Manafort’s history of violence in Africa

For Nanjala Nyabola, the sentencing of Trump’s campaign chair tells us a lot about the West’s relationship to Africa.

President Ronald Reagan Meeting with Dr. Jonas Savimbi Regarding Angola in The Oval Office, 1/30/1986

The sentencing of President Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, for financial fraud did not really register in Africa’s news media, but it should have. For decades Manafort played the role of kingmaker for some of the most brutal figures on the continent. As part of the lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, he was an intermediary between the US and violent states and actors in Kenya, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Somalia and Angola. For these regimes, Manafort was a secret weapon; for the African people, Manafort was death and disaster.

Consider his involvement with the Angolan rebel, Jonas Savimbi. Following Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975, Savimbi led a brutal campaign in the countryside that sought not only to control the country’s agricultural lands and diamond mines, but the population that resided there as well. His soldiers were notorious for decapitating anyone – including children – who refused to work in the mines and for conscripting thousands of women into sexual slavery. Only after his death in 2002 was the country able to move meaningfully towards peace.

Manafort personally represented Savimbi in the US, helping establish his anti-communist credentials during the Reagan years, for which Savimbi was rewarded with military support in his war against Angola’s Marxist government. Manafort and his team oversaw every detail of Savimbi’s 1986 visit with Reagan and other senior US officials, down to creating a new wardrobe that presented him as a heroic freedom fighter. According to The Atlantic, in 1985 alone Savimbi paid Manafort and his company $600,000 for their lobbying services – much of which came from the illegal and violent diamond mining operation they ran in territories they controlled.

Yet it is telling that the Manafort sentencing was not directly related to his decades of malevolent interference in African politics but because of a misguided attempt to domesticate the practices that he had been doing abroad. Although his sentencing was not connected to allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, it was this spectre of foreign interference in American affairs that put Manafort under the microscope. The sentencing wasn’t about what Manafort did per se, it was about where he did it.

This tells us two things. The first is that African politics has always been a playground for the West’s dirty politics: a petri dish in which the lines between right and wrong are constantly blurred in the name of profit. Foreign private capital has always been and remains complicit in the worst systemic violence on the continent and this must be examined closely to protect African people from profiteering hacks like Manafort.

Secondly, the trajectory of the Manafort hearing reminds us that as long as they and their leaders choose to deprioritize their own welfare, African people will never be a priority for anyone else. Recall that until Russia-gate, Manafort was a well-known and relatively well-respected lobbyist despite public knowledge of the deep human damage that he had done in Africa. The onus is on African people and societies to organize to protect themselves from this kind of behaviour instead of waiting for foreign countries to get their houses in order.