In White Malice, Susan Williams’s careful research reveals the history of the CIA’s damaging interventions in newly independent African nations, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

Susan Williams, White Malice. The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa (Hurst Publishers 2021), xii, 651pp.

Barack Obama recounts in his memoir Dreams from my Father reading a book about Africa as a young man. He remembered how he was filled with ‘an anger all the more maddening for its lack of a clear target’ at the way that the dominant images of the book shifted from the independence struggles of leaders like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah to ‘famine, disease, the coups and counter-coups led by illiterate young men wielding AK-47s like shepherd sticks’ (p.515).

As Williams makes clear though, while Obama may not have known who to blame for this, it is not as mysterious as his memoir implies. The development of various African countries in the last seventy or so years has been determined not, as the racist idea has it, by African unfitness for independence and democracy, but by the covert activity of the CIA. Williams uses the examples of Congo and Ghana to show how profoundly the US has shaped the destiny of these countries for the worse in promotion of US interests.

To the decolonising nations in Africa in the mid-twentieth century, the US could be perceived as a potential supporter. Thus, for example, Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, approached the US first for support when the Katanga region seceded from Congo shortly after his election. This faith in the US support for self-determination was, however, not justified. The US may have been happy to see European colonisers losing control of their colonies, but only if this could be to the benefit of US interests. In Congo, for example, supporting the removal of Belgian control was not the same thing as supporting genuine independence. Anyone tempted to believe that the US was committed to the cause of freedom should note that it was one of the handful of countries who abstained in December 1960 on UN resolution 1514, which called for self-determination for all, along with colonial powers like France, Belgium and the UK.

Lumumba was arguably too slow to perceive that US interests in Congo were not going to be benign. He had a well-founded tendency to mistrust Belgians on sight, but unfortunately did not extend this scepticism of white motives to Americans. This resulted, for example, in his use of a translator, at the All African People’s Conference in Accra in 1958, who was actually a CIA agent. US interest in Congo was intense, as it was, as Nkrumah wrote later, the ‘most vital region of Africa strategically, geographically and politically’ (p.34). Congo’s mineral wealth in general made it important to control, but more specifically, it was the source of the richest uranium in the world.

The US went to some lengths to conceal this, maintaining that their uranium came from Canada and, in the Second World War, labelling barrels of uranium being exported from Congo as cobalt. It is plausible, Williams argues, that this practice of talking about cobalt as code for uranium continued after the war, which reveals discussions in the CIA and US government about securing continuing access to the uranium mine in Congo’s Katanga province in the face of Congolese independence. Katanga’s secession from Congo after the election of Lumumba in 1960 is unlikely to have been a coincidence.


Congo was therefore at the centre of the US neocolonialisation strategy, in which it wasn’t necessary to maintain an explicitly colonial regime to reap the benefits of being a colonial power. As Nkrumah explained, in this neocolonialist reality, ‘the state which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside’ (p.363). The US was not the only aspiring practitioner of neocolonialism. Former colonial powers, after all, commonly expected to be able to maintain their interests in their former colonies. For example, the Belgian settlement for Congo expected Belgian companies to be able to go on exploiting Congolese resources as they had always done. The resources that the US put into this were, however, extensive.

Williams traces the remarkable range of CIA activity, commenting that ‘the extent and breadth of CIA activities in Africa … beggars belief’ (p.509). This encompassed significant efforts to extend US soft power by funding and sometimes founding organisations to promote US interests and individuals sympathetic to them. These ranged from charitable foundations to academic organisations and institutes apparently aimed at promoting African and American contacts, such as the African American Institute, founded in 1953. All told, the CIA was apparently funding more than 200 of these fronts.

The US also used more direct methods, such as removing politicians seen as inimical to US interests. The best-known example here is Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was elected in May 1960 and was overthrown by a coup led by Mobutu Sese Seku in September. He was captured by Mobutu’s forces in December and murdered in January 1961, along with two of his ministers, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito. The first official line was that they had been murdered by irate villagers after they had escaped from custody. That was obviously untrue, but the US version remained for some time that it was ‘purely an African event’, being carried out by Congolese and Katangan opposition forces with help from Belgian officers (p.365).

A Belgian parliamentary commission in 2000 found that Belgium had a ‘moral responsibility’ for Lumumba’s murder, but also that there was considerable US (meaning CIA) involvement, more than had been found by an earlier US investigation. It is also possible that there was some UK involvement, as Daphne Park, an MI6 agent in Congo at the time, later claimed that she had helped to arrange MI6 activity against Lumumba.

The killing of Lumumba

It is clear that the CIA had been investigating ways of killing Lumumba for some time, including raiding the house in which he was sheltering in Stanleyville after Mobutu’s coup, or poisoning him with botulinum, to mimic the effects of diseases common in Congo. The latter was part of the operations of Stanley Gottlieb, a chemical specialist who worked with the CIA on a range of possible technologies for ‘assassination or incapacitation’, as well as even murkier technologies like mind-control drugs (p.506). It was Gottlieb who worked on the various toxins the CIA plotted to use against Castro.

As William Burden, US ambassador to Belgium and the Belgian Congo put it, from the US point of view, the murder of Lumumba was all but inevitable. ‘Lumumba was such a damn nuisance,’ he wrote later, that ‘it was perfectly obvious that the way to get rid of him was through political assassination’ (p.139). In contrast, Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief in Congo, had identified Mobutu as ‘a future leader who was susceptible to American influence – someone to cultivate and to promote’ (p.132). Burden’s comment on Lumumba makes clear that the murder was not rogue CIA activity but squarely within US official policy for Congo. Indeed, it was at a meeting at which President Eisenhower was present, in August 1960, during which it was finally agreed that ‘Lumumba was a threat to US interests and had to be removed’ (p.235).

A mainstream version of events might have it here that the CIA plots to assassinate Lumumba were forestalled by local Congolese action and that the US therefore bore little responsibility for his actual murder. As Williams sets out here, however, there is evidence for a CIA presence at the location where Lumumba, Mpolo and Okito were killed, in the form of an expense claim for travel there. It therefore appears that there was more direct CIA involvement in the actual event than has often previously been recognised.

CIA activity in Congo did not stop with Lumumba’s murder, but continued against interests perceived to be anti-US or pro-USSR. It is possible that this included the UN, with the CIA implicated in the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN Secretary General, when his plane was shot down over Northern Rhodesia in September 1961. If the CIA were involved, this would have been made possible by the reality of extensive US spying on UN activities, including the manufacture of UN cryptography machines by a CIA front company, which provided the CIA with a helpful back door into any data they held.

The overthrow and murder of Lumumba may be the best-known instance of CIA interference in African affairs, but it was not the only one. The CIA were heavily involved in the coup which overthrew Nkrumah’s government in Ghana in 1966. Williams also comments on how many of the leaders of African independence movement died comparatively young, including for example Nkrumah’s minister George Padmore, and Franz Fanon from Algeria. Could Gottlieb’s murky programme, she asks, be implicated in this pattern of early, if apparently natural deaths? It certainly seems possible, in the light of documented plans for manufacturing a ‘natural’ death for Lumumba and Castro.

Neocolonialism and the Cold War

The US concern about regimes like Lumumba’s and Nkrumah’s is often portrayed as being about the Cold War. Natural resources were why the US was interested in Africa, but this was just as much about keeping them out of Russian hands. In this discourse, independent African countries appear as the unfortunate casualties of the great game for world domination, with the USSR at least as much at fault as the US, and the Africans haplessly in the middle. Williams’ account shows the possibility of a different analysis.

It is obvious that US would be worried about increasing Russian influence in Africa, but on occasion, the US also seemed happy enough to push leaders it had already decided were a problem closer to the USSR. When Lumumba travelled to the US in the summer of 1960, to try to enlist US help to get Belgian troops out of Congo, for example, he travelled there in a plane supplied by the USSR. This was not a pro-Russian gesture, but simply the result of the US refusal to make one of their planes available to him. It was nevertheless seized on by the US media as evidence that he was a communist and therefore an enemy of the USA. Similarly, when Nkrumah embarked on a nuclear-power programme for Ghana, he first approached Canada to obtain a reactor. He turned to the USSR only after the US had forced Canada to turn him down.

This does not appear to be the behaviour of a power concerned solely to prevent the USSR from gaining more influence in Africa. In fact, it is clear from Williams’ account that the US would have behaved in a similar fashion if there had been no Cold War and no Russian menace at all. The problem from the US point of view was not the USSR, but the threat posed to US interests by movements which weren’t going to be satisfied with neocolonialism but which wanted genuine independence.

Racism and imperialism

Nkrumah’s vision for Africa was of ‘a self-contained and self-development economy’ (p.14); a ‘United States of Africa’ which would stand on its own, without Western aid or Western interference. This was a vision for Africa which rejected the paternalistic parting messages of the European colonial regimes, that, as King Baudouin told the people of Congo in 1960, they had been given a great deal by their colonial masters and had now ‘to show you are worthy of our confidence’ (p.177). Rather, as Malcolm X paraphrased Lumumba, ‘you aren’t giving us anything. Why, can you take back these scars that you put on our bodies? Can you give us back the limbs that you cut off while you were here?’ (p.179).

Ghana’s support for these politics, and solidarity with independence fighters across Africa, was the most worrying aspect of Nkrumah’s rule to the US, which concluded in 1960 that it was necessary to ‘discourage, whenever possible, Ghana’s current tendency to support extremist elements in neighbouring African countries’ (p.191). The nuclear issue was of particular importance because it was a clear instance of Nkrumah aiming for genuine independence.

The intention was to give Ghana the same electricity generating infrastructure as was being developed in the West, while at the same time resisting Western powers’ use of Africa for nuclear-weapons testing. That was not the role that African countries were supposed to play in a neocolonial world, being rather the suppliers of raw materials for their neocolonial masters. It was not a coincidence that Nkrumah was overthrown shortly before Ghana’s first nuclear-power station came online, enabling the incoming military dictatorship to stop it before it started.

The ideal of pan-African solidarity and genuine economic and political independence from both the US and the old European colonial powers was a profound threat to the US plans for dominance in Africa. The US was therefore prepared to spend significant resources in ensuring that it was thwarted. The ideas of independence fighters like Nkrumah, Lumumba, Franz Fanon, George Padmore, and others were also a danger in a different way to the US, for the inspiration that they could give to black liberation struggles in the US itself. Martin Luther King made this link between Ghanian independence and the civil-rights struggle, arguing that Ghanian independence would:

‘give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world. I think it will have worldwide implications and repercussions – not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America … At bottom, both segregation in America and colonialism in Africa are based on the same thing – white supremacy and contempt for life’ (p.13).

King was in Ghana for the independence celebrations in 1957, along with world leaders, freedom fighters, and others from the civil-rights struggle in the US. They were also joined by the US Vice President, Richard Nixon. Nixon was apparently in his element at the extended political jamboree, shaking hands with everyone, patting heads and ‘smiling, smiling all the time’ (p.13). At one point, he went up to one man, whom he took to be Ghanian, slapped him on the shoulder, and asked him how it felt to be free. ‘“I wouldn’t know, Sir” came the reply. “I’m from Alabama”’ (p.14).

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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