The flailing incompetence of Donald J. Trump has, in spite of its tumultuous destruction, provided the Left with a new and unique opportunity – like an egomaniacal bull in a china shop, the President has smashed through the ornate veil of neoliberal illusion. Every day that his absurdity reaches damning new heights, it illuminates the hypocrisy of the political mainstream that, as it purports to oppose him, reveals more and more of its horrifying true face.
Witness the case of Sergeant La David Johnson, one of four American soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. Johnson was thrust posthumously into the national spotlight when President Trump apparently forgot the Sergeant’s name in a phone call to his grieving wife, Myeshia. Just days after his bizarre claim that he is the first president to reach out to bereaved military families, the incident (and Trump’s subsequent choice to call Mrs. Johnson a liar) was rightly read as characteristically disrespectful and apathetic. It was also, as some Left-liberal observers pointed out, racist – Trump conspicuously never attacked the white Gold Star widow of former NFL player Pat Tillman when she criticized him on Twitter, but a substantial portion of his base might agree that distinctively black names like La David or Myeshia deserve to be forgotten.
The established punditocracy has salivated at yet another example of the President’s irreverence towards a sacred American institution – the military family. From titles like the Washington Post’s “Why saying Sgt. La David Johnson’s name is so important” to self-congratulatory tirades like that by CNN’s Don Lemon, to profiles in The New Yorker and Good Morning America, the death of Sergeant Johnson has permeated liberal imagination more than any military event of the year.
It is remarkable, then, that mainstream media has virtually ignored the most significant question: why did this happen?
In the wall-to-wall coverage of Johnson’s death, the media and its adherents conclude that the tragedy was an inevitability. “Extremists,” the attackers were called, and so we are meant to accept that where there are extremists, there are American soldiers to heroically stop them, and some of those heroes must be sacrificed. “He’s out there fighting for our freedom,” wept Myeshia Johnson to George Stephanopoulos, and thus we must agree in chorus that “our freedom” is contingent on strangers dying in the woods of West Africa. President Trump forgot his name, but we are just as responsible for dehumanizing La David Johnson as we assign his life and death a vague, proscribed meaning and move on.
No widely read or watched news source in the country considered it remotely relevant to discuss the reasons for the US military presence in Niger, a country most Americans have never heard of, except one thin editorial buried in the New York Times nearly a month after the ambush. A simple examination of the New York Times and CNN archives finds that since 2014, Niger was never mentioned by either news source except when reporting terror attacks by Islamist extremists.
But if we did have a functional news media in our country, or for that matter any genuine system of education, Americans might know that Niger is one of the poorest countries on Earth, with 89% of the population living in multi-dimensional poverty. They might understand that Niger has the world’s sixth-largest reserves of uranium, billions of dollars of which are plundered by French and American companies virtually free of tax. They might have heard that its government allowed President Obama to build a lethal drone-bomber base in exchange for economic relief, or understand that US troops began occupying Niger in 2012, before any terror organization operated in the country. And they might realize that Niger sits just north of Nigeria, a country that has the audacity to limit American interference in its political and economic affairs despite being the leading oil-producer in Africa.
If our so-called democracy allowed for any widespread examination of government action, it would not be hard for Americans to understand the situation in Niger in the context of our African policy – poor nations are strong-armed into imperialist ventures to control natural resources, all in the name of counter-terrorism.
Niger’s story is far from unique, but it is illustrative of an appalling moral failure by the American Left. Even as domestic anti-racist and anti-colonialist movements have gained more momentum than any moment since the 1960s, the United States has plunged head-on into a second Scramble for Africa nearly as violent and debasing as the first, and there’s no #Resistance to be found. The most destructive tendril of twenty-first century racism is even worse than mass policing or ghettoization – it is a complete indifference to the globally unparalleled violence our country is committing against millions of black Africans.
THE MYTH OF PROGRESS
King Leopold II of Belgium, who enjoyed global celebration as a philanthropist while his army of mercenaries brutally murdered 10 million people in rubber plantations, had all records of his reign of terror burnt before surrendering control his private colony, the Congo Free State, in 1908. “I will give them my Congo,” he told his associates, “but they have no right to know what I did there.”
He was overly cautious. The staggering and well-documented atrocities of the colonial powers in Africa – from the British, whose death camps in South Africa inspired Hitler, to the Germans, who forced entire nations to march into the Namibian desert until they died of thirst, to the French, who studied the effects of torture on hundreds of thousands of Algerians less than 60 years ago – have left virtually zero footprint on the Western fantasy of history. The histories of African nations and politics continue to evade mainstream journalism and scholarship across the political spectrum, even as discussion of the genocide of Native Americans or the anti-racist struggle in the United States finds a growing audience.
Given this long-standing amnesia, it is hardly surprising that the new wave of imperialism in Africa is so rarely mentioned or understood in the Global North. What is unsettling, however, is the extent to which African crises are not only ignored but fervently denied by the liberal mainstream.
To a certain extent, this denial comes from a place of decent intention. Culture critics argue, rightly, that generations of colonialist propaganda have created an image of Africa as a monolith of primitive and helpless savagery not remotely connected to reality. But the corporate liberal corrective has been the promotion of the “Africa Rising” narrative – jubilant focus on economic growth in countries such as Kenya as evidence that modernization and economic liberalization have helped the continent cast aside the oppressor’s yoke. This meme has become especially popular with American corporations hoping to exploit African resources (thus, Chevron is “helping worlds expand”), and with Western political organizations that seek to convince African governments to accept predatory loans (the International Monetary Fund hosted an Africa Rising Conference in 2014, featuring a keynote address by Bill Clinton).
However, as even a cursory glance at the past two decades would show, Africa is certainly not “Rising.” The apparent increase in the region’s wealth comes from the increased presence multinational companies based in the US and Western Europe. But while foreign wealth can cause an uptick in official GDP records, the profit of this investment goes exclusively to the corporations’ American and European shareholders, meaning the celebrated economic growth actually signifies more streamlined extraction of capital. Meanwhile, across the continent, income inequality is surging, public services are disappearing, starvation is on the rise, the environment is already collapsing, and violence claims more lives than anywhere else on the planet.
Liberals and Leftists who accept the “Africa Rising” mythos rather than examining contemporary African crises are committing a fallacy no less racist than conservatives who imagine a homogenous bloc of regressive and rapacious tribesmen. Both the mainstream American Left and Right are comfortable denying data and the lived experiences of 1.2 billion black and brown people to support an ideological vision of Africa infinitely more comfortable than the reality. We distort lives in what was once openly called “Darkest Africa” more readily and completely than anywhere else on Earth, even the long-suffering victims of imperialism like Palestine or Cuba, and we do it with a facility born in our country’s existential contempt for blackness and its truths. But behind the illusion, all Americans bear guilt in the rise of violence in the continent, since our government is responsible for instigating so much of it.
BLOOD AT THE ROOT
The history of American imperialism in Africa is extensive and almost never discussed. The first ever foreign deployment of US troops was a naval assault on the Barbary States (now Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) in 1801, when Thomas Jefferson decided American ships should not have to pay tariffs to to the Ottoman government there. The CIA worked with Belgian intelligence in 1961 to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected African leader in history, plunging the Congo into a civil war that killed over 100,000. During the Cold War, the US was behind Chad’s genocidal despot Hissène Habré, Zaïre’s kleptocratic and crazed Mobutu Sese Seko, Uganda’s nefarious Idi Amin, the mass-raping FNLA militants in Angola, and of course the white supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa – the list could go on ad nauseam. None of these events are discussed in standardized history classes, and few have seen any substantial body of analytic literature, but conquest and violence in Africa is a long-standing American institution.
But the current surge of this conquest is a relatively recent phenomenon unique to neoliberalism, with its origin in the Clinton administration. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the dawn of anti-imperialist solidarity in Latin America, and sudden competition from the Dengist Chinese economy, Africa suddenly became a hotspot of strategic and economic importance to the American empire. Clinton had two strategies for seizing the African economy. The first was directing the World Bank to replace humanitarian aid with a predatory system of credit that permanently indebted poor governments, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, to American and European financial institutions. The second, in the model of the Great Nations of Europe, was violent takeover through proxy genocides, puppet strongmen, and direct military force.
Clinton’s Africa policy burst into the public spotlight conspicuously when his effort to overthrow the anti-western leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid and gain control of Somalia’s shipping routes failed publicly in 1993. In a confrontation later depicted (inaccurately) in Black Hawk Down, US troops on a mission to assassinate Aidid’s relatives were attacked by civilian protesters, leading to the deaths of 18 Americans and well over 200 Somalis. Facing plummeting approval ratings, Clinton took a subtler course in foreign policy. But as the horrific years of the late 1990s would reveal, he did not become less brutal, only more adept at spreading misinformation.
His administration’s greatest crime, though certainly not their only one, was in now-infamous Rwanda. As a reward for opening its economy to western investment, the CIA covertly assisted neighboring Uganda in a terroristic, child-soldier based invasion of Rwanda, led by Rwandan Tutsi nationalist Paul Kagame. When the country’s Hutu majority retaliated in the astounding 800,000 murders mass media quickly labeled the “Rwandan Genocide,” President Clinton quietly increased the flow of arms to Kagame and his militias, leading to the Tutsi seizure of power in 1994. The genocide was reported in the US as ending with the Tutsi victory, but (in what the late great Edward Herman called “the most misrepresented series of major events of the last twenty years”) the CIA continued arming Kagame as he butchered as many as 2 million Hutu refugees in a retaliatory campaign that became a third world war.
To capture the last Hutus (or perhaps to protect the interests of Western mining companies who praised him as a practically messianic savior and invested over $500 million in his regime), Kagame invaded mineral-rich Zaïre in 1996, overthrowing CIA-asset-gone-rogue Mobutu Sese Seko and replacing him with Laurent Kabila, and renaming the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When Kabila began trading with China in 1998, Kagame invaded the Congo a second time with the backing of first the Clinton and then Bush administrations. This larger attack prompted a counterattack by Chinese-backed militias in Angola and Zimbabwe. By the time hostilities died down in 2008, as many as 5.8 million people had died as a result of the war, making it by far the most deadly conflict since World War II (the second worst, the American invasion of Vietnam and southeast Asia, killed only 3.8 million). Despite the historic scale of the atrocity, it remains deliberately unheard of of in the Global North. A study of print media by Edward Herman and David Peterson found that the word “genocide” was used just once for every 317,000 murders in the Congo Wars, compared to once for every 12 deaths in the concurrent Kosovo War.
President Bush shortly thereafter expanded the American military presence in mostly-Islamic northern Africa, using the 9/11 attacks as an easy justification. This included arming Christian rebel groups throughout southern and western Sudan in the hopes that a breakaway state (finally realized in South Sudan in 2011) would share its substantial oil resources with the United States, unlike the conservative Islamic Sudanese government. There is no doubt the Sudan and its paramilitary janjaweed are responsible for genocidal atrocities, but most of the 2 million deaths in the country’s long civil war were the result of deliberate starvation by Clinton-Bush sanctions, justified under the ubiquitous banner of anti-terrorism.
But neither Bill Clinton, whose saxophone solo on Arsenio prematurely won him the title of “First Black President,” nor George W. Bush, who seems absolved from a career of racist politics now that he will disavow neo-Nazis, would manage to subvert democracy and independence in Africa as forcefully as their successor, the most powerful person of direct African descent in human history.
EIGHT YEARS IN POWER?
Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan and the grandson of Muslims, became the President of the United States in spite of a constant barrage of racist propaganda linking him to his African heritage. In the 2008 primaries, his fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton published photographs of the upstart candidate in a turban with a Somali elder to reduce his appeal in the Rust Belt (ironic, no?). When a failing real-estate mogul promised to provide evidence Obama was born in Kenya, this single claim resonated enough with white America to lay the groundwork for a successful presidential run in 2016. Having been on the receiving end of Americans’ contempt for all things African, it should be somewhat surprising that President Obama capitalized on that very tendency to provide cover for his tremendous crimes against African people.
Right-wing critics point to the 2011 intervention in the Libyan Civil War as his greatest foreign policy blunder, a point the President himself concedes. But these criticisms usually center themselves on implication that Obama should have done more to save or at least avenge the 4 Americans killed by protesters in Benghazi. Beyond jingoistic compassion for only “our own” white men slain, they quickly dissolve into the usual conservative nonsense about weak (read: intellectual and effeminate) liberal leadership.
In fact, the Obama administration’s course in Libya was an illegal exertion of military force never approved by Congress. The NATO operation to bomb civilians in regions of the country loyal to Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi was not inspired by an indigenous rebellion, per the mainstream narrative. It was planned months in advance after a currency dispute with the oil-rich nation. After easily toppling Gaddafi’s government, ethnically Arab and Berber rebels funded and supervised by the CIA began genocidally slaughtering poorer black Libyans. In order to prevent Libyan oil supplies from falling into the hands of anti-Western Islamist groups (who flooded the country only after Gaddafi’s fall), American forces continue to bombard the country to this day. The death toll has so far been suppressed by NATO, but it is without a doubt in the tens of thousands. Almost more disturbingly, leaked emails from Obama’s advisor John Podesta recently confirmed what human rights groups had long suspected: reports of war crimes by Gaddafi loyalists, especially mass rape by Viagra-fueled soldiers, were entirely fabricated by the administration to justify the invasion, playing on tropes of African rapists they knew Americans would accept without question.
But Libya is a high-profile exception to the Obama doctrine – his administration exceled in covert wars, conducted largely with drone assassins, completely hidden from the public eye. Obama came to power after the Patriot Act had already blown away any semblance of constitutionally imperative legislative oversight, with unprecedented and effectively unlimited means of international surveillance and political secrecy. While he was in office, he did away with the few means of oversight that remained and ruthlessly persecuted whistleblowers, earning the New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s distinction of “most secretive White House.” As a result, we know very little about the covert foreign policy of the Obama years, and it may be decades before the record is clear.
We do know that he expanded American military presence in Africa more than any president in history. Taking advantage of the War on Terror’s absurdly vague parameters, he expanded the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) to establish bases in 34 countries, only two of which had any terrorist activities in 2008. On the rare occasion that his administration was asked to justify these moves, they wrote it off with bluntly racist explanations that poor, disorganized, and predominantly Muslim countries in Africa would soon turn to terrorism without American policing. By the end of Obama’s presidency, American troops conducted 10 secret missions every day in Africa, from training soldiers for repressive dictatorships like Chad to protecting oil pipelines from the militant environmental movement in Nigeria to accidentally bombing scores of civilians in Somalia. Needless to say, these operations have sharply increased anti-American sentiment throughout Africa, which has proved a recruiting tool for Islamist extremists, who now prosper in many central African nations.
In Niger, where La David Johnson died reportedly at the hands of some of these insurgents, Obama’s policy was typically murky. A military junta kidnapped President Mamadou Tandja in 2010, after Tadja’s promise to open trade with China. Since the coup, the Nigerien government has been compliant with Western demands, from ignoring the environmental devastation of French-owned uranium mines to building the largest American drone-bomber base in western Africa. Whether Niger’s obedience comes from bribery or threat of force is unclear, as is the possibility of American involvement in the coup, but it is clear that the shift in policy has triggered a surge in anti-Western sentiments across the nation. Though opinion polls are rare in a country where 81% of the population can not read, the recent arrivals of al Qaeda in the north and Boko Haram in the south imply a new distaste for American empire.
Such an overtly oppressive politics would garner criticism anywhere else in the world – the Left vocally opposed Obama’s aggressive politics in Afghanistan and Palestine, and his support for a far-right coup in Honduras cost his would-be anointed successor, Hillary Clinton, dearly. But the color line is now globalized, with black Africans at the bottom. The administration (and its corporate backers) knew no political faction in the US would fight for Niger or Mali or Eritrea, and took advantage of that absence through literally dozens of criminal interventions. Their conquests made sure there would never be a Chinese-African economic union, not to mention economic sovereignty and democracy for African nations. The US stands now where France did more than a century ago, at the top of a Scramble for Africa, rolling in pure profit with no regard to the human misery in its wake.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that Barack Obama “became a symbol of black people’s everyday, extraordinary Americanness.” Though Coates is undeniably one of America’s most remarkable voices of conscience to rise in a generation, this comment betrays a nativist, American exceptionalist current rising to the surface of liberal anti-racist politics. The extraordinary Americanness Coates writes of intrinsically attacks the black and brown majority of the world’s population (as he himself observes in more critical moments). Obama’s willingness to promote racist narratives in defense of his capitalist imperialism should should convince the contemporary Left to reshuffle its priorities. Racist violence as a global force will only grow until we confront the institutions of profit and militarism.
THE BANALITY OF EVIL AND THE SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA
It is hard to conceive of a more defeatable nemesis than the Trump administration, a collection of nepotists and sycophants so bafflingly unintelligent they can’t prevent the President from revealing covert CIA operations on Twitter. And yet, one year after winning the office despite losing the election by 4 million votes, Donald Trump still sits in the White House. Liberals have failed to unseat him, perhaps because the politics they cling to are so hypocritically disassociated from our political realities.
The ethical imperative of a just policy in Africa can not be overstated. Not only do potentially millions of lives hang in the balance – that, it seems, is not enough – so does the basic integrity of any progressive movement for justice. How can we act as though “Black Lives Matter” when African Americans are killed by police but not when Africans are killed by CIA guns and AFRICOM drones? How can we mourn the dissolution of our own democracy while our government strips dozens of African nations of basic sovereignty? How can we strive to maintain any concept of universal humanity when the death of La David Johnson provokes a stronger reaction than the millions killed for access to Congolese mineral wealth?
The neoliberal era of American politics may be responsible for over 8 million murders in sub-Saharan Africa alone – two-thirds of the Holocaust, if historical perspective helps. Are we already the quietly complicit German, choking on the banality of his own evil, in the words of Hannah Arendt, who “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing anything wrong?”
Here lies the great moral test of our time. The media ignore and deny African deaths with such vigor they are entirely invisible to Americans who can not regularly peruse reports from international human rights organizations. Generations of cultural conditioning have trained the white upper class to view the billions of people with high concentrations of melanin in their skin as sub-human, to repress our instinct for empathy as it applies to them. And our economic system, which survives only by gorging itself on the blood of brown-skinned innocents, has become so globally pervasive, as Mark Fisher put it, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Yet every day we fail to break the cycle of violence, we are more deeply implicated in it. If we can not rise to this task, our only legacy on a scorched earth will be one of a violence beyond what we can begin to comprehend. The Left in the United States is deeply isolated from any potential political action in the face of corporate control, but our resources and relative safety buy us far more agency than we admit. We can not afford to surrender the moment to ignorance and illusions. There is a just future that we are responsible for destroying if we fail to fight for it.