Abby Martin speaks to Eugene Puryear to discuss the big picture of US imperialism in Africa: From the Berlin Conference to the subversion of liberation movements to neocolonial puppets and the current sprawl of AFRICOM “counterterrorism.”
Here at the Empire Files, we’re going to be covering a lot of stories about the U.S. empire in Africa over the next few months, but before we get into these focused episodes on specific countries, I wanted to get the big picture that explains the legacy and current U.S. policy on the continent. To do that, I’m pleased to be speaking with Eugene Puryear, and author and journalist who covers the politics of Africa frequently on his daily podcast called The Punch Out, which I encourage everyone to check out, as well as video reporting on a great new network called Breakthrough News. He joins me now from New York. Thank you so much for joining me, Eugene.
Thank you so much for having me. Have you.
So, Eugene, today we have AFRICOM and a growing number of U.S. bases and troops across the African continent, but if you look at where those bases are, it’s pretty much a stripe from coast to coast across Central Africa. Why is that?
I think that’s such an important question and it’s a very relevant point to the geography of Africa. So across the middle, most people have heard of the Sahara Desert. So just below the Sahara Desert, there’s something called the Sahelian region, and that pretty much is exactly that length of base as you were talking about, cutting across the north-central, the northern middle part of the continent, and the Sahelian region is just between the Sahara and then further down closer to the coast, large forest regions and so on and so forth.
To put it a little bit more in context, there are a few things people should understand about this region and why the U.S. bases are there. Now, the first reason that those bases are there is that this is the front line of the defense, if you will.
These neocolonial countries, primarily in West Africa, but also in other parts of the continent, that are enforcing the writ and the rule of Western multinationals that are partnered up with them to remove a number of critical resources, many of them are in the Sahelian region entirely. Countries like Niger. Some of them to a lesser extent. Countries like Nigeria, where it’s just the northern part of the country, but since most of these borders are colonial borders and they’re totally fake, most of the problems are cross-border issues that affect all the different countries to lesser and greater degrees. So the conflicts in the Sahel have the opportunity to do two main things that the United States is very concerned about and hence why they have such a military presence.
Now, the first thing is an attempt to strengthen the security strategy of West African states, but what you have is a situation where the governments that are in place in these countries, what they want to do is extract as many resources they can from the country. The elites are in this government and those who are backing them keep as much of that wealth for themselves, the wealth that they don’t send off to Europe and to the United States and other countries around the world and not let any of that trickle down. So almost all of them have states that have strong Western-backed, Western-armed, Western-trained militaries that enforce the writ of these elites in places like northern Nigeria, the whole country of Niger, the northern part of Mali, and they want to do whatever they can to make sure that the movements and the conflicts inside the northern parts of those countries don’t destabilize those countries and destabilize the ability to remove resources out these various Sahelian countries. So that’s one is they want to make sure that the existing neocolonial setup is not destabilized by these conflicts.
One final piece, I think it’s very important about all of this is that climate change is a major factor that is pushing all of these things because the Sahara is moving further and further south every single year due to desertification, and that’s due to climate change, and that means that many of the conflicts that have naturally existed for hundreds and hundreds of years in these regions, for instance, people who plant crops and people who are also tending cattle they will compete for land, they will compete for water. So as there is less water and less land, you can see just in and of itself, those struggles become more intense, and so climate change overlays all of this. Then you add on top of that what I previously mentioned, that there’s no development in any of these places.
So there’s not a lot of opportunities for people to succeed. There’s no infrastructure. There’s not even real economic intercourse, as it were, and then finally, you’ve got this vacuum of power created by the lack of real development, these unbelievably kleptocratic elites, the conflicts around climate change and the various conflicts that exist around the borders and different ethnic groups, all creating a space where certain individuals then feel that they could make a sort of state-based project, if you will, inside of parts of West Africa that certainly can address some of these issues.
Many of them are groups like the Islamic State, which has put a lot around Lake Chad into state-building and things like that. That’s how they try to attract people to their banner in addition to being extremely violent, and so you also have the factor sort of nested within this and nested within the so-called U.S. strategy, which is around counterterrorism, but it’s about so much more than, quote-unquote “terrorism” which is a loaded term, because, quite frankly, none of the groups that have arisen, whether it be Boko Haram, whether it be Islamic State, whether it be al-Qaida, have any independent existence outside of the broader contradictions of poverty, the colonial borders, the impact of climate change and the lack of development in these regions.
I definitely want to go into a lot of what you just said, but Eugene, for the sake of our viewers getting more context on kind of the origin of a lot of the things that you just discussed. Let’s go back to the 1885 Berlin Conference when Africa was first carved up by the world’s imperialist empires, the British, French, Italian, Spanish, and other empires all got a slice, but the United States was just a baby empire at the time, so it got none of Africa. What changed? What really began the era of the U.S. empire, staking its claim, planting its flag on the continent.
Such a crucial question, and one quick thing about the Berlin Conference, too, is if anything ever shows us the dangers of humanitarian intervention in history, we have our recent history, the Berlin Conference is definitely one. Most people actually have no idea. The Berlin Conference is actually called allegedly against slavery. Now, there’s a lot more that could be said about all of that in the context of the slave trade that was going on in Africa at the time, but it was being used as a pretext for these companies’ countries to carve up different parts of Africa and to say, well, we’re doing it for good humanitarian reasons.
So the U.S. becomes a major factor in all of these pieces, in a major way after World War Two. Certainly the U.S. was present in Africa before that. Obviously, the role of, say, Firestone, the tire company in Liberia and other places like that, very significant, and we shouldn’t whitewash that, but in terms of the overarching role of the United States, it’s really post-World War Two where the U.S. has as one of their, I don’t know if you can call it a goal, but at least one of the things that they were holding out as one of the most important things of the new century, of the post-war century, is that it was leading to and should lead to, in their view or what they were saying, the collapse of the colonial empires, the British, the French, the Portuguese, the Belgians, that this was just totally the Germans as well.
Completely and totally impossible to continue having a world where there were all these colonized peoples. World War Two, of course, had, among other things, been a big impetus for colonial nationalist movements to emerge against colonial powers.
People were allying with both sides, but the issue of national liberation was a huge factor, whether we’re talking about Vietnam, whether we’re talking about Indonesia, whether we’re talking about the Gold Coast that would become Ghana, whether we’re talking about Kenya, many of these different places, both in the context of the war itself, that allowed people to exploit the differences between major powers to build up nationalist movements, but also in terms of many people who went to fight who similar to World War One as well, after seeing such death and destruction, were unwilling to accept the continued colonization of their country.
So you have right after World War two, a big upsurge in colonial movements. Now, the United States was trying to take advantage of this because they wanted the British and the French Empire in particular, to collapse. What needed to happen is that the colonial empires need to go away and that there needed to be whoever was the strongest in terms of business or whatever should be able to use the free market to succeed. Now, of course, the U.S. was the strongest. Europe was completely destroyed. The U.S. had the most money, all the largest capitalist corporations.
So it wasn’t altruistic and it wasn’t really anti-colonial, but the collapse of the British and the French empires was the precondition for America to emerge as a global empire on the basis of neocolonialism. So in the late 50s especially, the U.S. becomes very interested in saying, well, we want to promote African liberation, and you see things like Vice President Richard Nixon is at the inauguration for Kwame Nkrumah in 1957 when Ghana becomes independent, but the real sort of big push for maybe the first wave of African independence is in the early 1960s, and the U.S. plays a key role in why we are looking at the map of Africa as it looks today.
So in the early 60s, you had many countries that were starting to become independent. You had Ghana in 1957 with a not full independence, but it would become fully independent in a couple of years. Then you have Guinea in 1960 that becomes totally independent from France, refuses to sign any sort of deals with France. The French colonizers did everything they could to hobble the government. They even ripped the phones out of the wall on their way out after they were kicked out by the Ghanaians. They come in. You have 1960 also Nnamdi Azikiwe the nationalist movement in Nigeria, some of the countries like Liberia were already independent, Morocco as well that was playing a role in this, and you start to have, 12 or so countries, Mali, who also becomes independent at this time, and so there’s a big ferment, particularly in West Africa, of many countries becoming independent. You have Algerians, of course, which had to fight for their independence but were able to gain their independence in 1962.
So you have a spirit of independence in the continent and a lot of these people were relatively radical, but many of them were not. So you have two groups that form in the early 1960s, of newly independent countries who were trying to figure out what this new independence means, how they should relate to other former colonies, how to push forward the struggle for decolonization, how African countries relate to one another, they’re trying to figure this out. So you have the Casablanca group. Now, the Casablanca group is the radical group is the way to think about it. That has Kwame Nkrumah in it.
Sekou Toure from Guinea. The Algerians, of course, a radical country, just emerged from armed struggle, Morocco, the king of Morocco at that time. That’s why it’s called the Casablanca group and Mali, as well as a piece of that and Egypt. Mr. Nasser was also involved in the Casablanca group, and they were saying, there’s only really one way for Africa to overcome the legacy of slavery, the legacy of colonialism, which has underdeveloped the continent and held us back for so long, and that’s to recognize that the colonial borders are essentially fake and that they had nothing to do with Africans and that the easiest way for Africa to grow stronger is for it to grow closer together instead of having all of these different separate countries, even if they sort of become independent in that way, they should be looking to get closer and closer, unify their economies, unify their societies and try to use all of the different strengths of all the different African countries united to lift up the continent.
Now since a huge amount of resources for the Western economy come from Africa, obviously, the leverage of Africa on the world stage would be huge. Obviously, the amount of resources in terms of actual wealth they would be bringing in would be significant. So this form of Pan African unity, which is being heavily pushed, especially by Kwame Nkrumah, who for years had been a part of the broader Pan African movement that was the centerpiece of the anti-colonial movement prior to World War Two, and they had been pushing a similar type of peace, but the U.S. and Europe, but especially the U.S. does not like this was very concerned about this.
So the United States and France and the United and the United Kingdom, we’re working closely with the more conservative leaders and something that became known as the Monrovia Group. This involves Liberia, this involves Senegal. This involved Cote d’Ivoire and some of the other countries, and they were basically pushing a different peace. Now, of course, the U.S. wants them to push something because they want to get one over on Britain and France, don’t forget that, who are already lagging. So they’re like, yes, we’re for independence, go for independence, do that, but we don’t want it to be too radical, and we certainly don’t want these countries to have any relationship with the Soviet Union, which many of the countries in the Casablanca group did have incipient relations with Soviet Union.
So the Monrovia group starts to push a very different reality, and that reality is, well, we actually shouldn’t really unite. We should have good relations. We should talk to one another. We should come together, but we should have independent states on the basis of colonial borders. We shouldn’t be pushing Pan Africanism and we shouldn’t be going out of our way to make any big changes in the state of affairs in sort of North versus South relations, if you will, the relationships between Africa and imperialism.
So ultimately, the two groups were able to come to enough of an agreement in 1963 that they created the Organization for African Unity and that laid the basis for national states emerging more or less within the boundaries of the colonial countries, and that was a key factor, and that intervention by the United States was a key factor, because that meant that the most radical forces on the continent, who were probably the majority of the countries that were becoming independent, certainly the most powerful ones, certainly the most prominent ones on the world stage, preventing those radical forces on the continent from uniting and trying to do something big, which is to create an independent African counterweight to imperialism and to reverse the trends of colonialism and of the impact of slavery, and the thing I’ll also add about that is this is the context for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba as well.
Now, he, of course, becomes the prime minister of the Congo in 1960 in the process of decolonization there, but because of his similar views as some of those who were in the Casablanca group, it becomes very controversial inside of the Congo. You’ve got a number of these leaders that are very tied to the mining companies, to the Belgian imperialists who had colonized the country to the United States and others, and they did not want Lumumba because he was talking about using the wealth for the people, having just a people versus profit-centered sort of future moving out of colonialism. So the country starts to break apart, and then you’ve got all these machinations behind the scenes. The U.S., it turns out, was actually trying to find ways to assassinate Lumumba, but they actually didn’t get there first. The Belgians seem to have gotten there first and in concert with someone named Joseph Mobutu, who became the dictator of the country, they tracked down Lumumba.
They captured him and then they executed him and then, of course, instituted a regime that was maybe one of the most brutal, kleptocratic resource extraction regimes in the history of the 20th century and led us to where we are right now in the DRC, which is a terrible, terrible, tragic conflict. So the role of the U.S. is late 50s, early 60s, and it’s a major role because they were trying to shape the impact of the emerging colonial African states to make sure that they were not truly a counterweight to the imperialist agenda and the neocolonialist agenda, which meant that even though the colonies were gone, the basic role that these countries played in the world economy would remain the same, and that is essentially resource extraction hubs.
It’s incredibly tragic to imagine the Africa that could have been without the constant subversion and intervention of the U.S. empire at that time, Eugene, it’s pretty sad actually, as you’re talking about this, and of course, Patrice Lumumba was buried in an unmarked grave to prevent this national hero from becoming a martyr.
The story is just absolute tragedy through and through. We’re talking about a multipolar world at this time. You mentioned the Soviet Union, of course, its allies like Cuba, helping Angola, helping a lot of these countries while the U.S. was actively working to destroy them. So let’s talk about how the fall of the Soviet Union accelerated U.S. expansion and then, of course, subsequently 9/11.
The fall of the Soviet Union had a tremendous impact on Africa. You had in the post-colonial period, despite the assassinations of the imperialists when you start to get into the mid 70s, maybe even the bulk of countries, the majority Africa that were either becoming independent or already independent and including many of the richest countries were saying that they were socialist countries of various types, varying different sort of interpretations of socialism, but whether we’re talking about Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea itself, these are all countries that, Somalia for a time later, Ethiopia, many of the countries that are emerging are saying we’re socialist countries, we’re Marxist countries, we want to move towards a socialist distribution of goods.
Now, they had a big contradiction, of course, which was the Soviet Union, which as powerful as it was in many ways wasn’t a great economic partner for them in the same sense, like the same trade, sort of one to one trade was not there. So many of these countries still had to trade with the West. It was difficult to sort of break out of that regime, but what the Soviet Union provided for them was a counterweight.
It created a situation where they could get money, they could get support, they could get arms, and so on and so forth. That allowed them to create the basics of a modern nation, a modern country, and not just completely go down, and so it also created a space where the Western countries, they themselves really had no choice but to try to find some way to deal with these countries because they needed the oil, they needed the gold, they needed the uranium.
Some of them, they sponsored coups, and almost all of them, they sponsored separatist movements, but because of the existence of the Soviet Union, that could only go but so far, which meant that in many cases they just had to deal with them and they had no choice but to strike a deal wherever they could, but since there was a counterweight that was in existence, people who they could work with and that it was certainly going to be more difficult to overthrow them, it meant that you might be able to leverage a much better deal than you would have if there is just no other choice than to deal with the U.S. and to deal with France, and if you didn’t deal with them, they would completely destroy you and there was no one who would back you up.
So it created a situation whereby the exploitation of the African continent was not one hundred percent possible, but certainly possible. It was definitely happening, but it was not to the full extent that these Western multinationals would have liked to seen, and they were certainly very hostile to pretty much all of these governments, regardless of the fact that even the most radical governments in Africa we’re trying to have relations with the West and saying, hey, we don’t agree on governments, we don’t agree on ideologies, but we can still have relations, but that was something that they were very want to not do.
I would say the other big impact of this was the impact that it had on South Africa, the liberation movement in South Africa, the ANC, was heavily led by communists, by socialists. Even the people who were not members of the Communist Party were very influenced by left-wing ideologies of various types, and the general thrust of the Freedom Charter was obviously sort of at the very least, kind of strongly social-democratic, if not sort of socialist society that they were projecting out for South Africa, which is, of course, the wealthiest country inside of Africa.
This is a huge issue because the United States and this played a big role, by the way, and why there was a negotiated solution for the liberation of Zimbabwe and Namibia is that the United States especially was very afraid of a non-negotiated solution in South Africa, because the most likely scenario would be the ANC would take over. They are, in fact, many of them socialists and communists, that they would immediately ally with Zambia, Angola, Namibia, and Mozambique, which themselves were all socialist and communist, and that they would create basically another Soviet Union in southern Africa.
So the entire attempt of the United States to destroy the Soviet Union for 50 or 60 years would essentially be wiped out because even if you got rid of the Soviet Union, you’d now have this massive Southern African socialist-communist bloc with a huge influence over many of the most important resources for the entire world gold, platinum, silver. I mean, just so many different things. That would obviously be a problem for the West. So the collapse of the Soviet Union was in many ways catastrophic because it eliminated the counterweight that could exist, and you see countries like Mozambique and others that had been socialist countries, become quote-unquote, multiparty democracies overnight, and the real reason is because they were getting significant pressure and we know this now because of information that has been released by former members of the ANC about what they were being told in the west towards the end of apartheid and after the unbanning of the ANC, which is we will destroy you if you try to do anything socialistic.
But we do know that all these countries were under significant pressure to conform to a Western view of liberal democracy and to drop anything that seemed like socialism and to open up the markets and everything else for total exploitation by multinationals. There’s a lot of critics, certainly many criticisms that can be made of FRELIMO of the MPLA and others in Angola about how they’ve handled the post-Soviet period. There certainly critiques that can be made, but the one thing that we know for sure is they didn’t have that much of a choice.
I mean, essentially you were in a situation where you either got along with the people who had the money and could do trade or your country could be totally isolated. It could completely collapse, and now these movements that existed, that had been created like RENAMO, like UNITA, that were these separatist movements that were allied with imperialism, designed to take down countries like Mozambique and Angola. In the case of Mozambique, I mean, just brutal destruction of everything progressive and positive in the countryside by RENAMO, so-called Liberation Organization, really just an imperialist front group.
Now, those organizations become even more of a bigger problem for you because how are you going to fight them? Because before OK, they’re being funded by the CIA, they’re being funded by the U.S, but you’ve got the Soviet Union, you’ve got East Germany. You could manage it. So now you’re in a situation where you don’t want the U.S. to fund these rebel groups that have already crippled the country’s economy in many of these cases and now will have even more power.
So you got to deal with their biggest backer, which is the West, to neutralize it. So you have a lot of pressures that are on these countries, and I think the way you framed it, Abby, is very correct. The Africa that could have been because the choices of what Africa could be like were taken away. I mentioned a country like Mozambique. You think about one of the things that’s notable about Mozambique is that it was in the forefront of pushing the issues of women’s liberation.
Now, you hear all the time about women in Africa, how it’s very difficult for them, which it is, under many very conservative governments and movements and things like that that are pursuing all sorts of very problematic, harmful practices towards women. No doubt that that’s happening, but then you think about could there have been a totally different history when you have movements like FRELIMO, like the ANC and others that were heavily pushing issues around women’s empowerment, women coming into leadership, building out the sort of culture of these countries based on recognizing the historical role women had played going back thousands of years in the village economy.
I mean, you can see a just totally different piece. At the end of the day, the Africa that could have been. How socialistic would it have been? I don’t know if I could say it would have been some socialist-communist paradise, but I think we could certainly say it would be much wealthier, that there would be significantly less poverty, that the public health infrastructure would be vastly superior in the vast majority of countries, that the rights of women would be significantly pushed forward and that ultimately the resources of these countries would be exploited much less than they are now.
Right, and then, of course, we saw 9/11, which paved a new pretense for the U.S. to expand its footprint across the continent, and I think a lot of people don’t understand that AFRICOM is pretty new. I mean, AFRICOM was created in 2006 in the wake of 9/11, of course, and I think Obama oversaw that expansion. I don’t think people associate his legacy with that. So talk quickly about that and how 9/11 has played a role in the management of Islamic extremism on the continent.
I mean, it’s been huge. I think we know under Obama and moving into the Trump administration from the reporting of Nick Turse that for at least some period, we don’t know exactly when during that late Obama-early Trump period that AFRICOM was sort of the plurality of the Special Forces operations that were going on for the United States all around the world and one of the largest drone strikes, but I think the Special Forces piece is interesting.
The fact that maybe more than any one other individual area of the world, there was more U.S. Special Forces activity happening in Africa, and I think it speaks very heavily to the role of the Obama administration, which, of course, also presided over the destruction of Libya, which had a huge impact on the situation that exists there now. So I think there’s a couple of pieces to it. First and foremost, large swaths of Africa are Muslim people and Islam is a huge religion in Africa.
Many people don’t know that for some reason, but certainly it’s one of the dominant religions in many African countries. So in the context of all of these other challenges that are coming to the forefront that I mentioned earlier in our conversation around poverty, around the lack of development and state-building, obviously the things that come along with that unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, lack of health care, I mean, it creates the space by which, especially in conjunction with ethnic conflicts, many of which don’t conform to the actual sort of borders of countries.
It creates the situation where people are going to rise up and they’re going to create armed groups to fight for what they perceive to be their own interest, and unsurprisingly, many of them are taking up ideologies that are connected to their sort of social and cultural experience and that seem to have some resonance around the world in terms of their ability to construct an alternate reality to the one that they’ve been given, which they view is significant, but, of course, for the U.S., this is deeply problematic because radical Islam had become the enemy.
Now, of course, we know that in the 1980s that radical Islam or what’s called radical Islam – I mean people are saying that they’re motivated by Islam, but you can say anything, but putting that aside briefly – had become the enemy, that they weaponized it in the 80s against the Soviet Union, but then in the 1990s, in the 2000s, it becomes a vessel for many of the deeply felt anger that was coming from many of these countries. Obviously, the reason for it is the West. The West is responsible quite frankly, at the end of the day for the state of affairs in most of these places.
So the idea of these forms of government arising in the sort of geo-strategically important region. They’re not anti-capitalist, but they certainly are hostile to the West. Could you tame them? Who knows, but I don’t think they want to take that chance. You can look at Somalia with the Islamic Courts Union in 2005. Now, Somalia between 1991 and 2005 has no government. The country is completely collapsed, total failed state. For the first time since 1991 one the country is united around this group called the Islamic Courts Union and there are all sorts of people in there now. They’re all Muslims.
Some of them are to be fair, have had ideologies similar to al-Qaida. Some of them did not. It was just we’re coming together to reunite our country under the basis of this Islamic law. So, of course, I’m sure there are many things we could say about that maybe you and I wouldn’t agree with in terms of how they run things, but nevertheless, you can see how having no government since 1991. This is a big thing for Somalia, but the U.S. feels this is very dangerous.
Somalia is right there in the Horn of Africa, right where you’ve got to come into the Suez Canal. That’s where the vast majority of world commerce is still flowing through from the point of view of ships, and so at the end of the day, to have like a wild card, not necessarily one that is against you, but one that could be potentially somehow a threat was not acceptable. I think we see the same thing in the Sahelian region as well, in Nigeria, Mali, Niger.
I mean, all these places, anything you could say about Boko Haram, for instance, in Nigeria, you could say about the Nigerian government that they murder civilians, that it’s indiscriminate, that they’re often corrupt and involved in criminal activity. It’s two sides of the same coin in many different ways, but the United States will create this space and say, well, the bad ones are the ones that have the black flags, but the good ones are the ones that are basically allied with us.
I think for a lot of people on the ground, it sort of seems like, well, what’s the difference in terms of what’s actually happening day to day and you look at a country like Mali, for instance, this is one of the biggest issues, the huge protests in Mali that overthrew the government towards the end of last year, where basically around the fact that in the context of this war going on in the north, the military was often just as brutal as any of the forces that they were fighting against.
They were creating massive human rights abuses and they weren’t solving any of the problems that existed for the people in the north or now in the central part of the country that are economic and social in character, and so people were upset, they uprose, and they took the government down. Now, what will change there? We’ll just have to see, but I think the important thing to recognize is that the impact of 9/11 was just to give the United States a new sort of umbrella reason by which they could insert these military forces all across Africa for geopolitical reasons, not for any real counterterrorism reason, but because people are claiming allegiance to al-Qaida and claiming allegiance to the Islamic State now in this day and forth or forming their own groups that are similar to them, gave them a pretext to say, well, we’re going to fight Islamic extremism, but in reality, that’s not what they were going to do.
It’s certainly not what they’re accomplishing, and there’s all these sort of deeper reasons behind it, but just like Afghanistan, going after the Taliban was the broader excuse for going into a strategically important region. Just like the United States allying with any particular country is allegedly for something protecting democracy and freedom versus something else. It’s the same thing that we have.
We have the same situation here in Africa post 9/11, which is that terrorism, quote-unquote, is used as a pretext, a twofold pretext, one, to use these military forces, but in a way, if we take one step back more than just the intervention piece, it’s also a way to legitimize these neocolonial governments that lack legitimacy many times with their own countries and certainly in the eyes of any real observer, lack a lot of legitimacy in terms of what they’re really doing, but now they have this new sort of souped-up role that I think is very similar to what the U.S. did in the 80s in Latin America, where they backed all these terrible governments that all they wanted to do was take as much wealth as they could that wasn’t sent off to Washington and Brussels and oppress the people.
Same thing here, but since they had anti-communism then, they now in Africa have anti-terrorism, and it’s a very convenient excuse for them to not only control the countries directly, but sort of indirectly give a new backing to these neocolonial governments that many of which have been under quite a bit of fire over the past decade or so.
Right, exactly, and now that we’re looking at 20 years beyond 9/11, it’s become even more opaque and so wide-reaching Biden as President now he has released a statement about the entire continent. I mean, as you’re talking about, Africa is a huge continent, dozens of countries very culturally, ethnically diverse. Yet Biden’s whole Africa policy is wrapped up into just one tiny paragraph of policy. Now, bear with me while I just read this quote.
“We will also continue to build partnerships in Africa, investing in civil society and strengthening long-standing political, economic and cultural connections. We will partner with dynamic and fast-growing African economies, even as we provide assistance to countries suffering from poor governance, economic distress, health, and food insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic. We will work to bring an end to the continent’s deadliest conflicts and prevent the onset of new ones, while strengthening our commitment to development, health security, environmental sustainability, democratic progress, and the rule of law. We will help African nations combat the threats posed by climate change and violent extremism, and support their economic and political independence in the face of undue foreign influence.
So, Eugene, there’s a lot going on here, but it kind of wraps up with not only Islamic extremism, but also climate change hanging in the balance and also foreign influence. What’s your interpretation of the statement?
It’s so boilerplate. It just first and foremost to me shows that Africa policy is, it’s not exactly an afterthought, but it’s certainly not something that any U.S. government agency feels the need to have any real, like, deep analysis of. You just throw out a bunch of platitudes like they did about what they’re going to do, and then you do whatever you want to do, but you don’t expect anyone to ever look or to care or to even think it.
They’ll just read the statement and say, oh, yeah, looks good for Biden over there. I mean, there’s so many different pieces of that. I mean that they’re going to make partnerships and they’re going do this they’re going to do that. I mean, with who? And for what? I mean, certainly Biden in his senatorial career, I don’t know if he was ever super well known he was something of a critic of South African apartheid, but I’ve never known him to have any major Africa agenda.
Remember, he said he was arrested for protesting apartheid. Forget that one.
Really unbelievable at so many levels. I mean, wow. Yeah. So, yeah, I mean, I think there’s a couple of pieces to it. I mean, U.S. partnerships with Africa, and I think the important part of it in talking about strengthening partnerships of all types are one thousand percent only based on resource extraction and or low wage labor. I mean, there’s something called AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is sort of the main, quote-unquote, free trade agreement between the U.S. and Africa, and basically what AGOA ends up doing is companies come from Taiwan and many have some similar type places.
They set up these sweatshops and then they label it made in wherever in Malawi, and then they ship it to the United States and there’s no duties and no tariffs. So AGOA has proven one hundred percent to not do anything at all as it concerns the issue of actually improving African livelihoods. Certainly the issue of what we’ve seen from U.S. and UK companies and companies, countries like Nigeria, where they have just spoiled the entire Niger River Delta region, especially Exxon and Shell, with the massive oil spills and the other problems and the things that they have created there, and ultimately, Biden is not speaking to any of these issues in a way that would in any way, shape or form indicate that he is looking for some form of change, and I think when you look at the context of the nature of the statement, which is sort of we’re just going to kind of go with the momentum of what we’ve been doing, that’s when you start to see all the different pieces.
I mean, certainly, you look at Rwanda, which has played not the key role, but maybe one of the key roles in the destabilization of the eastern DRC in a war that’s killed over four million people. Well, that’s one of the U.S.’s best friends in Africa. So what’s going to happen there? The same thing with al-Sisi in Egypt, the same thing with Museveni in Uganda, the same thing with many, many people that we could go down the list.
At the same time, you’ve seen the combination of AFRICOM and the European Command, which is designed to be able to move more of the U.S. soldiers that are based in Germany into Africa on short-term bases. So you can actually see that the sort of goal of this is to make it look like there’s maybe less of a presence from the U.S. in Africa, at least from a military perspective, because there’s no AFRICOM, but it actually is designed to put more military power at the disposal of U.S. commanders now based in Stuttgart to force project into the African continent, but we do see the United States having very close relations with usually the worst leaders, and that isn’t changing at all.
Just look at the situation in Uganda, where obviously the election was not free and fair, quote, unquote, as they say in the West, but as far as I know, unless something’s happening that I’ve never heard of, the U.S. is sticking with Museveni, and you can see again and again that no matter what they say, no matter how many different little things that they put out, that the U.S.’s only real goal in Africa is to find leaders that at the end of the day won’t change the economic status quo.
It’s almost cartoonish when you look at this constant that you’re talking about, which is who does the U.S. support and who do they not support? And that’s the countries that we constantly hear about, mean democracy and, of course, U.S. intervention, but this is a good point that you’re talking about, about the U.S. military presence in Africa and France, for that matter, because you can look at something like Operation Burkin, where the U.S. is just assisting this other French operation in the region in the northwest, but peripherally, I feel like people know that the U.S. has a presence in Africa, but I still think many are shocked when they hear certain stories like from the last couple of years, like troops killed in Kenya.
It’s like, wait a minute, we have U.S. military presence in Kenya or in Somalia. Of course, Trump increasing drone strikes like 300 percent, doubling civilian casualties in Somalia, but then you hear about a CIA agent killed on the ground. And it’s like, wait a minute, what the hell is going on here? So what kind of presence are we really talking about in these regions?
I think it’s much more significant than people realize, and I think it’s much more significant than we know. I mean, there’s still a lot of things that are sort of clouded in secrecy about what the U.S. is doing. I mean, certainly that death in Kenya, I think a lot of people are like what is going on here? But of course, Kenya has now become ground zero because so much of the conflict in Somalia has now spilled over into northern Kenya.
The government of Kenya, of course, very close to the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and they have waged a sort of typical quote-unquote, counterterrorism strategy, which is just basically kill as many people as you can and hope that it does something. They actually have a special unit, a special kill squad that is at least partially trained by the United States, certainly the exact details are unclear, but they’re coming into focus now.
It seems that MI6 is responsible for the information that they’re getting and some of that information is coming from the CIA through MI6, but they have training in the United States. They’ve got MI6 giving them information, and what we know now is it seems that they’re SAS and MI6 forces and maybe CIA forces, it seems, on the ground in Kenya directing some of this stuff in a very direct way. It’s not a separate piece, and so the United States and the United Kingdom are involved in this very significant counterterrorism, quote-unquote, struggle, which has become extremely brutal in many of the worst slums inside of Kenya that are known to have Somalis known to have Muslims in them.
One of them is known as Little Mogadishu in the capital of Nairobi, and they launch these raids. They just kill people. There are many stories how they’re not even the people that they’re supposed to be. I mean, it’s like worst-case scenario in many ways. If you think about the Briona Taylor situation here in the United States, it’s kind of like that’s what these Kenyan police are doing, just randomly kicking down doors, raiding people, and killing people based on false information, but it’s coming from MI6, coming from the CIA.
You’ve got Somalia, where the CIA seems to have a very large presence and seems to have a very significant prison. There’s something going on there with interrogations. They’ve moved more U.S. troops out of Somalia. Interestingly enough, Turkey is now putting in a lot of troops, but they also have maintained a maybe even heavier intelligence apparatus. You’ve got drones. You’ve got a drone base in Niger right now that has been sort of secretly expanded over the past couple of years.
No one is copping to it. The military is saying we didn’t do it. The CIA, which technically operates it, is saying, well, we got no comment, but the satellite photos of this base that allegedly is just supposed to be surveillance drones have shown MQ 9 Reapers on the tarmac there. So are there perhaps some form of secret drone strikes? You have that sort of situation going on, and then the other thing that’s important to remember about the whole piece, and there’s many others, the U.S. base in Djibouti that’s there, but there’s also the fact that there don’t have to be a U.S. base there to be U.S. forces. So there’s also the embeddedness of U.S. forces with some of these entities as quote-unquote, trainers. So they’ll be in the country, they’ll be based in the country, they’ll be doing things in the country, but there may not be like a U.S. base in said country.
So I think the footprint in some ways can be a little misleading because since the footprint is not insignificant, I mean, there are bases in Niger, those bases in Djibouti, those bases in Somalia, I believe there is, well, there’s a French base in Mali, which I believe the U.S. also operates out of that. So it’s not insignificant at all, and at one point, there were bases in Libya and different places. I think most of those have been withdrawn, but at one point they were special forces units there, but nevertheless, I think that can almost be a little bit misleading because of the fact that a lot of times it’s just the nature of either the embeddedness or these limited or relatively limited deployments that take place where they’re not sort of permanently basing, and it creates the perception that there’s less going on, but I think what’s important to recognize is that now pretty much all the U.S. troops in Central Europe, so in Italy and Germany, which is a lot of U.S. troops, that’s one of the main areas where U.S. troops are, now basically also available for service on the African continent.
So we’ve actually drastically increase the number of troops. That are tens of thousands of troops, some of America’s best units and most advanced weaponry because it’s there to quote-unquote counter Russia are now actually able to, designed and thinking and planning, to force project into Africa.
Right, or if it’s not direct U.S. military personnel, it’s the training, arming and of course, direct support of these governments that we’re talking about that are just brutally repressing their populations, and right now, Eugene, there are significant mass protests happening across the continent against these governments. I mean, obviously, we can’t talk about all of them, but is there a common thread going along with what we’re seeing right now?
Yes, that’s a great question. There is a common thread in the common thread in many ways is youth. What a lot of people don’t understand is Africa is the youngest continent on earth. The exact stat is eluding me, but it got the most people between seventeen and twenty-five. Most of the countries are very, very young. So there’s a big youth boom, and there are so many young people in the African continent who are just fed up.
They have seen this long postcolonial history. They’ve seen how colonialism turned into neocolonialism. They see how the countries have been divided, how the people have been manipulated, how every charlatan of every type has come into the African continent to peddle their wares, and people want to see a change. They want to see something different because they can look around and see that there are people in other parts of the world that are not living that way. So I think we’ve seen sort of a multi-track process, but whether we’re talking about Uganda, whether we’re talking about Senegal, whether we’re talking about Burkina Faso, whether we’re talking about DRC, whether we’re talking about South Africa, Zimbabwe, I mean, I’m listing now almost every country. We could also talk about Egypt, Tunisia. Certainly, we can talk as well about Senegal and others. We’re seeing a similar dynamic, and Nigeria, of course, the End SARS movement we saw last year, is people will say this is enough, enough is enough and things have to change, and these huge protests are emerging.
Now in some countries, Burkina Faso, Mali, which I already mentioned, and others there, the protests are powerful enough to dislodge a current leader, but what we haven’t seen as much of are real strong, clear political movements that are more than just rebellions. There’s a strong spirit of youthful rebellion all across all across Africa, but a more revolutionary, and in that sense, are looking to sort of seize power and implement an agenda of some sort, a social-economic agenda that could turn things around.
There’s less of that, and we’ve also seen, along with the rise of people who are looking to manipulate these youth movements and saying, yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re going to lead it, we’re going to come in, we’re going to change things, and they often do not. So oftentimes it’s very bittersweet when we see these protests that are happening in Africa, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of people on the street. People being shot, people being arrested.
I mean, great, powerful struggles. Sudan, of course, which is recent that I think inspired people around the world. They often don’t end up leading to as much right away because they are just, I don’t want to even call them spontaneous because some of them have been germinating for a while, but they’re rebellions of anger against the just unbelievable conditions, and now what we’re starting to see, I think, is a bit more of a shift from rebellions to more established political agendas.
You look at mass protests that have happened in Burkina Faso over the past few years where there’s a youth movement now that is arising, talking more about Thomas Sankara and his legacy inside of Burkina Faso as a radical, revolutionary, egalitarian, pro-women’s liberation leader. In other parts of the continent that’s also happening, by the way, the Sankara image and people calling themselves Sankara-ists is spreading more and more, and so we’re starting to see that.
We’re seeing in South Africa, for instance, the emergence and growth of groups like what’s called the shack dwellers movement and other radical unions and others that are pushing forward, and we’re seeing maybe less radical, but certainly more political protest in countries like Uganda and like Zimbabwe, where I personally have a lot of questions, whether someone like a Bobby Wine or a Nelson Chamisa is going to make serious changes in the nature of the country, but nevertheless, they’re leading powerful political movements that have brought millions of people behind it and that captured the zeitgeist of the feeling of like enough is enough our generation, our future this century, Africa has to be different, and I think that is what we’re seeing in Africa, and I think it’s hopeful.
Even though many of them have been not 100 percent what one might would have wanted, like what we saw in Sudan, where many of the popular forces are now being sidelined by elements within the elites that want to ally with the United States and Israel for their own specific reasons. It was still so powerful to see what happened. There’s still such a huge, powerful movement there.
Political organizations and political parties have grown and have gained in consciousness and experiences and so on and so forth. So we’re starting to see a shift. We saw, I think, maybe a decade because this really started in the 2010s of mass anger rebellions happening across the African continent, made up of young people who want a future, and now I think we’re starting to see that more, if a little bit even more, and not just in the broad rebellions, but movements that are becoming more political and seeking power, and I think that in and of itself is is very hopeful for the African continent.
Now, it’s certainly very dangerous for the West, especially because with the rise of China anybody who comes into power in Africa now, again, not the same as the Soviet Union, because China isn’t as political in the sense of backing people because of their ideology, but in terms of economics, China can do more for these countries than the Soviet Union ever could. Certainly ever could by a long shot, and so now if you come in and you say, hey, I want to redistribute the wealth, I want to have equality out here, I want to build up our infrastructure, and you want to cut a deal around how to get the most money of the gold mines, you can now play the U.S. off against China and you can say, well, who’s got the best deal? And you can get the most money and then redistribute that to the people.
So it creates new possibilities that I think in the context of what we’re seeing. I think this is partially why the United States and France have become so. I mean, France actually calls their strategy in Africa military for a strategy. That they’ve become much more concerned about strengthening the repressive apparatus of these states, because I think they know that the trend right now is towards popular uprisings and that given that the popular uprisings are related to the policies of these neocolonial governments, things could end up changing very significantly in terms of the relationship of forces between Africa and Europe and Africa and the United States.
You mentioned Uganda earlier. This is something that I didn’t know happened, a massacre of unarmed protesters, and these things happen so often, right, Eugene? These horrendous human rights atrocities that we simply do not hear about, because it seems like stories that happen in Africa garner no more than a blip on corporate media, and that’s when an American dies or something. Right. It’s hard to find even coverage in alternative media, I guess. What do you think is preventing accurate and consistent coverage of the continent?
I’d say it’s a couple of things. I would say, first and foremost, just the unbelievable multi hundreds year history of anti-black racism in the United States and around the world, certainly in Europe, has a big impact because I think African descended people have been so othered and so demonized that there is a lack of interest in Africa as a continent. It’s seen as a place and taught as a place that has never contributed much to anything that has existed for a long time, sure, but where people are mainly just savages until they were civilized by colonialism and now all the countries have fallen apart and so on and so forth.
I mean, even now in the 21st century, that’s a lot of what people learn in the West. It may sound a little bit nicer, but there’s certainly, someone should tell me if there’s some sort of school system anywhere in this country that teaches anything about the great long history and heritage of African empires and scientific achievements and so on and so forth, and I think when you just take that right off the bat, that plays a big role. People just aren’t that interested in it. They don’t know what’s going on, and they just assume, well, it seems like it’s all terrible over there, and so if I hear something terrible, it’s terrible every day. So it doesn’t seem like news to people because it’s not like, oh, wow, this area which has all this history, I mean, you look at northern Nigeria, which is just reported as like Boko Haram and people getting kidnaped, which has had some of the richest history of the whole continent.
I mean, some of the most amazing things. Kano, which will often be mentioned around Boko Haram, was one of the greatest dye pits in the history of antiquity in terms of textile and clothing productions, and there’s so many different things that I could say. I mean, obviously, Mali, Timbuktu in the history of education and so on and so forth, but putting that in context, people not knowing that people having such a negative view of the African continent, the general impact of racism in the country, which I think lessens the interest in anything black.
Right. Like we never hear about the deep poverty in black counties in Alabama, where there’s open sewage running in places. People are shocked when they hear it. That I think that is affecting it. I also think secondarily, there is such a powerful sort of cultural layer that exist that is promoted by the elites of these many different these African countries that control, not control, but they come to the West, they become educated in the West, they speak the language is in the West, and then they become sort of the main spokespeople vis a vis the Western media and things like that, and I think that interpretation, that reality means that I don’t think that the sort of mass sentiment and the mass popular anger you see on the African continent is even translated into the sort of intellectual cultural sphere of the West, because the people who are commenting on Africa these days, by and large, often are part and parcel of the same entities that are causing these problems.
Oftentimes, they may be the people who want to have power, who are not in power, but that there’s a huge sort of layer of communicators on the African continent that I think act as sort of of a buffer layer for the Western media, and they operate through think tanks, through academia, through NGOs, and so on and so forth. They become sort of the voice of Africa, but I think they often echo a lot of the same criticisms and critiques like Africa is always very corrupt that something you always hear, and they’ll say, well, we’re going to get an African anti-poverty person to come on and talk about how corrupt it is in Nigeria on CNN, but you know America is corrupt.
We just call it lobbying and campaign donations, but the perception that somehow corruption is only an African thing is oftentimes reflected by many of those who claim to be African voices. I think that’s another big challenge we have, is that the authentic voices of people on the ground in Africa, because they are the salt of the earth, grassroots people often are not, I think, properly translated into the Western discourse and that there is a, not numerically significant but a culturally significant, layer of people who have a interest in being sort of interlocutors of what people think.
I think you see the same thing in the black community in America, quite frankly, where many people who speak for the black community are in fact not that representative of the black community, and that’s how you can have a situation whereby fewer people in Detroit, which is a black city, vote for Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, but somehow they’re saying that Detroit voters won the election for him. It’s because the people who are saying that want people to think that they are, in fact, leading the black community of Detroit. So, yeah, of course, it was us, of course, it wasn’t the suburbs, and I think you see a similar thing in Africa in terms of how it plays out.
So I think there’s sort of a similarity there and how sort of the neocolonial economic structure lives up its own kind of social and cultural middle class layer that can also help sort of deflect some of the criticisms of some of these places, but I think at the end of the day, it’s mainly based on the unbelievable racism towards African descended people and the unbelievable racism that’s directed toward the history of Africa, the African continent, which makes people feel that most African stories are not stories.
Right, and completely lacking the historical context that you just so perfectly laid out on all of this. Eugene Puryear thank you so much for your time, for your expertize The Punch Out, Breakthrough News, two incredible sources of media that I encourage everyone to follow. Thank you so much, Eugene, for coming on.
Hey, Abby, thank you so much for having me. The Empire Files. I love it. The best thing on TV.
Thanks so much, Eugene.