Susan Williams, White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa

IssueJune - July 2024
Review by Ian Sinclair

At over 650 pages, White Malice may look daunting but is actually written in such an engrossing journalistic style that it sometimes reads like a spy thriller.

Dr Susan Williams, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, focuses on US covert intervention in the Congo and Ghana in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

In particular, she writes about the fate of two popular politicians – Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of what was called the Republic of the Congo after Belgium was forced out in 1960, and Kwame Nkrumah, who led the struggle that won independence from the British for Ghana in 1957.

In the Congo, the principal US interest was the huge deposits of high-grade uranium (which were essential to the Manhattan Project) and other minerals, including cobalt, copper, industrial diamonds and tin. Lumumba’s Pan-African, anti-colonial, nationalist politics meant he was considered a threat to Western access and control of his nation’s resources.

So, though US president Dwight D Eisenhower publicly supported the autonomy of the Congo at the UN, US foreign affairs specialist Stephen Weissman notes that, from 1960 – 1968, US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) activity in the Congo ‘ranked as the largest covert operation in the agency’s history’.

Williams summarises what this involved: ‘assassination, overthrowing elected governments, sowing conflict between political groups and bribing politicians, trade unionists and national representatives at the UN.’

Following a coup, Lumumba was killed in January 1961. Nkrumah’s increasingly authoritarian government was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup five years later, with the then president forced into exile.

While we know Eisenhower authorised the killing of Lumumba, the exact role of the US (and, to a lesser extent, the UK) in the assassination is still unclear, with a fascinating chapter about how the incomplete historical record – likely incomplete for a reason, of course – hampers those trying to get to the truth.

Nonetheless, Williams’ colossal research effort leads to a conclusion noting ‘America’s deliberate violation of democracy in African nations where people had struggled against all odds to free themselves from colonial occupation and to achieve majority rule.’

PN readers will be interested in passing mentions of nonviolence. After he headed a nonviolent campaign that secured independence for Ghana, Nkrumah shifted his position after Lumumba’s murder, writing in 1969 that ‘armed struggle is the only way through which African revolutionaries can achieve their objectives’.

Whether a mass nonviolent movement could have protected the Congo and Ghana from clandestine Western intervention will never be known, and is not explored in the book.

More than 60 years on from the events depicted in White Malice, the dark days of the Congo in the early 1960s are still making headlines.

In March, the Guardian reported that ‘the US and UK have been accused by university researchers of obstructing a United Nations inquiry into the 1961 plane crash [in the Congo] that killed the UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld.’ The article quotes Williams (whose 2011 book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? contributed to the reopening of the UN inquiry) as saying that the US and UK are ‘global outliers’.

‘The most recent general assembly resolution to renew the investigation was co-sponsored by 142 UN member states out of 193 – but not by the US and the UK,’ she notes.

Topics: Foreign policy