Imperial Blind Spots and US Interventions in Africa

Upon being informed of the death of four US Green Berets in Niger, Senator Lindsey Graham exclaimed: “I didn’t know there were 1000 troops in Niger.” Although the number was slightly inflated, Graham’s willful ignorance as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee is not only a sad commentary on the lack of oversight but also a reflection of the continual imperial blind spots that inform US interventions in Africa.

Coming from South Carolina, it is not surprising that Senator Graham’s perspective on Africa is rather blinkered. While South Carolina may have recently removed the Confederate flag flying atop its state Capitol building, a more radical reckoning with the state’s slave past remains elusive, especially to its white politicians, population, and tourist industry.  One can still take a tour of Charleston and its waterfront mansions without being informed that what made Charleston the richest city in North America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the slave trade.

As an offshoot of the British Empire, colonial Americans, both North and South, embraced the ravaging of Africa to fuel the economic expansion and empire-building on the North American continent – an expansion that would also result in genocidal policies against the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. In declaring its independence from the Great Britain, the United States of America incorporated a thoroughgoing institutional and political oppression and exploitation of people of African descent from the notorious 3/5 clause in the US Constitution to a wide variety of other compromises with the slave states of the South.

As a consequence of the Barbary wars of the early 19th century, the United States established naval and marine forces whose intervention from the “shores of Tripoli” became the hallowed harbingers of a later global empire.  While those interventions were more evident elsewhere, Africa would once again become a battlefield, albeit more covert, during the Cold War.  Especially in the former Belgian Congo, a site where millions perished from the brutal colonial predations around the harvesting of rubber, US imperial intercessions increased after Patrice Lumumba led the Congo to its independence.  As described by Barbara Kingsolver in her brilliant novel, The Poisonwood Bible, President Eisenhower and the National Security Council fomented plans for an assassination of Lumumba: “In their locked room, these men had put their heads together and proclaimed Patrice Lumumba a danger to the safety of the world…Imagine if he could have heard those words – dangerous to the safety of the world! – from a roomful of white men who held in their manicured hands the disposition of armies and atomic bombs, the power to extinguish every life of earth.”

In the aftermath of Lumumba’s assassination, the Congo would become the playground of the notorious dictator Mobutu from 1965-1997. Even in the face of large-scale human rights abuses and massive corruption, the US became his prime financial backer.  During the civil wars that followed in the Congo, the US was more interested in exploiting the resources of the country instead of its people.  According to Devyn Springer: “Arguably one of the world’s more mineral-rich countries with billion dollar mining contracts that benefit mostly US, Swedish, and Canadian-based countries and include the use of private militias and child slave labor for mining, the Congolese people have had their land and humanity trampled by Western forces for decades through capitalist exploitation and violence” (Truthout, 10/16/17).

Other US corporations, especially among pharmaceuticals, have been the beneficiaries of US governmental trade and patent-enforcement regulations.  Defending their trade prerogatives and profits, US pharmaceuticals played a pernicious role in suppressing the production and distribution of generic drugs in Africa for AIDS patients.

Another example of egregious imperial attitudes towards Africa can be seen in the 1991 memo written by Lawrence Summers during his time as chief economist at the World Bank. (Summers went on to become Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton and a chief economic advisor to President Obama.) The memo endorsed dumping of more hazardous waste material in Africa.  As part of that memo, Summers pontificated that “I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted.”

Of course, the irony embedded in such imperial arrogance is underscored when one compares the consumption habits of the US with those in various African nations.  It is estimated by some that the average inhabitant of the US uses 250 times the resources of the average Nigerian. The average US citizen will in a 75 year lifetime have generated fifty-two tons of garbage while utilizing close to 4000 barrels of oil.  The amounts of energy consumed by that average US resident would be equivalent to 531 Ethiopians.

It is not surprising that oil continues to be an African resource that requires special consideration when determining where US Special Forces will be stationed.  The Chad River Basin, spanning Niger, Chad, and parts of Nigeria and the Central African Republic, the latter two awash in oil, are the site for 1000 US Special Forces.  Ostensibly there to combat radical Jihadis, the rapid expansion of US military intervention has grown like topsy since the establishment of US Africa Command during the Obama years.

When NATO forces, especially French and US, combined to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, they unleashed not just a struggle over Libya’s oil but a plethora of previously controlled Islamic insurgencies that engulfed Mali and Niger.  Given Niger’s uranium resources, considered to be the 4th largest in the world, French and US intervention is as much about propping up its favored government, irrespective of internal repression by that same government.

Considering the dire political and climate circumstances facing Africans in the Sahel, the US military obsession with the “war of terror” further obfuscates the reasons for the ongoing instability in the region. Instead, expanding military operations from drone warfare to special forces intervening in scores of African nations is just a tragic reminder of how US imperial blind spots especially imperils people of color there and, indeed, everywhere.

Fran Shor is a Michigan-based retired teacher, author, and political activist.