A new book from historian and academic Dr Susan Williams is always an eagerly awaited event – and White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonialisation of Africa is no exception. Williams has woven together many of the themes of previous studies to present a searing indictment of how Western powers interfered with, plundered and sabotaged the interests of newly independent African nations and their leaders.
This territory has proved fertile ground for Williams’s past investigations. In her 2011 book Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, Williams brought a microscope to the suspicious death in 1961 of UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld in an air crash over the then Northern Rhodesia, where he was flying to a meeting with Moïse Tshombe, the leader of the breakaway Congolese province of Katanga.
Through her incisive investigation, Williams lucidly explained a complex political picture dominated by the colonial powers, mining interests, Rhodesian settlers and the apartheid South African government. She concluded that an initial Rhodesian investigation was flawed and partial and that Hammarskjöld’s death could have been the result of assassination or a failed hijacking, perhaps with the aim of destabilising his attempts to avoid the breakup of the Congo.
The Hammarskjöld book had a huge impact. It prompted Lord Lea of Crondall to lead an enabling committee that in 2012 set up the Hammarskjöld Commission tasked to assess new evidence pertinent to the plane crash. That panel’s report led former UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon to invite Mohamed Chande Othman, the former chief justice of Tanzania, to conduct a full inquiry into the incident.
In his interim report (2017), Justice Othman stated: “It appears plausible that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of a direct attack… or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots.”
This was a stunning result – for the first time an official enquiry had given voice to the theory that Hammarskjöld and his team’s deaths may have been deliberately planned.
Cold War intrigues
After this success, Williams’s new book White Malice returns to the machinations and intrigue of the postwar world as the USSR rose up the list of the West’s enemies. Williams explains how the Western powers – principally the US but also the UK, France and Belgium – were engaged in a bitter struggle with the Soviet Union for control of Africa’s resources, including vital uranium ore.
Uranium deposits found in the Congo were the richest in the world. Prior to independence, ore from the Belgian Congo was exported to the US to build the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, the scramble for resources broadened into an ideological struggle to secure allies and clients among the newly emerging African nations.
Williams dives into the archives, revealing new, shocking details of America’s covert Cold War programme to gain the upper hand in Africa as the European powers departed the continent. It is a dark and tangled tale of secret agents and informants, UN lobbying, cultural infiltration and bribery, and assassinations and coups.
She writes extensively in White Malice of the West’s alleged culpability in the torture and murder of Patrice Lumumba, independent Congo’s first prime minister. Lumumba had hoped that the US, a nation he admired, would be a natural ally to the Congo, given the country’s triumph over colonialism and its achievement in self-determination.
But Lumumba left the US after his first visit to Washington “deeply disillusioned” after failing to secure a meeting with US President Dwight Eisenhower, who preferred to play golf.
While the complicity of the Belgian state in his assassination has been well-documented by Ludo de Witte, whose 2008 book The Assassination of Lumumba “did not flinch from uncomfortable facts that clearly pointed the finger at the Belgian government’s complicity in Lumumba’s death”, Williams focuses on the shadowy role of the US and others in encouraging Lumumba’s elimination amid fears that the leader was turning towards alliance with the Soviet Union.
As with Hammarskjöld’s death, there is no smoking gun – but the deftly sketched story gives us an unprecedented look into the murky underworld of Cold War geopolitics and the motivations of its major players.
Williams exposes many of the CIA front organisations that masqueraded as acting in Africa’s interests while attempting to subvert African democracy and agency, including the American Society of African Culture, which awarded scholarships and published its own journal, African Forum.
Such front organisations attempted to infiltrate Kwame Nkuramah’s All African People’s Conference (AAPC), a front of civic associations, unions, and popular organisations set up to forge pan-African solidarity in the struggle against colonialism.
Indeed, after reading this book, one could get the impression that every American or European living and working in Africa at this time was an intelligence operative with a shadowy agenda.
But the book also gives space to the stories of idealistic Westerners who supported the agenda of a free and independent continent.
Sitting on the AAPC’s organising committee, Bill Sutherland was an American pacifist who was an active supporter of Nkrumah. He also hosted the visit of Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King to the 1957 independence celebrations. In the early days of the first Ghanaian government he served as private secretary to finance minister Komla Gbedemah.
In 1961, he left Ghana, settling in Tanzania in 1963 and becoming a close associate of President Julius Nyerere.
His life illustrates the strong and mutually enriching links that developed between the US diaspora and independent Africa, despite the efforts and machinations of the security services, which had a much more one-sided relationship in mind.