In 1958, a year after gaining independence from colonial rule, Ghana hosted a conference of African leaders, the first such gathering on the continent. At the invitation of Ghana’s newly elected prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, shown in the cover photo, more than 300 leaders from 28 African territories attended, including Lumumba, from the still Belgian Congo, and Frantz Fanon, then living in French Algeria. It was a time of unlimited potential for a group of people determined to chart a new course for their lands. But the host wants his guests not to forget the dangers lurking ahead.
“Let us also not forget that colonialism and imperialism can still come to us in other ways, not necessarily from Europe.”
The agents Nkrumah feared were already present. Shortly after the event began, Ghanaian police arrested a journalist who had hidden in one of the conference rooms when he was reportedly trying to record a closed-door session. As it was later discovered, the journalist was actually working for a CIA front organization, one of several organizations represented at the event.
British academic Susan Williams spent years documenting these and other examples of U.S. covert operations in the early years of African independence. The resulting book, “White Malice: the CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa”, is perhaps the most comprehensive research to date on CIA involvement in Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In more than five hundred pages, Williams rebuts the lies, deceptions, and claims of innocence by the CIA and other U.S. agencies to reveal a government that never let its inability to understand the motivations of African leaders prevent it from intervening, often violently, to undermine or overthrow them.
Although a few other African countries appear, “White Malice” is essentially about two countries that preoccupied the CIA at the time: Ghana and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ghana’s appeal to the agency was based simply on its place in history. As the first African nation to gain independence, in 1957, and the home of Nrukmah-the most respected advocate of African self-determination at the time-the country was inevitably a source of intrigue. Congo freed itself from its colonial shackles soon after, in 1960. Because of its size, its position near the bastions of white domination in southern Africa and its high-grade uranium reserves at the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga province, the country quickly became the CIA’s next focus of interest – and interference – in Africa.
“This is a turning point in the history of Africa,” Nkrumah told Ghana’s National Assembly during a visit by Congolese Prime Minister Lumumba, just weeks after Congo’s autonomy began. “If we allow Congo’s independence to be compromised in any way by imperialist and capitalist forces, we will be exposing the sovereignty and independence of the whole of Africa to grave risk.”
Nkrumah understood the threat and the people behind it very well. Only a few months after his speech, Lumumba was assassinated by a Belgian and Congolese firing squad, opening the door to decades of pro-Western tyranny in the country.
Lumumba’s assassination is now remembered as one of the low points of the early years of African independence, but a lack of documentation has allowed partisan investigators to downplay the CIA’s role. This lack of accountability has allowed the Agency to appear blameless, while reinforcing a fatalistic view of African history, as if the assassination of an elected official was just another terrible thing that “happened” to a people who were utterly unprepared to meet the challenge of independence.
But, as Williams shows, the CIA was in fact one of the main architects of the plot. A few days after Lumumba’s visit to Ghana, Larry Devlin, head of the agency in Congo, warned his superiors of a vague takeover plot involving Soviets, Ghanaians, Guineans and the local Communist Party. It is “difficult to determine the main influencing factors,” he said. Despite the total lack of evidence, he was confident that the “decisive period” in which the Congo would align itself with the Soviet Union was “not far off.” Shortly thereafter, Eisenhower verbally ordered the CIA to assassinate Lumumba.
In the end, CIA agents did not lead the firing squad to kill Lumumba. But as Williams makes clear, this distinction is minor when one considers all that the agency did to aid the assassination. After inventing and spreading the false plot of a pro-Soviet takeover, the CIA exploited its multitude of sources in Katanga to provide information to Lumumba’s enemies, making his capture possible. They helped bring him to Katanga prison, where he was held before his execution. Williams even quotes lines from a recently declassified CIA expense report to show that Devlin, the station chief, ordered one of his agents to visit the prison shortly before the bullets were fired.
When Nkrumah learned of Lumumba’s murder, he felt it “in a very vivid and personal way,” according to June Milne, his British research assistant. But as horrible as the news was for him, the Ghanaian statesman was not surprised.
White Malice is a triumph of archival research, and its best moments are when Williams lets actors on both sides speak. Although books about African independence often portray Nkrumah and his comrades as paranoid and hopelessly idealistic, reading their words alongside a mountain of evidence of CIA misdeeds, one understands that fear and idealism were entirely pragmatic responses to the threats of the time.
Nkrumah’s vision of African unity was not the pipe dream of a naive and inexperienced politician; it was a necessary response to a concerted effort to divide and weaken the continent.
In Nkrumah’s own country, the U.S. government does not appear to have pursued a policy of direct assassination. But it did act in other ways to undermine the Ghanaian leader, often justifying its stratagems with the same kind of paternalistic rationalizations that the British had used earlier. These efforts culminated in 1964, when the U.S. State Department’s West Africa specialists sent a memorandum to G. Mennen Williams, head of the U.S. State Department. Mennen Williams, the department’s head of African affairs, entitled “Proposed Program of Action for Ghana.” The memo stated that the United States should initiate “intensive efforts” that included “psychological warfare and other means to diminish support for Nkrumah in Ghana and foster a belief among the Ghanaian people that the welfare and independence of their country require his removal.” In another file from that year, a British Commonwealth Relations Office official mentions a plan, apparently approved at the highest levels of the Foreign Service, for “secret and unattributable attacks on Nkrumah.”
The level of coordination between governments inside and outside the United States may have shocked Nkrumah, who, until the end of his life, was at least willing to believe that the CIA was a rogue agency, accountable to no one, not even U.S. presidents.
“White Malice” leaves little doubt, if any, that the CIA did great damage to Africa in the early days of its independence. But while Williams presents numerous instances in which the CIA and other agencies undermined African governments, often violently, the CIA’s broader strategy in Africa-apart from denying uranium and allies to the Soviet Union-remains opaque. What we call “colonization,” as practiced by Britain, France, Belgium and others, involves a vast machinery of exploitation-schools to train children in the language of the masters, railroads to deplete the resources of the interior-all maintained by an army of civil servants.
But even in the Congo, the CIA’s presence was relatively small. Huge budgets and the freedom to do almost anything it wanted in the name of fighting communism gave it outsized influence in African history, but its numbers never rivaled the colonial bureaucracies it was meant to replace.
Williams shows how the CIA conspired with businessmen who profited from pro-Western African governments in the Congo and Ghana. But far from being a systematic practice of extraction, the agency’s plans for Africa often seem full of contradictions.
This is especially true in the aftermath of Lumumba’s assassination; excessive secrecy continues to prevent a full accounting. But documents that have been wrested from the Agency’s hands detail a multitude of CIA air operations in the Congo, involving aircraft owned by CIA front companies and pilots who were themselves CIA personnel. During a period of turmoil, the agency seemed to be everywhere in the country at once. “But,” Williams writes, “it is a confusing situation in which the CIA seems to have been on several horses at once going in different directions.” The agency “supported [Katangan secessionist President Moses] Tshombé’s war against the UN; it supported the UN mission in Congo; and it supported the Congolese air force, the air arm of the Leopoldville government.”
Contradictory as these efforts may seem, they all, Williams writes, “contributed to the goal of keeping the entire Congo under American influence and protecting the Shinkolobwe mine from any Soviet incursion.”
Even if these contradictory plans shared a common goal, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether we should regard them as colonialism-neo or not-or rather as the schizophrenic response of an agency drunk on power.
In “White Malice,” the CIA’s ability to commit assassinations and sow discord is on full display. However, its ability to govern is less so.