Cloak and dagger: US diplomats spill the beans on years of behind-the-scenes diplomacy in Africa

Houphouet-Boigny was a gossip; Mugabe America's friend; the Italians bought suits for Mozambique rebels; and how Ethiopia's Emperor lost his throne

FORGET what everyone tells you—the only foreign view that really matters to many powerful people in Africa is America’s—loved and loathed on the continent in equal measure.

Despite what the media might have you think, a lot of diplomacy—the boiler room stuff— goes on well out of sight. And while by day Africa loves taking a pop at the US these days, though they have largely given the incumbent president Barack Obama a pass—the continent’s leaders cavort with its envoys by night, when big deals—both economic and geopolitical—are struck.

Because when all is said and done, what remains is that everything is all about interests.   

As part of diplomacy training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), American envoys often narrate their experiences in the course of advancing their country’s interests and helping shape world history.

Through a special public-private partnership with the FSI, which includes advising US foreign service personnel on how to publish their experiences, the independent nonprofit Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, keeps records.

The recollections make for riveting reading, more so the entries on Africa—from which we learnt a few things: 

The US got its nose bloodied in Angola…

In its efforts to keep southern Africa out of the clutches of communist USSR and its allies such as Cuba, when Angola gained independence in 1975, the US supported the leftist National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). It was a classic case of backing the wrong horse— the other two nationalist movements; the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), turned out by far to be the main players.

The MPLA drew support from Cuba and Russia, while UNITA had South African and when the FNLA support yielded meagre returns, American backing. Internal politics back in Washington were never far out of sight—at one point all covert operations, its preferred mode of operation in Angola, were banned under what was known as the Clark Amendment, only to be reinstated. 

The end was a US-brokered deal in 1988 pursued for over two years—but it was really delivered by MPLA moderates— and which saw Cuban troops withdraw, South Africa let the UN into Namibia and the MPLA remain in power. But despite the ideological battles, the real American interest was in oil—American companies were the only ones exploiting crude in Angola at the time—and they were very cozy with the Marxist-leaning MPLA. 

...And in Somalia too

The shooting down of two US helicopters (which inspired the Black Hawk Down movie) in a firefight in October 1993 led to a frenzied operation to secure their crew—termed as the Battle of Mogadishu. When the dust had settled 18 special ops American soldiers were dead, 73 wounded and one captured.

Images of corpses of US soldiers being dragged in the streets stoked deep American outrage and embarrasment, and president Bill Clinton ordered the phased withdrawal of the country’s 20,000 soldiers—the US’ biggest military deployment at the time. By March all had left, but the humanitarian mission continued, ironically welcomed by hordes and Mohamed Aidid, the warlord who helped oust Siad Barre’s government and who challenged the presence of the US-led UN troops in Somalia—leading to the downing of the choppers.

US president George H. W. Bush (left) visits Somalia in January 1993 to witness the efforts of Task Force Somalia that was in direct support of Operation Restore Hope. (USMilitary/DOD/Wikimedia)

That mission continues to inform America’s deep unease with inserting its troops in Africa’s “tribal” conflicts—and partly informed its inertia over the genocide in  Rwanda. The aid programme was also gradually wound up in 1994, while a police training programme was pushed as the key to solving the mess, leaving the UN holding the can and helping the US create the impression it had not fled. 

Nigeria’s Moshood Abiola suffered a heart attack while meeting with US diplomats

Following Sani Abacha’s death from a heart attack in 1998, the general who succeeded him, Abdulsalami Abubakar, allowed Thomas Pickering, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and Assistant Secretary Susan Rice (today Obama’s National Security Adviser), to see the incarcerated Moshood Abiola.

Abiola, a businessman and philanthropist, had been jailed by Abacha in 1993 when he appeared to have won the popular vote in the election, with the ballot then annulled.

Together with US ambassador Bill Twaddell, Abiola and Rice drank tea from the same teapot—important because the Americans were initially suspected of poisoning him through the tea. Pickering recalls that Abiola “suddenly became quite incoherent and distracted and didn’t seem to understand what we were saying…”

He asked to use the washroom, and then came out without his shirt on—“unusual for a Muslim man in the presence of a woman [who wasn’t his wife]. Abiola then sat on couch, slumped down and slid on the floor.”

Efforts to resuscitate him at the presidential clinic failed, and the American envoys had to work their socks off to avoid being left carrying the bag over the death of an immensely popular man, including summoning internationally-renowned forensics officers and appearing at a series of press conferences detailing what had happened.

The autopsies found that Abiola had died of massive heart failure. 

1972 genocide could be the real omen for Burundi

Many are attempting to draw parallels between Burundi’s current conflict and the Rwanda genocide of 1994, but perhaps observers should look further back for more clues. Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962, and members of the Hutu ethnic group won most parliamentary seats in the first election, but the king picked a Tutsi prime minister. Hutu uprisings were then periodically put down by Tutsi-led police and army.

Four years later the monarch was overthrown, and Tutsi prime minister Michel Micombero became president, and in 1972, Hutus started a rebellion, killing hundreds of people. Micombero declared martial law, and his forces killed anywhere between 80,000-210,000 people.

The parallel with the current situation gets starker: The US had little geopolitical or commercial interest, or leverage in Burundi, and considered reports of the killings as an inconvenience as long as its citizens were safe. At one point Washington even urged the embassy to “kindly tone it down” in regards to reports of the killings.

The Burundi regime was careful not to internationalise the conflict by not targeting foreign nationals, while the Organisation of African Unity (the predecessor of the African Union) “did not seem to know what to do”, Charles Kennedy, who was a political-economic officer in Burundi, recalled. 

He adds: “The OAU sent a mission of three presidents—“who did not leave the airport and met with Micombero, to our shock, and expressed their ‘solidarity’ with the President of Burundi.” The killings intensified.

The difference now is Washington is more engaged now as human rights have become institutionalised, and that it is Hutus who are in power, but it is a pointer to understanding the historical conflict.

The US has a lot of “presence posts”

Mathieu Kérékou at the UN in September 2005. (UNPhoto)

On October 26, 1972 Benin’s army led by Mathieu Kérékou overthrew the government. Deputy chief of mission Francis Terry McNamara had a ringside view, as a military convoy he was tailing by chance suddenly veered off and attacked the presidential palace, to little resistance.

Because Benin has divisions anchored on tribe and religion, coups were common, leading to a system where the three main geographically-based groups rotated the leadership. But while France had deep interests in the country, for the US Benin was only of passing interest. 

“Dahomey [former name of Benin] is geographically next to Nigeria, and Nigeria was important to us because of its oil. Moreover, it is the biggest country in black Africa. Nonetheless, nothing in Black Africa is of great interest to the US,” McNamara narrated.

A similar post “little value” post would be Chad—and Burundi.

Robert Mugabe has not always been anti-US

The antipathy by the Zimbabwe leader towards the West is well documented, but it has not always been so. Between 1980-2000 Mugabe oversaw a country that was a political and economic leader in Africa, including being a breadbasket for most of its neighbours and exports of tobacco only second to the US. 

In 1991 Zimbabwe replaced Ivory Coast on the UN Security Council, worrying president George H.W. Bush who felt that due to Mugabe’s friendship with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein under the Non-Aligned Movement, he would vote against the US waging war with Iraq. Under this context, Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen travelled to Harare to get Mugabe’s support.

“In view of his Non-Aligned leadership, I expected to be thoroughly harangued. I made my pitch and waited for Mugabe’s hammer,” Cohen says.

“[But] he thought for a while and then made a response that blew me away: ‘Secretary Cohen, I don’t approve of strong powers invading and occupying weaker powers. Iraq must be forced out of Kuwait. Tell President Bush that I am fully on his side on this question.’ Wow! That was an unexpected surprise.”

Mugabe was true to his word, and his intelligence services even intercepted Iraqi assassins who had arrived in the Zimbabwean capital to reportedly kill the US ambassador, with the additional bonus of delivering them into waiting US hands in Cyprus.

Mugabe also was key in convincing Mozambique’s RENAMO leader, Afonso Dhlakama, with whom they share the same Shona heritage, to enter politics, a task that had totally eluded the US, and leading to the vital 1992 peace deal in Rome.

Ethiopia: Haile Selassie was deposed in a ‘creeping coup’

Few figures are as central to the shape of the pan-African unity as Haile Selassie, whose country remained a symbol of African independence all through his long reign. In the end he ruled for too long, and while single-handedly hauling his country into modernity, he ultimately lost to the same intellectual forces he had created space for.

Emperor Haile Selassie (centre) with Ato Tedla Bairu, Chief Executive of Eritrea on 11 September, 1952. At left, the Empress of Ethiopia. (Photo/UN)

Americans working at the embassy between 1962-66 give us a glimpse of what the emperor was like:

  • He was a mixture of both authoritarianism and benevolence, but regarded himself as an emperor, not a king, and held court regally, including personally handing out pieces of gold to those seeking his help.
  • He modernised public education and the system of government, but retained total control in a feudal manner, despite American attempts to talk him into full land reforms. He shifted ministers and governors frequently to avoid them building up power bases, and at one time had four intelligence systems at the same time to spy on everyone and each other.
  • Realising the strength of the African independence movement, he cleverly brought African leaders, including many regional enemies, together and persuaded them to sign the OAU charter, which he had modelled on that of the Organisation of American States. He ended as the continent’s “father figure”.
  • But a 1960 coup attempt punctured the aura of mystique that had seen his subjects view him as God. Rifts in the military and security forces were then exposed, among other simmering social cleavages. 
  • He made the miscalculation that a pesky insurgency in Eritrea would never amount to much. 
  • He established a university in opposition to the wishes of the nobility, but this led to young students being radicalised and seeking a change to democracy. The 1960 coup had wide support from both university students and graduates who had gone abroad including to military schools—a programme he sponsored.
  • The US embassy tried hard to get him to abdicate in favour of his son when it became clear he was struggling with age. He did even not protest American plans to leave the Kagnew station, a military base in Asmara that was key for US interest in Ethiopia—and it is felt the drawdown in 1977 allowed the revolution to spiral out of control.  
  • Army units sent representatives, many of them radicals, to Addis Ababa initially to present their grievances to the emperor…but sensing the weakening centre they formed the “Derg” or committee. It was a slow “creeping” coup unlike what other African countries at the time experience. By the last days the Derg were running the country, having successfully exploited the vacuum. 

Kenya’s Moi was ‘corrupt to his soul’

The tough-as-nails Prudence Bushnell was posted to Nairobi in 1996, much to Kenya’s president Daniel arap Moi’s acute displeasure.  “Initially, he [Moi] wouldn’t see me. I was the second consecutive woman ambassador [after Aurelia Brazeal], and Moi was not at all pleased to have another female,” Bushnell recalls. 

She was the third woman in the most recent four US ambassadors to Kenya, interrupted only by the scrappy Smith Hempstone.

“Moi was convinced that the US Government was intentionally sending him women as a message that he was just not good enough to merit a white male,” Bushnell, who once walked out on Liberia’s Charles Taylor for  repeatedly calling her “my dear” (it turned out Taylor called almost everyone that), she later said.

But they eventually started to have discussions as a precedent. She recalled some of their interactions:

‘He would fly into tantrums sometimes, or just get mad and cranky. I’d bring him up straight by asking point blank, “Why are you yelling at me?”

Once I stopped an argument in mid-stream and asked if he enjoyed fighting with me. “Yes,” he responded, “I am a democrat.” I think he rather enjoyed our interchanges…. ‘

She says Moi believed he was loved by his people, having surrounded himself with sycophants, but he had his value to the US—in the Cold War he was in the American corner, playing off Washington and Moscow deftly, and his aspirations to be a regional statesman came in handy, where he intervened with Somalia’s warlords and in Sudan, and would even talk to Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko on America’s behalf.

One time, in an attempt to rein in the regime’s rampant corruption, the US voted no to a crucial $100 million World Bank loan to the energy sector, generating a lot of attention.

The only way out was by channelling the money through a private sector bank for transparency. Moi and Bushnell met at his private residence to sort out the problem.

The diplomat recalled: 

He said to me, “If I agree to this it’s going to set a precedent, and I’m worried.

I said, “You’re right, it will and I’d be worried about it too if I were you, because it means doing business differently.”

He said, “I don’t want to do business differently.”

And I said, “Then you’re not going to get the money. There you are, Mr President, you need to choose. I know life is unfair and this doesn’t seem good and right, but you need to understand our perspective and you have a choice to make. That’s what leaders do, they make difficult decisions.”

He called me after I got home, about an hour later and said, “I’ve decided to do it.” And I said, “Good for you, Mr President, you’ve made the right choice.”

“I felt like a life coach.”

Samuel Doe ‘was scared’

On April 12, 1980, Samuel Doe seized power from president William Tolbert, becoming the first non Americo-Liberian to hold power in 133 years. The coup was not totally unexpected, but the identity of its leader was—no one had ever heard of him. 

Liberia head of state Samuel Doe with the US Secretary of Defense of the United States Caspar W. Weinberger outside the Pentagon in 1982. (USMilitary/DOD/Wikimedia)

After a night of “the worst” ever military music on loop there was a break, and an announcement was made that Samuel Doe wanted to see the American ambassador and his Russian counterpart.

Julius Walker was the American chargé d’affaires and made his way to the Executive Mansion. He recalled: 

“We got to the Executive Mansion and found it had been shot up during the night and the automatic sprinkler system had come on, drenching the building. I met with Doe in a large gazebo. He and his committee were there to meet me.

It was warm, hot. Liberia is hot and steamy. This building was full of the odour of perspiration and fear. I don’t know how to tell you what fear smells like, but once you smell it you know what it is. It is overpowering.

Doe and his group sat on one side of the large room. A chair in the centre of the room was indicated as the place for me to sit. I sat and Doe started to talk then seemed to decide we weren’t close enough. He began hiking his chair closer as he sat in it. He would hold the chair, jump a bit and move forward. I began hiking mine towards him. And for a while we looked like a couple of turtles bouncing along the floor until we were almost face to face – only two feet apart.

Doe was scared. He had not really expected to be where he was, but once there he didn’t intend to give it up easily. He was certain forces were coming from all corners to attack him and he wanted America to send him strong support. I told him I had no idea what we would be able to do. That I would relay his request, but I was certain the United States wouldn’t support any regime killing its own people and the killing had to stop…’

Doe went on to rule until 1990, when he was killed by a rival faction.

Félix Houphouët-Boigny was a master manipulator, and invisible

Nothing in Houphouët-Boigny’s mien indicated he was one of Africa’s most powerful presidents—slight of height, “he was a roly-poly little guy whose feet barely reached the floor as he sat…” Herman Cohen, who has authored the book “The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen and Father Figures (published 2015), says.

But Houphouët-Boigny “was a master manipulator and destabiliser, but so low key as to be virtually invisible,” with an intense interest in dabbling in other countries affairs and a love for gossip, including calling his recommendation of Addis Ababa as the seat of the OAU the “biggest mistake of my presidency,” Cohen recalled.

One of his main foreign jobs was the overthrow of Samuel Doe, who deposed William Tolbert. Tolbert’s son had married Houphouët-Boigny’s goddaughter, but he was summarily executed by Doe’s men, who dragged him from the French embassy in Monrovia. Together with Libya and Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast backed Charles Taylor, the envoy says.

Houphouët-Boigny was also a significant but unobtrusive mentor to the leader of Angola’s UNITA, Jonas Savimbi, to whom he provided “money-laundering services”, and convinced him to show up in Gbadolite, DR Congo to smoke the peace pipe with Jose Eduardo Dos Santos in a showy conference organised by Mobutu Sese Seko, who dreamt of a Nobel Peace Prize. The resulting deal was however dead on arrival.

The Ivorian leader was also instrumental in Burkina Faso, where he backed an army coup led by Captains Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaore, Cohen says. But despite having his fingers in many African pies, Houphouët-Boigny remained invisible, pulling the strings from afar. He died in 1994—the glue that held the country together by his sheer will, it marked the slide into conflict for Francophone Africa’s richest economy.

Why Togo’s Eyadema couldn’t get to the White House

General Gnassingbé Eyadema is remembered as one of the longest serving African presidents, having come to power in 1967, staying on unitl his death on a flight in 2005.

General Etienne Gnassingbe Eyadema © IRIN

Togo did no experiment with socialism or Marxism, and remained extremely loyal to the US and France. As such despite his iron-fist rule he occupied a prime place in the West’s affections as the Cold War went on. At one point he was being groomed by Paris as the country’s point man in Africa, when Mobutu Sese Seko’s influence started waning.

But it all came down when the Soviet Union fell and his value as a bulwark against communism fell. The West started pressing for reform in a country that had seen little development in its entire post-independent history, despite its elites living large. Sensing the changing wind, Eyadema sought to be rehabilitated by a visit to the US.

Johnny Young, the American Ambassador to Togo between 1994-97, recalls:

Whenever I saw him, he said, “When can I get a visit to the United States?” I just ducked the issue each time by saying the timing isn’t right, Mr. President, we really can’t do it. I found one excuse after another when I was saying in my heart, “not on my watch, Buster, no way.”
I would be laughed out of the Service if I recommended him for a visit to the US and particularly with the change in circumstances in terms of our relationship with Africa in the late ‘90s versus what our relationship was in the late ‘80s. 

In the late ‘80s, mid ‘80s, he would have been welcomed once again, but it was a whole new world. We weren’t in competition with the communists anymore, so his use to us was really not the same. He could not change. He would say, “Well, you invited the president of Ghana. What was his name?” 

“Jerry Rawlings….But Rawlings came to power the way you did, in a bloody coup, but Rawlings reformed and changed and as a result has been recognised and has been given a place of honour in the international community. When you change, the same will happen to you. 

He couldn’t buy that at all. He said, I was your good friend, I stayed by you through thick and thin and he did. 

But the fact is the times had changed. He was not prepared to change with the times so he paid the price for that.’

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference

In 1992, make-or-break talks between Mozambiaque’s warring factions, the Front for Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and the Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO) took place in Rome.

Because of the small size of the Mozambican economy at the time, it was a zero-sum game: if you lost political power you were out in the streets.

Then US ambassador to Mozambique Dennis Jett narrated the extraordinary lengths they went to keep the talks in place.

“…[one day] the RENAMO people came to the Italians and said “We are not going to come to the negotiations tomorrow.”

The Italians said, “Why?”

And the RENAMO delegation said, “We don’t have any clothes. We came straight out of the bush so we have our beat up military uniforms and all the government people are going to show up in suits. We are just not going to feel good about that.”

The Italians said, “OK, we’ll take you out and we will buy you suits.” So they took the RENAMO delegation out and bought them suits.

I often wondered if the United States government were faced with a situation like that it would probably be powerless to do anything because we don’t have any money to buy suits for foreign delegations.

In any event, with their new suits RENAMO felt sufficiently empowered to show up and negotiate.”

A crucial deal was soon struck.

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