America in Africa: plunderer or partner?

About the authors
Gayle Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress . She worked in Africa for almost twenty years as a journalist and advisor to non-governmental organisations, and from 1998-2000 as special assistant to the United States president and senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council. She is co-author of The Other War: Global Poverty and the Millennium Challenge Account (Brookings Institution, 2003).
Ken Wiwa is a Nigerian activist and a columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail. His book, In the Shadow of a Saint (Random House, 2000), is a personal memoir about his relationship with his father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in his prison cell in Nigeria on the orders of a military tribunal in 1995. Ken Wiwa is the Saul Rae Fellow at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.


Dear Gayle Smith,

I am sure that this letter finds you, like millions of your fellow–Americans, in reflective mode as your country’s vital election–day approaches. The fact that the people can give their verdict on those who govern them is one of the precious achievements of American democracy. The importance of this principle – which might also be described as the accountability of the powerful to the powerless – is also one which is increasingly understood worldwide, including in my own continent, Africa.

But those Americans like yourself who have specialist knowledge of African societies also know that, especially in poor countries, power is concentrated and wielded in many areas other than government. The affluence or at least security of many people in the United States can shelter them from the storm of an unkind government. But how can Africa’s people, the vast majority of whom are living near or below subsistence level, begin to hold accountable the powers ruling over them that are not subject to any democratic sanction?

Ms Smith, you have reported, travelled, advised and negotiated across many of Africa’s diverse lands. You must also have witnessed the devastating impact of foreign debt on many African societies, and the way that the burden of repaying this debt, which grows relentlessly as interest on it accumulates, falls heaviest on those least able to carry it: the poor, the old, the sick, the very young – in a word, the least powerful of an already marginalised continent.

You have surely seen what it means for ordinary people when Africa pays more in debt repayments than it receives in aid. You have surely seen how what has been described as a modern form of slavery means that Africa actually helps develop the west and deepen the pockets of transnational corporations, while its own people sink further into poverty and dependence.

I would like, then, to ask you: what has your long experience in Africa taught you about the costs and consequences of the corporate agendas that drive American foreign policy? What do you think of the way that, for example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and US policies towards the global Aids epidemic are becoming instruments of the administration’s political priorities and business interests?

I am sure you are aware that strategists at the Pentagon and state department now view Africa and its huge oil reserves as a potential “new middle east”. Africa could supply as much as 25% of America’s energy requirements beyond the next decade. These projections are made under an administration some of whose leading figures have been connected with companies that have fuelled rampant corruption and bribery in countries like Nigeria.

If they prove accurate, then I fear for Africa and I fear for America. Even the instability in Iraq today may pale in comparison with the unfolding security threats in Africa. From Angola to Equatorial Guinea, from Nigeria to the Ivory Coast, the oil–rich region of West Africa is already racked with severe social, ecological and human problems. In Central Africa, the devastating wars in Congo, Sudan (and even Uganda) are further evidence of how greed for resources can help dislocate entire societies. These conflicts will only be exacerbated if business is allowed to continue as usual, if rich nations continue to treat African people and societies as collateral damage in the quest for mineral deposits.

In reading these words, I implore you not to write me off as another anti–American. I actually believe that one of the many solutions to the deep and complex problems in Africa may lie in the democratic traditions and institutions of America.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why, along with a few of my Nigerian compatriots, I filed a suit against Shell Oil in a district court in New York. I brought my case to the US seeking justice for my father, Ken Saro–Wiwa, the writer and ecologist who was hanged in November 1995 by the Nigerian government after he prosecuted a successful campaign to bring Shell Oil’s appalling ecological record in Nigeria to national and international attention.

This lawsuit is not just about justice for my father. We were motivated to bring the case partly because we believe that Shell Oil is implicated in the events that led to the arrest, detention, torture and eventual execution of my father and eight others; but also because we believe that in the current international climate, with the US preoccupied with its war on terrorism, there needs to be greater public debate and awareness over why increasing numbers of people around the world are not only cynical but openly hostile to the designs of American foreign policy and American corporations.

This is a shame because I for one still admire and believe in at least some of the myths that made America great. The pursuit of happiness is an attractive if perhaps a little self–indulgent proposition, but life and liberty – who could not subscribe to these noble ideals?

I imagine that America’s founding myths were conceived of the desire to escape persecution in the old world, to come to a new place and start afresh. But I am mindful that these freedoms were won at the expense of the indigenous people who had to be cleared out of the way to plant the new project of America. And that seems to me to be the problem now – America’s domestic market has outgrown its domestic resources.

America has only 5% of the world’s population but it consumes 25% of the world’s energy. The gap is measured in the distance between the ideals of the Founding Fathers and those of the neo–conservative Project for a New American Century. The United States government must satisfy the gluttonous thirst for life, liberty and happiness of its citizenry. This takes energy. The liberty of Americans requires America to control the world’s oilfields – and this means America has to threaten the life and liberty of countless millions of non–Americans.

Nonetheless, a Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 rejected an effort by the administration of President George W Bush to narrow the application of a 215–year–old law (the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789) that allows foreigners to file suits against violations of certain international laws – regardless of where in the world they occurred. This, I suggest, is the kind of ruling that maintains the world’s faith in American justice. Lawsuits like my own rely on these decisions that challenge and limit the ability of corporations to get away with murder. Can you see how important it is that the nation of liberty respects the liberty of all the world’s citizens?

Ms Smith, with your extensive experience in public life, and your intimate knowledge of African affairs, I hope that you can tell me how we, American and African citizens alike, might use our democratic voice in a way that would help increase the accountability of the powerful to the powerless? And whether our world is a safer and better place when it is governed by laws that make it easier to hold corporations accountable for financial fraud – as in Shell Oil’s markdown of its global reserves of oil – rather than for murder and human rights abuses?

Yours sincerely,


Dear Ken,

Thanks for your letter, and for the challenges you pose. And let me congratulate you on your lawsuit. I hope that it will bring justice to bear, and will also send a signal that accountability must transcend borders.

Upon first reading your letter, I was tempted to write back and say, simply, “I agree” – as I do indeed agree with much of what you have written. But your insights, questions and reflections warrant a more thoughtful response.

As you suggest, Americans are in a reflective mode as we approach the elections. I believe that we – as a nation and as a people – are facing a historical moment unlike any I have ever experienced.

As you may know, the country is more sharply divided than ever before. We face a choice: between using our great power and influence to pursue our own agenda, exclusive of the interests of others in this world, or understanding that our power and influence must reflect the interests and aspirations of the much larger world community of which we are an integral member.

The same dynamic applies within our borders, where the choice reflects both a balance and a tension between our collective versus individual needs and desires. One only has to listen to the heated debate about health care or tax cuts to see that for some, the election is about me, while for others, it is about us.

Sobering as this historical moment may be, it is also invigorating, for the stark choices before us have triggered a level of civic activism that is unprecedented, at least in comparison to the public apathy that we have seen over the last two decades. All across the country, citizens are organising behind their candidates, urging their neighbours to vote, and taking the initiative needed to ensure that this election reflects the will of the people. Staggering as it may seem, past elections have brought out only 50–60% of registered voters. I feel confident that this time around, we will see more people at the polls, because all of us understand that everything is on the line.

As you can imagine, my many years in Africa, and what this election may portend for the so–called “developing world”, are frequently on my mind. I think we are making progress, but we have a long way to go.

We begin as a country that understands little about Africa. Our media covers the continent only in times of crisis – and even then in a detached way that, by personalising tragedy rather than covering it with the same serious rigour afforded other countries, trivialises Africa as a continent of hopelessness, despair and dependence.

We also have yet to understand and act upon the fact that our engagement with Africa is in our strategic interests, in economic and security terms, but also with respect to the fundamentals of right and wrong. There is growing recognition that we have economic interests but, as you point out, those interests are perceived to derive from our continued dependence on fossil fuels and Africa’s tremendous oil reserves. What we need to understand is that our economy depends on there being functional, open and equitable economies throughout Africa.

As you might imagine, the fact that we have national–security interests in Africa is fast gaining credibility in the wake of 11 September 2001. But here again, the interests are narrowly defined as to mean that we should expand intelligence cooperation with African governments and join forces to bust terrorist cells. What we need to grasp is that our security depends on Africa’s having states that function well in the service of their citizens, and people who have faith in the accountability of their governments.

But even more important than economic or security interests, I believe (and note here that I am and intend to remain an idealist) that we have fundamental moral interests. I remember during the 1980s, when I would fly back and forth between the famine camps in Sudan to New York or Washington, feeling that those two realities couldn’t exist on the same planet. But they do – and until we accept that the growing gap between the world’s rich and poor is itself unacceptable, we will, I fear, fail to act in our own moral interests.

That failure, particularly in the wake of 9/11, has spawned a dramatic increase in what the media here calls “anti–Americanism.” But I accept your assertion that your own criticisms do not make you “anti–American”, as I believe that most of the resentment that has been unleashed around the world is, in fact, a plea for America to represent the idea of America that has inspired people for generations.

I share your concerns that the United States response to the global HIV/Aids pandemic is compromised by an unwavering allegiance to the pharmaceutical industry. But I have a larger concern that our response is characterised more by charitable instincts, however laudable these may be, than by a real commitment to development. I believe we have to do much more than save lives, though that is important. We must also invest in the capacity of poor countries to manage the HIV/Aids pandemic and any other health crisis that may arise.

In other words, we need to understand and act upon the fact that poverty fuels the spread of Aids, and undermines the ability of people and governments to control it. And if we want to make a real difference, we must focus not only on providing anti–retroviral drugs, for example, but also on ensuring that governments are able to purchase affordable drugs.

I think we can get there – “there” being a place where we invest in the capacity of Africa and Africans, and act on the belief that the same rights we consider to be inalienable are desired by millions of others in this world who deserve nothing less. And the election will affect how and how quickly we get there, as our choice on 2 November will determine whether America grows more insular or begins reaching outward.

Whatever the outcome of the election, we have to act. On this side of the globe, people like me must find a way to reach out to other Americans, and persuade them that “American values” must be pursued through action, and not just repetition. We must also move beyond simply criticising US policies, and offer up viable alternative policy recommendations that can move us in the right direction.

But I must also appeal to you. I hope that you won’t let your understandable anger, frustration, and outrage at the injustices inflicted upon Africa deter your commitment to advocating practical yet meaningful change. One of the lessons I learned quickly upon joining the Clinton administration was that it was far easier to do what I had been doing – criticising US policy in Africa – than to fix the problems. As strongly as I believe that there is too much wrong with this world, I believe that it is our collective responsibility to right those wrongs.

When faced with criticism, policymakers defend their actions; but when presented with new ideas, many will stop and listen, and some will act. And so, as you rightfully demand global accountability in your lawsuit, as you correctly point to the flaws of US foreign policy, please, also, point the way forward.

Yours Sincerely,


The Letters to Americans project will run until the US presidential elections on 2 November 2004. Projects like this are challenging to organise and expensive to deliver, but we think it is worth it to bring America into dialogue with the world. If you agree, please support us.

Copyright and Contact All Letters to Americans exchanges are copyright of openDemocracy. For syndication, republishing and other enquiries please e-mail Julian. Kramer@opendemocracy.net