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


By Xavier Moyet

Susan Williams, White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa. London: Hurst, 2021, 688pp, 24pp b&w illustrated. Hardback 9781787385559

It has been established that President Eisenhower authorized the assassination of Lumumba (p. 511)

This statement about the death of Patrice Lumumba, the first post-independence Prime Minister of what is known now as the Democratic Republic of Congo, is presented in an academic work. The observation is all the more convincing because it is supported by a solid study. Moreover, this now historical fact illuminates the contradiction between the official rhetoric of the United States of America, overtly in favor of decolonization, and its actual practice. The book also reveals the interaction between US business mining interests and official action to prevent the Soviets from getting their hands on the Congo’s rich uranium mine, which had been used to build the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As early as 1965, Ghana first President Kwame Nkrumah, in his book Neo-Colonialism, made extensive accusations against the US, without the same evidence but with great lucidity, shortly before his overthrow orchestrated by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In addition to examining the link between US policy and African realities, this book of over 600 pages succeeds in the challenge of renewing our view of the moment of 'independence' within the African continent. It further supports the idea that these political transformations were only a facade and was rather the pretext for great violence. The general tone of the book contrasts with the Afro-pessimistic discourse that generally attributes the causes of the current stagnation to tribalism, corruption or other endogenous causes: overpopulation, lack of infrastructure, lack of human resources, etc. On the contrary, this work highlights the fact that the struggle of some African nations is largely due to external causes. It also highlights the racism at the heart of American policy-making (e.g. at a meeting of the National Security Council meeting in 1960, attended by Eisenhower and Nixon, p. 137-7). It recalls furthermore the continuity of African-American and African conditions, a link already underlined by revolutionary leaders at the time. Some evidence of this community is found in the facts that Martin Luther King went to Ghana’s independence ceremony in 1957. Franz Fanon, Félix Moumié and Patrice Lumumba met in 1958 (pp. 44-45), still in Accra and Malcolm X and Kwame Nkrumah met in 1964 (pp. 489-490).

On a formal level, the book is a pleasure to read. However, some passages are less appealing, especially those containing numerous cryptonyms, rich in conjectures that are not always convincing for the layperson. The book is composed of many chapters, focusing in particular on two countries that formed the core of Nkrumah's United States of Africa project: Ghana and Congo. Their political evolution is analysed in particular in the light of the intervention of the American intelligence services (i.e. CIA, the foreign intelligence service of the US). It would be tedious to summarize all the chapters, of which there are 40, in detail. Suffice it to say that they shed detailed light on the political career of Nkrumah and Lumumba. The chapters also explain the intra-continental and global connections of the pan-African struggles. For example, chapter 4 unveils a fascinating description of the 1958 Accra conference, heralding already the need for continental unity.

The author could be criticized for not placing enough emphasis on the agency of African actors, and thus for overemphasizing the impact of foreign shenanigans. But this would not be fair towards the author, who, as a British expert, is rather well placed to contribute to the understanding of contemporary Africa through international relations. She has good access to valuable documentary sources and archives. One might also regret the absence of a real discussion on the essence of intelligence agencies, which are probably as old as human history. It seems that they oscillate between pure intelligence, by infiltrating all sorts of intellectual environments (e.g. Mbari club in Ibadan) and interventionism. But this study is not the ideal place to discuss the raison d'être of intelligence; its aim seems rather to reveal its excesses. On a theoretical level, it would be good to draw the consequences of an 'open' study conducted on 'closed' activities. What is the epistemological impact of this work on secrecy, at a time when any philosophy of suspicion is easily labelled conspiratorial? Anthropological studies on initiation and historical works on agnotology can open up avenues for reflection. What is certain is that this book illustrates the interaction of the local and the global, mostly at the level of the elites, but with a great heuristic fruitfulness: the African political history is better understood through the understanding of the undermining work of CIA, and also through its global, pan-African, international connections. Some scholars may not feel comfortable with the political positioning of this scientific work, in favor of more transparency, but their own claim to axiological neutrality is rather dubious, since their own positioning functions in support of the status quo.

Finally, this work questions the relevance of disciplinary partition, between African and Black Studies, for example. It also illustrates a holistic vision of history. On a historiographical level, it is innovative, and proposes, for example, to articulate certain CIA projects concerning mind control (MK Ultra) and politics in Africa (e.g. the role of Sid Gottlieb, a scientist working for the agency on LSD research and poisoning attempts concerning Lumumba). It also deciphers the articulation of international, UN, pan-African and national political levels on the continent. Let us hope that this work will be adapted on the screen to take it to the widest possible audience.