Affairs Books, 2021), 13.
 Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 17.
 Paul Thomas Chamberlain, The Cold War’s Killing Fields (New York, NY: Harpercollins Publishers, 2018), 495.
 Williams, White Malice, 509.
 Robert L. Borosage and John Marks, eds., The CIA File (New York, NY: Grossman Publishers, 1976), 12; Williams, White Malice, 237.
 Williams, White Malice, 213.
 Ibid., 437.
 The CIA File, 36.
 “Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Angola (1975-2002),” Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst, accessed February 13, 2022, https://peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/Angola.pdf.
 Westad, The Global Cold War, 143.