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Top 10 books on neocolonialism

The Guardian logo The Guardian 28/10/2021 Susan Williams

The nations of Africa waved a joyful goodbye to their European occupiers in the second half of the 20th century. But in many cases, their freedom was short-lived: for after the colonisers had left through the front door, they returned quietly round the back. And this time the US came, too – the new and hungry kid on the block, collaborating with big business and local elites to exploit Africa’s rich resources.

This process underpins White Malice, my account of the CIA’s secret infiltration into the newly free nations of Africa. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, watched in dismay as new states became independent in theory, with “all the outward trappings of international sovereignty”, but their economic and political policies were directed from outside. This, he lamented, is the “essence of neocolonialism”.

Related: Louis Armstrong and the spy: how the CIA used him as a ‘trojan horse’ in Congo

These 10 books help to answer the questions posed by Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable 2006 film Bamako, in which the World Bank and the IMF are put on trial in Mali: “Why when Africa sows does she not reap? Why when Africa reaps does she not eat?” The books are primarily about the African continent but not exclusively: neocolonialism is by no means limited to Africa.

1. The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955)

In this gripping novel set in Saigon in 1952, the “quiet American” is a CIA agent, Alden Pyle, who is covertly backing a third force led by a Vietnamese warlord. In Greene’s portrayal, Pyle represents America’s strategy of insinuating itself between French colonialism and the communists. He supplies the explosives for a murderous attack by the warlord on innocent people. But in the Hollywood version of 1958, the ending was changed: the communists are responsible for the bombings and Pyle is a good guy who is framed. Greene was infuriated. He did not live to see the 2002 remake, which is largely faithful to the book.

2. Neo-​Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism by Kwame Nkrumah (1965)

Described as the classic statement on the postcolonial condition, this is a compelling read and is supported by a wealth of detail. Nkrumah believed that neocolonialism is “the worst form of imperialism”, on the grounds that those who practise it exercise “power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress”.

The US government was incensed by the book. According to a senior official in the state department, it was “the straw that broke the camel’s back … It accused the United States of every sin imaginable. We were blamed for everything in the world”. The year after its publication, Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup backed by the CIA.

3. Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution by Thomas Sankara (1988)

Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso from 1983-1987, is currently in the news because an investigation has just begun into his assassination. This collection of his interviews and speeches provides a window on his programmes to improve people’s lives, involving land redistribution, literacy and education, a focus on women’s rights and a massive vaccination scheme. Revered as Africa’s Che Guevara, Sankara defied neocolonial control by France, the former colonial power, and the US. He described debt, presented as aid, as “neocolonialism, in which colonisers transformed themselves into ‘technical assistance’. We should say ‘technical assassins’.”

After the coup which killed Sankara, Burkina Faso’s natural resources were privatised and debt repayments to the IMF resumed. Allegations of complicity have been levelled at French intelligence and the CIA.

4. In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story by John Stockwell (1974)

This book reads like a spy novel, but is a memoir. After 12 years as a CIA operations officer, Stockwell – the antidote to Greene’s Pyle – resigned from the agency in 1976 and wrote this whistleblower. Assigned in 1975 to command the CIA Angola task force, he was appalled by America’s policy: “under the leadership of the CIA director we lied to Congress and … We entered into joint activities with South Africa.” He shows that the escalation of the war in Angola was led not by the Soviets and the Cubans, but by the US. The war lasted 27 years.

Stockwell, the son of missionaries, went to school in the same province as Patrice Lumumba, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first legally elected leader, who was assassinated in 1961. “Eventually”, wrote Stockwell, “we learned Lumumba was killed, not by our poisons, but beaten to death, apparently by men who were loyal to men who had agency cryptonyms and received agency salaries.”

5. The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja (2002)

The development of the Congolese democratic movement was complex. But this “people’s history” by an eminent Congolese academic tells its story clearly and well, showing how the suffering of the Congolese at the hands of foreigners continued long after independence from Belgium. In the neocolonial state created by the US, President Mobutu was propped up for 32 years. Nzongola-Ntalaja’s emphasis is on struggle and agency: the Congolese have sought not only to establish democratic institutions at home, but to free themselves from foreign exploitation. Nzongola-Ntalaja describes his work as scholar activism and is an inspiration to many, including me.

6. The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins (2020)

President Sukarno of Indonesia, who described the conditions of forced dependency on the west as neocolonialism, told the US in 1964: “Go to hell with your aid.” In this shocking book, American journalist Bevins draws on interviews with survivors to tell the tragic story of the anti-communist massacres that took place in Indonesia between 1965–66, as the US-backed dictator Suharto deposed Sukarno. “Between 500,000 and one million people were slaughtered,” records Bevins, “and one million more were herded into concentration camps.”

7. Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders (1999)

Neocolonialism takes various forms, including the sponsorship of culture. This study of the CIA during the cold war reveals the story of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA front based in Paris, which was active on five continents, including Africa. Among an astonishing breadth of activities, it subsidised conferences, cultural centres, books and magazines, including Encounter in London. “Soon enough”, exclaimed the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka in disgust, “we would discover that we had been dining, and with relish, with the original of that serpentine incarnation, the devil himself, romping in our postcolonial Garden of Eden and gorging on the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge!”

8. Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1980)

This deeply symbolic novel is dedicated: “To all Kenyans struggling against the neocolonial stage of imperialism.” It was written on toilet paper in prison, when Ngũgĩ was detained without trial. Here, the devil represents the international financiers and bankers, in collaboration with Kenya’s elite. One of the devil’s disciples advocates extreme versions of privatisation, including the sale of bottled air. “We could even import some air from abroad, imported air, which we could then sell to the people at special prices!” The story ends with a thrilling act of resistance by its heroine, Jacinta Wariinga. The form of the novel is itself an act of resistance: it was originally written in Gikuyu, not English, to foster a national literature in one of the Kenyan languages.

9. How to Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina (2005)

In this brilliant and scathing essay, Wainaina mocks the prejudices that inform western writing about Africa and are used to excuse, even to justify, neocolonial intervention. He offers sardonic advice to budding writers in the west: “Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the west.” Wainaina, a Kenyan gay rights activist, died far too young, in 2019.

10. The Sale by Tendai Huchu (2012)

China has been described as the latest neocolonial power in Africa. In his short story, The Sale, Huchu takes China’s investments in his own country, Zimbabwe, to a menacing extreme. In his dystopian world, neocolonialism has mutated into a terrifying form, where China and the US buy up countries heavily in debt. When the deficit remains, the citizens are sold and then controlled and surveilled by drones. At the centre of this chilling story is China’s intention to bulldoze the medieval city of Great Zimbabwe, now the “property of Ling Lee Antiquities Enterprises and Debt Recovery”.

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