The American Empire Invades Africa: an overview of US military influence and domination over an entire continent

Carlton Meyer, “The American Empire Invades Africa” (Tales of the American Empire, 11 June 2020)

Former US Marine Corps member Carlton Meyer recently created a series of several short videos, uploaded to Youtube.com, telling the history of US political, economic and military interference in the affairs of nations and continents around the world. In this 11-minute video, Meyer as narrator introduces viewers to a brief and occasionally quite detailed survey of US military activity in the African continent since the end of the Cold War in 1989 through US Africa Command (usually abbreviated to US Africom or just Africom), one of several regional command organisations of the US military. Starting with US general Wesley Clark’s list of seven countries whose governments had to be overthrown in the space of five years (after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001) as home base, Meyer traces the downfall of governments in Somalia, Libya and Sudan (three nations on the list) over a 20-year period. During the 1990s, US activity in Somalia (with Ethiopian assistance) removed a legitimate government in the form of the Union of Islamic Courts and prolonged an ongoing civil war among various clan-based groups in that country, with the result that Somalia became impoverished, huge numbers of refugees fled the country over the years, and political and economic instability still plague that part of Africa to this day. In 2011, NATO overthrew Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi’s government in Libya and likewise that nation, once Africa’s wealthiest country and formerly one of its most stable, is now poor and unstable, with the western and eastern parts of the country opposed to each other and fighting an ongoing civil war. Sudan was subjected to a forced separation of South Sudan from its territory in 2011 in order to weaken the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir; the President was finally ousted after nearly 30 years of rule in 2019. Since its creation from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has endured several years of civil war, human rights violations, political instability, poverty and the degradation of the cultures of the various Nilotic peoples living within its borders as people flee overseas from continuous war.

Photographs, maps, news reels and even archived news reels, combined with Meyer’s even-toned voiceover, create a straightforward factual narrative detailing overwhelming American imperialism and violence in destabilising African nations. The influence of Africom throughout the continent and the extent of its activities, involving the US National Guard from all 50 states in the Union, are demonstrated in the video’s ultimate centrepiece: a visual advertisement created by Africom itself detailing its activities and the colossal scale of these activities, employing at least a thousand US troops and others, in nearly all African countries except Egypt (part of US Centcom, centred in the Middle East). There is no need for Meyer to say anything about Africom at this point: the marketing is blunt and says all that is needed to say.

Wisely Meyer does not go into too much detail in this video as the target audience (the US general public) is not likely to know very much about US military activity in Africa generally and needs a general overview of the history of such interference. There are online resources for those viewers who want more information and information in depth on particular topics covered in the video. Being a military man, Meyer passes over other forms of US domination (financial, cultural, political, economic) over African countries. He says nothing about how the US became involved in African affairs, how it might have originally supported French and British colonial ambitions in the continent and then taken over once France and Britain left the continent in the 1960s. The video best serves as an introduction to a topic that rarely gets any mention in mainstream news media outlets.

Bad Black: car chases, kung fu, vengeance, the plight of orphans in poverty and social injustice all rolled into one film

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Bad Black” (2016)

Despite the tiny budget – even less than its predecessor, “Who Killed Captain Alex?”, apparently being about US$85 – this film proves to be very well made with a complex story of two parallel sub-plots referring to social issues of importance to Ugandans (and, well, the rest of the world, come to think of it). Given that the cast consists of local people in director Nabwana’s impoverished community Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, the acting is very good and the child actors who appear are especially natural and very appealing. The cinematography is quite good as well, though with the camera being handheld and having to follow running people, it can be quite ragged. The film was developed as an acting vehicle for Nabwana’s US sponsor Alan Ssali Hofmanis who plays himself as a foreign medical professional helping families in Wakaliga.

The main sub-plot revolves around a girl called Bad Black (Gloria Nalwanga) who comes into the world under dramatic circumstances: her father Swaaz robs a bank to try to help his wife Flavia in labour and leads police on a wild car chase before defiantly going up in flames while machine-gunning everyone who tries to stop him. (Along the way Swaaz kills Captain Alex so we finally discover what happens to the police officer from the earlier film.) His sidekick manages to get the money to hospital but apparently not before Flavia dies. Flavia’s daughter is adopted by a family but when that family falls on hard times, the adoptive grandfather Hirigi turfs the girl out. The child falls in with a child gang led by a Fagin-like figure. Eventually the girl earns her nickname, Bad Black, by getting rid of that Svengali figure and becoming the leader of the gang. Years later, Bad Black plots vengeance against Hirigi for disowning her; for his part, Hirigi falls in love with her, marries her and hands over most of what he possesses to her. But Bad Black hasn’t quite finished with him yet.

Dr Ssali runs a makeshift clinic in the Wakaliga slum dispensing medication when Bad Black manages to get his business card, breaks into his home and steals his valuables, including some precious family dog-tags. Dr Ssali’s assistant, a nine-year-old boy called Wesley Snipes (!). teaches the doctor how to fight and defend himself with kung fu so he can get his dog-tags back. His training done, Dr Ssali hunts down Bad Black and her gang, at the same time that the police are hunting down Bad Black and Company as well to bust a drug-running scheme. Among Bad Black’s followers is Kenny, Hirigi’s son whom Dad (now a rich businessman) has recently disowned for making a ghetto woman pregnant.

Much of the story is very cleverly told so that what appears at times to be social commentary about daily life in Wakaliga, how hard it is for poor people to live from day to day, turns out to be part of quite an intricate plot. We do not learn of Swaaz’s connection to Bad Black until very late in the film after all the car chases, kung fu fighting, shooting, killing and the prison break-out have been done. Nabwana injects slapstick and sometimes very witty commentary into scenes that in other films would be treated very seriously. The importance of family, the consequences that occur when families are forcibly broken up and people make bad decisions, the heartbreak and tragedies suffered by children forced to grow up on the street and to join gangs, the trouble caused when people seek vengeance at any cost, the abuse of poor people by the selfish rich, the possibility of redemption – and, in the case of Dr Ssali, being true to your nature and not suppressing it – these are all themes that drive this film. Even the crazy car chases, the fighting, the machine-gun action and the constant obsession with Hollywood action-thriller actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude van Damme and others tell viewers something about life and the culture, how uncertain one’s path in life can be, of urban slum neighbourhoods in Kampala. Most of all, the black humour that exists as a survival mechanism and a way of bonding with others equally suffering from poverty and social injustice is part and parcel of the film thanks to narrator / voice joker VJ Emmie who not only interprets for the actors and describes the actions but also gets fully involved in the plot and cracks jokes, puns and witticisms (“This doctor needs borders!”) along the way.

The plot might not make complete sense and much of it is bat-shit bizarre with hilarious characters and many situations that Western viewers will feel should be treated seriously, based as they are in a context of official corruption and social injustice yet are pumped by Nabwana for their black comedy potential. Women crowded together in a shit-hole prison? – no problem, they are populated with outrageous characters like the Big Mama prisoner known as Supa Zilla. But no matter how silly and implausible the various plot-lines turn out to be with their laughable plot twists, “Bad Black” has charm, self-deprecating humour, the most hilarious special effects and Nabwana’s enthusiasm and passion for making films in and about his community that infects everyone who comes into contact with him and his work – and that includes those who watch his films.

Elite commandos, Tiger Mafia gangsters and Ugandan Shaolin Temple monks go head to head in “Who Killed Captain Alex?”

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Who Killed Captain Alex?” (2010)

Reputedly made on a budget of US$200 (though American-born Ugandan producer Alan Ssali Hofmanis admits the budget was actually US$85), this action-packed comedy of Uganda’s finest military commandos taking on the country’s most dangerous criminal organisation is a riveting work of amateur improvised film-making under conditions of poverty in a corrupt and authoritarian state. Captain Alex (William Kakule), one of the finest officers in the Uganda People’s Defence Force, sets out to destroy the evil Richard (Ernest Sseruyna) and his Tiger Mafia, which controls the slum neighbourhoods of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. After losing most of his commandos in a near-botched stealth operation on a group of Tiger Mafia drug couriers, Captain Alex manages to capture Richard’s brother and bring him to the police. On seeing the bad news on Ramon TV, the major TV channel in Wakaliga (a poor suburb on the outskirts of Kampala), Richard swears vengeance on Captain Alex and sends out a female spy to the military headquarters to seduce the officer and lure him to Richard. Alas and alack, Captain Alex ends up very dead in his tent – but no-one knows who killed him.

Alex’s brother Bruce U (Charles Bukenya), a Ugandan Shaolin monk, arrives in town, having heard of Alex’s death, swearing vengeance on Alex’s murderers. Bruce U has a few adventures in which he must do battle with the local Kampala kung fu squad and is nearly seduced by Ritah (Prossy Nakyambadde), one of Richard’s numerous and expendable wives. In the meantime, Richard is determined to find out who killed Captain Alex and hires Puffs (G Puffs), a mercenary from Russia, to steal a military helicopter and bomb Kampala for revenge. The Uganda People’s Defence Force also swear to avenge Captain Alex’s death by capturing Richard, though this means having to work out an ambush plan which clearly taxes their brains. They manage to work out where in Uganda Richard is likely to be hiding and start to encroach on him and his minions. Bruce U is captured by Richard’s men who bring him to their boss, who then forces Bruce U to fight Puffs’ assassins. Just as Bruce U succumbs to one flying kick, the commandos arrive and proceed to bomb the warehouse where Richard and his people are hiding. At the same time, Puffs’ destruction of Kampala creates breaking news on Ramon TV and forces the Ugandan government to declare martial law in Kampala.

When the dust eventually settles and the remaining commandos and mafiosi have to count the huge numbers of casualties, viewers are still no closer to discovering just who killed Captain Alex. At least the exuberant and histrionic acting, the crazed machine-gun shooting and the resulting mayhem, the kung fu fighting, and most of all the hilarious dialogue and narration by VJ Emmie (“What da fuck?!”) maintain the cheerfully frenetic pace in this devil-may-care, self-referential work. With respect to VJ Emmie’s voice-over narration and commentary, filled with jokes and openly exuberant as Emmie becomes absorbed in the plot and the action, there are very many highlights but the funniest of all must be the conversation over a woman early on in the bar-room scene: 1st man says, “Are you crazy? That is my wife! Get off my wife!” – to which 2nd man replies, “I thought [she] was a goat!” Another gem, this one from Emmie: “… All Ugandans know kung fu! …” One joke clearly meant for Ugandans involves a woman who is tortured because she insists on watching Nigerian movies.

Surprisingly for such a cheaply made and shot film with meagre resources, the plot is very involved and quite sophisticated in its own way, even though many details of the plot are full of holes, with a mystery that remains unsolved despite the body count and the destruction, and the ending remains open as the Ugandan government puts Kampala under lock-down while Puffs flies off in his stolen chopper into the sunset. The cinematography can be astonishingly good, especially in Bruce U’s training and fight scenes. The action is brisk and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, expecting the … well, the unexpectable!

Part of the film’s charm is that the cast is drawn from local people in director IGG Nabwanza’s home community in Wakaliga, and all the props used in the film are local as well. The action takes place in and around Wakaliga. The special effects are really very good when one considers they were done on computers that Nabwanza himself put together out of salvaged scrap. The film is highly self-referential, as VJ Emmie constantly reminds the target Ugandan audience what it is they are watching, and this continual self-referral builds up the notion of an all-embracing universe called Wakaliwood, in which supa-killa elite commandos and supa-crazy Tiger Mafia killers fight as much for the fun of fighting as they do for control and dominance.

Attack on Nyege Nyege Island: mini action thriller short featuring killer King Kong kung-fu kicks

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island” (2016)

The tiny but already globally famous Ugandan film industry (known as Ugawood, taking after the manner of Bollywood and Nollywood which represent the popular film industries of India and Nigeria respectively) already boasts its very own Quentin Tarantino cult figure in the person of one Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, also known as Nabwana IGG, who since 2009 has been making comedy action thriller flicks on literal shoe-string budgets as low as US$200 (!!!) with cheap special effects which he knocks up on his computer, which he built himself out of scrap material in his impoverished neighbourhood Wakaliga, a suburb in Kampala, and featuring voice-over narration from so-called “voice jokers” who dub or translate the dialogue into English for audiences and who often add their own interpretations and jokes into the narration for hilarious effect. Beginning with his most famous film “Who killed Captain Alex?”, Nabwana’s films take place in a particular universe, of course familiar to us and yet an odd place where it seems blaxploitation and martial arts flicks common in the 1970s never went out of fashion, drug lords commanding mafia gangs and big bosses running worldwide trafficking rackets not only still exist but still wear the most god-awful flamboyant fashions, and fighters are as likely to send one another to overflowing morgues with well-aimed kung fu kicks as with AK-47s that they just can’t seem to control.

In case this all sounds too much for readers, Nabwana kindly provides a taster of his distinctive world with a 12-minute short “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island”, a film he improvised and made in two days during the Nyege Nyege Festival. The musicians and the audience at the festival, and the community who hosted it, make up the film’s entire cast. All you need to know is that the festival is gatecrashed by commandos from the fearsome Tiger Mafia gang – whose big boss wears an odd mask of three CD-ROM discs over his forehead and eyes – who proceed to shoot up everyone in sight in their quest to kidnap somebody called Anna whom their boss seems inordinately fond of. In desperation two girls in the Nyege Nyege community summon the spirit guardian, a human-sized King Kong figure who proceeds to knock out and knock off the Tiger Mafia gangsters with Killer Kung Fu fighting.

The acting is probably better than might be expected in a cheerfully cheap film such as this, and the special effects are actually on par with the famously legendary cheap special effects of the old original Doctor Who television series that ran from 1963 to 1989. Needless to say, the plot is almost non-existent and just when it almost runs out of juice, the film ends on a cliff-hanger that can only be resolved at the next Nyege Nyege Festival. The voice joker is as much an essential part of the action as he introduces characters and does not so much explain or narrate as push the story along with exhortations and hurrahs.

The remarkable thing is that this and other films by Nabwanza’s film production company Ramon Productions (named after his grandmothers) exist at all, with their breezy self-deprecating humour and fearless gung-ho DIY spirit, in the slums of Kampala.

The Constant Gardener: a decent film with a message about corporate greed and psychopathy within the limits of the political thriller genre

Fernando Meirelles, “The Constant Gardener” (2005)

Based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, this film combines elements of the spy thriller with an environmental message about corporate greed and cynicism. At the same time it’s a personal story of loss and regret leading to self-discovery, courage and self-sacrifice. Justin (Ralph Fiennes) is a shy diplomat at the British High Commission in Kenya grieving over the death of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) who was brutally killed while travelling through a remote part of Kenya with her driver. Initially a doctor friend (Herbert Koundé) of hers is blamed for the murders but Justin discovers the doctor was killed the same day as she was and moreover was not her lover in spite of various insinuations floating about.

The first half of the film is told in flashback starting from when Justin and Tessa first meet and fall in love. Tessa is a lawyer who takes on cases dealing with issues of social justice, a topic Justin has shied away from in his work and horticultural leisure pursuits. While their marriage seems ideal and they both treasure each other, Justin never quite understands Tessa’s zeal or the work that she is doing, and Tessa is not completely honest about why she approached Justin initially. It turns out that she is investigating drug trials being conducted by a large and powerful pharmaceutical corporation on poor communities in Kenya, and has uncovered evidence of lies and cover-ups concerning the severe side effects suffered by the people in the trials. She needs Justin as his job gives him – and her – clearance to travel around Kenya with minimum hassle from local authorities. In the course of his investigation into his wife’s murder, Justin soon learns that his boss Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) ordered surveillance on Tessa to stop her from publicising her information. As Justin continues with his searches, he also comes within the target sights of Tessa’s killers and must decide whether he should retreat back to his old life as a pen-pushing bureaucrat and part-time horticulturalist or continue to find Tessa’s killers at the cost of his own life.

For its length, the film moves smoothly and relentlessly to its goal as Justin investigates his wife’s murder, finds out that the murderers have tried to besmirch her name and that of her driver, and discovers that her activist work put her life in extreme danger. The perpetrators are very powerful individuals who will stop at nothing to hide their crimes and they have links to the highest levels in the British and Kenyan governments. The plot is complicated but not too much so, and viewers will get some enjoyment of guessing who Tessa’s killers are before Justin does. The flashbacks and choppy edits may confuse some watchers and obscure the plot’s message of corporate skulduggery, greed and psychopathy in sacrificing the lives of people in the pursuit of profit and glory.

The film’s best assets are its lead actors Fiennes and Weisz who obviously relish the roles they were given and play them to the hilt. There is good screen chemistry between the two, and viewers get a good sense of Fiennes maturing from the diffident everyday man who initially prefers to keep his head down and tail up, not really understanding his wife’s zeal, to someone who fully appreciates the loss and emptiness left behind by her death, and the value of her work. In understanding his wife and her work, he finds a new inspiration to guide his life and the courage to follow Tessa. Danny Huston plays decent support as Sandy Woodrow whose allegiances are never entirely clear until the final scene. Other fine actors like Archie Panjabi and Bill Nighy are reduced to wallpaper when perhaps their characters should be much more significant in the plot’s development.

Parts of the film are stereotyped – there is the obligatory car chase – and of course with a Kenyan setting there must be ample time given over to filming scenes of magnificent wildlife and appalling Third World poverty and squalor which borders on racism. Because the film’s focus is on white individuals, and in particular on developing the love story between the two main characters so that the audience feels attachment and sympathy for them, the effect is to render Kenyan people as background props, which tends to support an unintentional and stereotyped view of white people like Tessa as saviours to helpless Third World people being exploited by other white people and their institutions and structures. The apartheid society installed by the British in Kenya in colonial times has survived intact and unless viewers are alert to the historical background, they may not notice the divisions between black and white people.

In all, the film is quite good within the limitations of its genre but it might have been a great movie if it had gone beyond the suspense action thriller requirements.

Pumzi: short film with powerful message of preserving resources, freedom and human imagination and dignity

Wanuri Kahiu, “Pumzi” (“Breath”) (2009)

Just over 20 minutes long, this movie short from Kenya is set in a post-apocalyptic future where a global war has rendered the surface of the Earth dangerously radioactive and completely barren and water has all but disappeared. The remnants of the human population live underground and are ruled by a highly repressive technocratic state that outlaws daydreaming, in case it encourages independent thinking and innovation. In this sterile environment, Asha (Kudzani Moswela) works as a curator at the Virtual Reality Museum where she grows hydroponic plants. One day she receives a parcel with no return address. She opens it and finds soil inside that’s not radioactive and has a high water content. Information about the soil’s original location and its latitude and longitude co-ordinates is enclosed but that’s it. Impossible, she knows – but she pops some of the soil into a jar, pours water into it and inserts one of her hydroponic plants into the soil. Instead of going black and wilting to death, the plant starts to germinate. Asha reports her findings to her superiors via a PC-conferencing keyboard that vocally pronounces her thoughts and reproduces her dreams visually, and requests an exit visa to leave her part of the warren and travel to the area where the soil sample was found by the unknown parcel-sender. Incensed, Asha’s superiors order her arrest and the destruction of her work. Guards quickly arrive in the Museum and smash things and take her into custody. Helped by a janitor (Charlotte Burger), Asha retrieves a compass, her plant and her water bottle and escapes her underground home into the desert.

The dystopian future world where Asha lives and works is beautifully and starkly presented: it’s a minimalist and sterile arena where everyone dresses the same and has the same hair-style, or none rather, as in these times of rigorous water rationing, washing your hair wastes the precious liquid. Every single drop of water or its derivation must be saved so when Asha uses the communal bathroom or works up a sweat exercising on the gym equipment which is designed to convert human energy into kinetic energy for electricity, she must pop the waste product into a steriliser and use the purified water. Sooner or later she’s going to run out of water as every time she recycles it, some of it must be lost through her metabolism as water vapour in the air she breathes out. So she’d have to buy a new supply of water and that would put her in debt to the totalitarian state. Clever idea! We see just a small part of this society but as it deals with such deeply personal issues as conserving and recycling your own body wastes, it tells us much about the control the state exercises over Asha and the other humans without any need for voice-over exposition or dialogue between characters. Asha and the people she interacts with show very little emotion – being poker-faced here may mean the difference between life and death – but we get a sense of Asha’s desperation as she becomes a fugitive to preserve the few freedoms she has: freedom to dream, freedom to hope for a different future, freedom to investigate and follow a particular area of scientific research and to bring possible benefits to others.

Moswela’s acting is spare and precise; the camera often focusses on her face as emotions flit quickly over her eyes and cheeks, or on her long slender fingers as she opens the parcel, puts the soil into the jar and then the plant inside. She bridges the two halves of the film, the first half taking place underground and the second half featuring her travels in the harsh desert seeking the tree of her dreams. Asha’s wanderings look like the stuff of allegory, referencing perhaps the wanderings of Jesus in the desert for 40 days and nights subject to the Devil’s temptations, or the hardships Siddhartha Gautama put himself under before he found enlightenment and became the Buddha. She meets with superficial triumph followed by despair but never gives up hope for her plant. Some viewers can guess in advance what happens to Asha but her context leaves her with virtually no options.

Preservation of the earth’s resources is a strong theme as is also the relationship of an individual to the State and how the State can have a stranglehold over people’s bodies, thoughts, imagination and behaviour. There is much symbolism as well: the plant represents hope, the future and the regeneration of life among other things; its germination paradoxically puts Asha’s own life in danger. Asha represents the independent thinker, the lone seeker who must exist on the edges of society to find truth. Her relationship to her people mirrors the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in which prisoners in a cave believe shadows and illusions represent reality as they are compelled to face the cave walls only, until one prisoner is freed and is able to look outside the cave. Asha could also be an Earth Mother giving her life to nurture her plant.

The film might benefit from a longer and more involved treatment of its themes, ideas and characters: we learn very little about Asha’s background and her motivations and why she’s prepared to be a fugitive rather than give in to her superiors. As it is, it’s recommended watching as a description of what our world could be like after global wars have made Earth sterile and destroyed democracy and political freedoms.