How the West subverted African independence

Mike Phipps reviews White Malice: the CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa, by Susan Williams, published by Hurst

“They pulled out all their people. They ripped out the electrical wires for the street lighting, for the apartment buildings and offices, broke the generators of the local hospital, tore up the streets… You just name it, they broke it. They were determined to teach that country a lesson.” These were the observations of an American embassy official at the response of French colonists to the decision of Guinea to vote for independence in 1958.

But the US attitude towards Africa was no more enlightened. The CIA view that the continent might move towards orderly economic development and political progress was “just about nil” and President Eisenhower agreed. His vice president Richard Nixon believed that some Africans “have been out of the trees for only about fifty years.” He advocated a policy of courting military strongmen as an antidote to popular independence leaders. Although this ran counter to the US’s public commitment to democracy, it soon became policy.

In the post-war years, there were more than 225 organisations around the world, which were receiving CIA funds. Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method has shone the spotlight on much of the CIA’s activity in Asia and Latin America, but Africa has been comparatively neglected by historians. Susan Williams’ book redresses that.

In different countries, trade unions were a key channel of CIA influence, via the foreign aid programs of the US AFL-CIO federation and the ICFTU. Direct recruitment was also an option. Mobutu, who would later overthrow the democratically elected government of the Congo, was an informant for both the Belgians and the US and by the late 1950s someone the CIA identified as a credible alternative to independence leader Patrice Lumumba.

Lumumba had established his reputation as an inspiring leader at the All-African People’s Conference in December 1958, hosted by the President of newly independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. A month later a political protest in the Congo was violently suppressed by the colonial authorities: 500 were killed and riots across the country were fiercely repressed. Lumumba threw himself into political organisation and was soon arrested and brutally beaten.

He was released to take part in negotiations for independence with the Belgian government in January 1960. He dominated the proceedings and secured a commitment to independence within five months. This was a breakthrough not just for the Congo: many saw its independence as the key to the liberation of the continent. But inexperience showed in the delegation’s discussion on the Congo’s economic future, with Belgian experts laying the foundations for a massive repatriation of assets to Belgium.

From Ghana, Nkrumah stressed the need for unity. He persuaded Congolese feminist Andrée Blouin to make a call for African women and within weeks she had enrolled 45,000 female members in the Feminine Movement for African Solidarity. Yet no women were allowed to vote as the Congo’s first ‘free’ elections approached.

The Belgian government threw a lot of money at Katanga separatists who were seen as more likely to safeguard colonial commercial interests. Turnout was massive and Lumumba’s party emerged strongest, although gaining only 25% of the seats. Lumumba became prime minister, the Belgian government’s preferred candidate Kasavubu became head of state and the Senate President Joseph Ileo was on the CIA payroll.

The independence ceremony was marred by a deeply paternalistic speech by the Belgian king, to which Lumumba responded fierily, attacking the privations of colonial rule and calling for the Congo to be the “rallying point of all Africa.” In a sense it was. The year 1960 was a turning point: 17 African nations gained independence.

In Ghana, Nkrumah was now building a post-colonial infrastructure that could free the country from dependence on its cash crop, cocoa, and introducing compulsory free primary education. But his enthusiasm for atomic power and his turn to the Soviet Union for help in building a reactor raised hackles in Washington.

Nkrumah was also keen to help the Congo – which had fewer than twenty graduates at independence – to find professionals. This search became urgent, when a mutiny in the Congo’s national security force against Belgian officers a week after independence sparked a white panic, with thousands fleeing the country virtually overnight.

Contravening international law, the Belgians sent in 10,000 troops. A beleaguered Lumumba appealed to the UN for help and appointed the treacherous Mobutu to a senior army position. Meanwhile the US was branding Lumumba as the new Fidel Castro – “or worse”.

As Nkrumah strove to protect the legitimate government of the Congo, the US worked to undermine it. The CIA poured money into Mobutu, developing his soldiers as a “free-lance strike force”. US officials even worked behind the scenes – successfully – to get Time magazine to relegate their cover story on Lumumba to the inside pages, to rein in his rising celebrity status.

More damagingly, the CIA organised a noisy protest against Lumumba when he addressed a conference of independent African states in August 1960. The disruption was filmed and the newsreel was showed around the world, giving an entirely false impression of how Lumumba was regarded in his homeland.

With the CIA pushing the line that Lumumba was involved in a communist plot, President Eisenhower stunned his National Security Council into silence by proposing he be assassinated.

On September 5th Kasavubu suddenly sacked Lumumba, replacing him with Ileo. Parliament annulled Lumumba’s sacking, vindicating him. “But at this moment of strength,” writes Williams, “he made a dangerous and irrevocable mistake: he failed to act against those who had plotted against him.” Days later, with the go-ahead from the CIA, Mobutu announced a military takeover.

Even while he was being put under effective house arrest, Lumumba “remained a grave danger as long as he was not disposed of”, a meeting of Eisenhower’s NSC was told.  The CIA had been involved in extensive covert drug testing on Native Americans and other US citizens and now prepared a poison kit.

At the UN General Assembly, Eisenhower hypocritically announced: “The people of the Congo are entitled to build up their country in peace and freedom.” Nkrumah, however, whose speech emphasised liberation from colonial rule, was denounced by US officials as “leaning toward the Soviet bloc.” Meanwhile, to encourage international acceptance of the military coup in the Congo, a delegation of the plotters was flown to the US and after much arm-twisting by the imperial powers was seated at the UN as the legitimate Congolese delegation.

Meanwhile, the noose was tightening around Lumumba. Yet despite being encircled by protective UN troops and hostile coup forces, Lumumba slipped out of his residence. He maintained at the time that he was not fleeing, but seeking only to be present at the burial of his young daughter, and that he would return. But the size of his travelling party attracted attention and three days later he was intercepted – just five months after the Congo’s independence celebrations.

Even at this point, Lumumba, as prime minister, requested UN protection from a British army officer serving the UN. He was ignored – much to the anger of Ghanaian troops under the officer’s command.

A day later, a bruised Lumumba was flown back to Leopoldville. One correspondent reported: “Colonel Mobutu, his arms crossed, watched calmly while the soldiers slapped and pushed the prisoner and pulled his hair.”

Supporters of Lumumba who proclaimed Stanleyville in Orientale province the seat of the legitimate government of the Congo were soon confronted by a US-financed military operation in January 1960. Meanwhile, an army mutiny at the jail where Lumumba and two of his comrades were being held led to their being flown to Elisabethville in Katanga. Throughout the flight they were beaten.

On arrival, they were tortured, then executed. To destroy the evidence, their bodies were attacked with hacksaws and sulphuric acid. All of this was concealed at the time behind a concocted story about the three being killed following a botched escapes attempt.

Forty years later, a Belgian parliamentary commission concluded that Belgium bore a “moral responsibility” for Lumumba’s assassination and that the CIA had played more of a role than hitherto admitted. A former MI6 agent also admitted involvement.

Lumumba’s death provoked outrage in Ghana. The US embassy was invaded and the UN flag torn down.  When the US ambassador to the UN addressed the General Assembly, protestors greeted him with shouts of “Murderers!”

Frantz Fanon wrote that Lumumba’s error had been to believe in the impartiality of the UN. He later distilled the lessons of the Congo into The Wretched of the Earth, which advocated violence when necessary, to achieve freedom.

Following Lumumba’s death, the US drove home its advantage, working against both his supporters and the UN chiefs who saw it as their responsibility to uphold the Congo’s elected government. The new Kennedy Administration took, if anything, a more bellicose line than its predecessor, many of its advisors having business interests in the country.

Behind the scenes the US worked – and spent generously – to create a government of ‘national unity’ under Cyrille Adoula, who had been on the CIA’s payroll for some time. Its ratification by the Congo’s parliament meant the end of the Stanleyville government-in-exile, but Lumumba supporters in the new government were quickly sidelined and then expelled. The Adoula government was a puppet: real power lay with Mobutu, who in 1965 overthrew the civilian government in a CIA-backed coup.

That left Ghana. When a conspiracy against Nkrumah from within his Cabinet failed, several bomb attempts on his life followed. Both Britain and the US worked to destroy his reputation on the global stage, with one CIA-funded publication comparing him to Hitler.

Finally, in 1966 a military coup overthrew Nkrumah and outlawed his party. The British press reported the coup as bloodless, but around 1,600 people were killed and many more injured. State corporations were privatised and foreign multinationals moved in. Inside the CIA headquarters, the Accra station was given full credit for the coup.

The CIA’s operations in Africa were far-reaching. They were lubricated by money. In 2014, it was estimated that CIA activity in the Congo cost between $90 and $150 million in current dollars – not including aircraft, weapons, transportation and maintenance.

But the wider vilification of Nkrumah, Lumumba and others in the west contributed to the negative and distorted view of Africa that prevails today. It was done to keep control of the continent’s rich mineral resources, and brutal dictatorships were installed for the same purpose. This gripping book meticulously uncovers the role of covert western interference in two countries, but these operations go much wider and there is undoubtedly a great more detail to unearth.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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