Samantha Power, Ebola, and Obama’s Scramble for Africa

It is crucial to re-examine Samantha Power’s actions and decision-making during the Ebola epidemic in relation to the broader historical context of President Barack Obama and AFRICOM (Africa Command)’s covert Scramble for Africa.

AFRICOM is the brainchild of Dick Cheney who, after his energy task force identified African oil as ripe for the picking, conspired with Donald Rumsfeld to create Africa Command. (1) However, African governments wanted nothing to do with AFRICOM. South African officials in particular criticized the US for attempting to impose AFRICOM to undermine China’s growing influence on the continent. (2) Mao Zedong deserves credit for masterminding China’s original “pivot to Africa” in the sixties, sending engineers and guerrilla warfare instructors to coach aspiring revolutionaries in Zambia, Rhodesia, and Zanzibar. (3) Following the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 and the USSR’s dissolution in 1991, China’s engagement with Africa focused strictly on trade. By 2006, Sino-African trade skyrocketed to $55.5 billion—a very worrying development for Washington policymakers anxious about China’s rapid  ascendency to superpower status. The US was getting “lapped” (to borrow athlete Samantha Power’s phrase) by the Asian Dragon in Africa and AFRICOM seemed like a solution. But American foreign policy was a public relations catastrophe due to the Iraqi and Afghan quagmires. Everyone knew why the US courted Africa and it had little to do with disaster relief. Material benefits tempted poorer African nations to welcome AFRICOM bases, but Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi quickly cajoled them back into line. (4)

Whether you admire or despise him, Ghaddafi was nothing if not consistent in his anti-imperialist foreign policy. Within a year of ousting the British-backed King Idris during the 1969 Libyan Revolution, Ghaddafi dismantled the US Wheelus Air Base and expelled all foreign military personnel. The US never forgave this defiance and endeavoured to destroy Libya via protracted proxy wars. In 1978, a nearly decade long conflict erupted between Libya and Chad’s rulers. One of whom, Hissène Habré, “the creation of the Americans in no small measure”, was convicted of war crimes in 2015 for murdering 40,000 people. (5) While Cuban troops inflicted humiliating defeats on US-backed South African apartheid armies in Namibia and Angola, the Libyans, after a string of victories in the early eighties, were eventually booted out of northern Chad by 1987, outmatched by combined US and French firepower. Yet Ghaddafi ‘s regime lived to fight another day, and he sprang into action once again as the spectre of American imperialism returned to haunt Africa in the form of AFRICOM.

By 2008, the US offered massive sums of money to African governments in return for hosting US military bases. In response, Ghaddafi doubled the money so that African nations withdrew from the bargain —a tactic which paid-off handsomely when the African Union rejected AFRICOM. Moreover, Ghaddafi was a staunch pan-Africanist who aimed to terminate Africa’s reliance on Western finance. The African Investment Bank based in Libya, whose goal was to fund African development at no interest, could have posed a serious challenge to the IMF’s domination if the regime had survived. In short, as Dan Glazebrook argues, Ghaddafi’s Libya, for all its faults, represented the last line of defence for Africa’s political and economic independence. Libya’s descent into anarchy, piracy, terrorism, and modern-day slavery in the wake of Ghaddafi’s execution cleared the way for AFRICOM’s stealth invasion of Africa. (6)

Shortly after NATO’s destruction of Libya left the continent exposed to unprecedented levels of US meddling, the Obama administration ignored African hostility to AFRICOM and imposed a US military hardware “superhighway” in the Horn of Africa. As Nick Turse observed, “operations in Africa have accelerated far beyond the limited interventions of the Bush years”. (7) From Chabelley base in Djibouti to Camp Gilbert in Ethiopia, the latter replete with modern gyms and video game parlours, AFRICOM’s tentacles slithered deeper into the continent by 2012. The US hired mercenaries or contractors to man surveillance-aircraft jetting out of Entebbe in Uganda as hundreds of US commandos shared bases with Kenyan soldiers in Manda Bay. US marines trained recruits in the Burundi National Defence Force, while AFRICOM oversaw fourteen major joint-training exercises with armed forces in Morocco, Botswana, Lesotho, Senegal, and South Africa in a single year. Before drones took headlines by storm, cumbersome reconnaissance planes flying out of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso dotted the skies above Mali and Mauritania like parched vultures scouring for prey. A new era of colonial misadventure and exploitation was well and truly underway in Africa. (8)

Less than a year before she purportedly saved the world from Ebola, Samantha Power set her sights lower and saved the civil-war ridden Central African Republic in December 2013. Dreading that another Rwandan genocide was in the offing as Muslim Seleka insurgents and Christian militias threatened to hack each other to pieces, Power begged the international community and the US in particular to intervene before it was too late. (9) By April 2014, Power got her wish. The UN Security Council authorized the deployment of thousands of US-backed African Union peacekeeping troops into the CAR. (10) Within three years, the US “provided more than $800 million to fund humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping operations, peacebuilding and reconciliation programs”. (11)

AFRICOM already established a foothold in the CAR before Power’s intervention, nominally hot on the heels of the deranged Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony lurking in the thick jungles straddling the border between Uganda and the CAR. (12) Curiously, according to the Washington Post, US advisors tasked with bringing Kony to the ICC (International Criminal Court) weren’t keen on completing their mission. Locals in the southern CAR region of Obo grew fearful of their new American visitors, while Ugandan and Congolese officers wondered why US Special forces soldiers, equipped with the latest high-tech gadgets and satellite imagery, never bothered to pursue Kony into the forests. (13) In fact, Kony, the Osama Bin Laden of sub-Saharan Africa, is still on the run today.

This is pure speculation, but it is doubtful capturing Kony was the real reason why AFRICOM ventured into the CAR. It’s even harder to believe US officials claiming they were driven by the goodness of their hearts to prevent ethnic cleansing:  “I mean [CAR] is not a strategic target. Outside of “never again”, why else would we have gotten involved?” (14) Aside from the fact the CAR is renowned for harbouring vast diamond, gold, copper, uranium, and timber reserves, virtually all neighbouring states like Chad, Sudan, the DRC, and even South Africa took turns vying for control of the CAR’s resources for forty years by sponsoring violent coups and rebellions. (15) Was the US any nobler in its intentions? Evidence is scant at this time, but history and common sense suggest otherwise.

Samantha’s soft power posturing in the CAR, wittingly or not, was part and parcel of the Obama administration’s scramble for Africa. The old-fashioned, fire-and-fury, full-spectrum dominance-styled interventionism of the Bush/Cheney era was inconceivable and unpopular both at home and abroad. Therefore, Obama and Power looked elsewhere to legitimize US imperialism in Africa. They settled on a new doctrine centred around “human security”, a term borrowed from Global Health Governance lingo.

Maryam Deloffre defines this relatively novel doctrine thusly: “human security broadens the notion of security to focus on the individual and then considers things such as poverty, pandemics, and climate-change disasters…as security threats”. (16) This doctrine sounds reasonable in theory. Who can deny that deadly viruses like Ebola or Covid are a danger to our collective human security? But the practical application of this doctrine is problematic. As Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh argues, the developing world sees no noticeable difference between “human security” and traditional interventionist agendas like R2P (Responsibility to Protect- the thesis of Samantha Power’s book A Problem From Hell). For the Global South, “human security” policies are code for brutal interventions. (17) Nefarious actors like the US military are much too likely to instrumentalize “human security” to further the interests of corporations on the lookout for resources to plunder.

The weaponization of global health has been the bedrock of AFRICOM’s “human security” doctrine since the organisation’s inception. Stephen Harrow, former director of the Africa program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, stated in 2008 that AFRICOM would strive to gain a foothold on the continent via “rising commitments with respect to global health in Africa”. Dr Dan Henk at the US Air War College stressed that military planners in AFRICOM focused on health, infrastructural rehabilitation, environmental renewal, and human security to interfere in Africa nations. (18) In 2009, reports at the Department of Defence’s Global Health Engagement programme recommended the creation of “an overall global health security plan that combines civilian and military disease surveillance capabilities”. In February 2014, Assistant Secretary of Defence Jonathan Woodson emphasised once again that the US military had to expand its global health engagement strategy. (19) Clearly, AFRICOM planned to use “human security” crises as justifications to intervene in whatever natural disaster African nations will suffer next. The Ebola epidemic happened to be that opportunity.

By September 2014, both President Obama and Samantha Power spoke fluent “human security” parlance in speeches warning of the existential threat that Ebola posed to the world. Obama likened Ebola to ISIS terrorists and declared “ This is an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security…it’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down…” (20) At the UN Security Council Power echoed her boss and announced “…we have declared the current outbreak a threat to international peace and security”. (21) The rhetoric worked like a charm. Swept up by fear, confusion, and panic, 130 nations co-sponsored UN Resolution 2177 on Ebola Relief, guaranteeing the militarization of medical and humanitarian responses to the pandemic—much to the delight of AFRICOM. Power’s behind-the-scenes schmoozing at the UN, to get member states to back the bill, certainly was a “significant achievement”— it gave the West and the US military carte blanche to “intervene anywhere in the developing world”. (22) Power didn’t save the world from Ebola, but she definitely made it easier for the US to conquer it.

As Jacob Levich noted, “the Ebola crisis offered a useful cover for a substantial escalation in US military presence” in West Africa. The White House authorized the transfer of 3,000 troops to Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal under AFRICOM command by September 2014. Another US military base was constructed in Monrovia during this deployment as well. (23) If the Bush administration spent years courting, flattering, and hosting dictators like Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea in return for oil, Obama jettisoned the pleasantries and let the military swoop right into West Africa. (24) Lest there be any lingering doubt about Washington’s true objectives in the region, consider this: war game simulations at the Pentagon imagined a terrorist attack in New York would be the perfect excuse to invade Mauritania. (25)

For West Africans on the ground, US military aid was no different to an occupation. Cartoon sketches in Monrovian newspapers joked that Liberians should prepare themselves for the day US soldiers come barging into homes with guns akimbo shouting “ KNOCK KNOCK !! HUMANITARIAN AID!! Alongside the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, France, and African Union states all sent troops to pacify the virus. China was the only nation to deploy mostly medical personnel. (26) Marouf Hasain Jr contends that the overwhelming militarization and securitization of social life in West Africa during the epidemic remains one of the most defining memories for survivors and witnesses today. (27) Medical anthropologist Adia Benton concedes that local armies and police were guilty of repressing certain segments of their own people, while foreign troops were generally well-behaved but indifferent to local populations. (28) As Mark Honigsbaum observed in his analysis of the WHO’s initial mismanagement of the Ebola pandemic, many Liberians, Guineans, and Sierra Leonians did not think highly of foreign medical or military staff, who often only treated Westerners airlifted to Europe or the US, while Africans were left to die in abysmal hospitals. (29)

This blatantly colonial conduct and rhetoric (Airforce Colonel Clint Hinote compared Ebola to ideological contamination and encouraged public health workers to employ counter-insurgency measures) is jarring, given that the CIA is largely responsible for ruining Liberia as a functioning democracy. (30) Three decades worth of CIA destabilization campaigns doomed Liberia’s healthcare system long before Ebola struck—an inconvenient truth everyone in mainstream media avoided like the plague.

Historian Jeremy Kuzmarov argues that, had the CIA never conspired to topple President William Tolbert in 1980, Liberia may have avoided the disastrous fate so many African nations now endure. Despite immense pressure from Jimmy Carter to relinquish Liberia’s sovereignty, Tolbert refused to allow another US base to deface his country. He liberalized Liberia’s political system, advocated for African economic independence, and introduced universal healthcare and free education. Much like Ghaddafi, Tolbert paid the ultimate price for his heresy. He was killed by US-backed rebels led by Samuel Doe, who allowed US embassy staff to dictate policy in every Liberian ministry. Doe embraced neoliberalism, worked closely with the IMF to privatize industries, and granted US military personnel unlimited access to local airports to funnel weapons to anti-communist “contras”.

The CIA tired of Doe as well and schemed to replace him with Charles Taylor, who plunged Liberia into a devastating civil war throughout the nineties. The US, hedging its bets, backed Taylor’s rebels who were “advised…on how to carry out the conflict in Liberia”, while President Bill Clinton helped fund the West-African peacekeeping force allied with Doe’s loyalists. Following years of atrocities, Taylor emerged victorious after winning elections in 1997. Clinton and, bizarrely, Jesse Jackson warmed up to Taylor until George Bush ruined the party. Taylor resigned as president of Liberia in 2003 after the ICC convicted him of war crimes, only to be succeeded by another US embassy favourite, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (31) The Harvard-educated and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Sirleaf presided over a capital where none of its citizens could access running water for six years during her tenure as president. She surrendered the countryside to bands of rampaging warlords and paramilitaries, proved powerless to prevent Liberian death squads from collaborating with a French army that killed thousands in the Ivory Coast, and is the only leader on the continent to offer AFRICOM Liberian territory to build a base. (32)

With such a long record of unspeakable poverty, criminal leadership, and CIA wrongdoing, is it any wonder Liberia was ill-equipped to face Ebola? Western media hardly mentioned this history when lamenting woefully understaffed and ramshackle West African hospitals. Not a hint of sympathy for these public health systems can be found in the US press. Journalists from Medical Daily heaped praise on authoritarian corporate entities instead, like the Firestone Rubber company , whose innovative managers took it upon themselves to do the job governments and socialised healthcare proved incapable of doing. (33) We are told Firestone spared no expense to protect its approximately 80,000 strong workforce. Accomplishments included training medical personnel, using bribes and bullying to acquire resources, and the construction of makeshift quarantine shelters. Yet not a word about Firestone’s appalling human rights record and working conditions tantamount to “the modern equivalent of slavery”. (34)

None of this bothered the head honchos at AFRICOM. It didn’t matter that most Ebola Treatment Units (mainly large tents filled with cheap plastic mattresses) the US military erected in West Africa remained empty for the duration of the epidemic. It didn’t matter that even the Washington Post admitted Obama’s militarized aid intervention made little discernible impact on halting the spread of Ebola. The disease had already subsided before the ETUs were set-up. (35) What did matter was that the “human security” doctrine Obama trumpeted and Samantha Power legitimized at the UN had become reality. The White House kicked one nasty intervention habit, only to pick up a “healthier” one. AFRICOM solidified its stranglehold further via partnerships like APORA (African Partner Outbreak Response Alliance), which sees the US Armed Forces Health Surveillance Centre “help improve African militaries’ ability to effectively support civilian authorities to identify and respond to a disease outbreak”. (36) African nations like Rwanda are now cooperating with APORA in some capacity. (37) Mission accomplished.

Here is a summary of the numerous AFRICOM military installations and operations which proliferated throughout Africa since the Ebola epidemic:

  • In 2014 the US built a gargantuan drone base in Agadez, Niger, to spy on or eliminate various Islamic groups, born out of the chaos of NATO’s disastrous regime change war in Libya, scattered across the Sahel region in Mauritania, Chad, and Sudan. (38)
  • One of AFRICOM’s permanent bases at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti has exponentially grown in size as more drones and military hardware flood the Horn of Africa.
  • Airports in Entebbe, Uganda, have been especially active since 2014, as the US military helps ship “equipment and soldiers to the Central African Republic in support of the African Union’s effort to confront destabilizing forces and violence”. (39) (referring to the ongoing civil war between Christians and Muslims in the CAR—a quagmire which Russia is now embroiled in)
  • The US now frequently leads joint military exercises with the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea—to keep a sharp eye on the safe passage of Nigerian oil tankers to the US. The “official” justification for this military presence is, according to Ghanaian socialist groups, to suppress the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. (40)
  • For over a decade, the US has trained the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo)’s army—a relationship which deepens with each passing year. A separatist Ugandan rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is keeping US military advisors, along with their Congolese and Ugandan counterparts, extremely busy in the oil-rich Lake Albert region. (41)
  • AFRICOM even acts as the European Union’s informal customs officer. Since EU nations have quietly moved their borders from the Mediterranean sea all the way down to the southern reaches of the Sahara Desert, US and French bases in Mauritania and Chad keep watch on masses of refugees desperately trying to escape uninhabitable weather conditions and incessant warfare. (42)
  • In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s State Department was caught granting waivers for military aid to the South Sudanese military, despite its employ of child soldiers. (43)
  • In 2018, geographer Adam Moore noted Air Forces Africa intended to construct 30 permanent or temporary bases in four African nations. Vice News alleged the US military set-up six new facilities in Somalia alone, while smaller “contingency” bases were present in Cameroon and Mali. A contingency outpost in Gabon was soon converted into a forward command centre. (44)
  • In 2018, the US roped Ghana into its sphere of influence by persuading Plagiariser-in-chief Nana Akufo-Addo to sign a 20 million dollar “Status of Forces” agreement, which allows US military personnel to carry arms, grants them immunity if accused of crimes, and heavily implies a base will eventually be built on Ghanaian soil. The President lied to protesters opposing this capitulation, promising US bases would stay away from Ghana.
  • In 2021, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari pleaded with the US to relocate AFRICOM from Stuttgart, Germany, to somewhere in Africa so as to coordinate attacks against Islamic militants. Once upon a time, Nigeria was one of AFRICOM’s most vociferous critics.
  • Finally, AFRICOM is sending attachés and consultants to the African Union’s meetings, arousing fears that the AU’s security and response framework is being slowly co-opted to benefit American corporate and military interests at the expense of member states. (45)

Samantha Power served her purpose, intentionally or not, as an agent of US empire. One might file her actions under the heading ‘benevolent imperialism’. The US’ militarized response to the Ebola epidemic precipitated AFRICOM’s far from benign incursions into West Africa—and Power was there to see it through.


(1) Horace G. Campbell, “Obama in Africa”, (26/6/2013),

(2) Abel Esterhuyse, “The Iraqization of Africa? Looking at AFRICOM from a South African Perspective”, Strategic Studies Quarterly, (2008), pp. 111-115.

(3) Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History (London,2019), pp. 185-223.

(4) A. Carl LeVan, “The Political Economy of African responses to the US Africa Command”, Africa Today (2010), p. 2.

(5) Jeremy Kuzmarov, “How the CIA Helped Ruin Liberia”, (30/7/2021).

(6) Dan Glazebrook, “NATO’s War on Libya is an Attack on African Development”, (6/9/2011).

(7) Nick Turse, “Obama’s Scramble for Africa”, (12/7/2012),

(8) Ibid.

(9) Bate Felix and Pascal Fletcher, “Ghost of Rwanda” haunts as US envoy visits Central African Republic”, (19/12/2013).

(10) Andrew Katz, “UN Authorizes Peacekeeping Mission to Central African Republic”, (9/4/2014).

(11) Charles J. Brown, “The Obama Administration and the struggle to prevent atrocities in the Central Republic December 2012-September 2014”, (November 2016), p. 7.

(12) Nick Turse, “Obama’s Scramble for Africa”, (12/7/2012).

(13) Sudarsan Raghavan, “In Africa, US troops moving slowly against Joseph Kony and his militia”, (16/4/2012).

(14) Brown, “The Obama Administration…”, p. 8.

(15) Henry Kam Kah, “History, External Influence, and Political Volatility in Central African Republic (CAR)”, (2014), pp. 18-20.

(16) Jacob Levich, “The Gates Foundation, Ebola, and Global Health Imperialism”, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology (September 2015), p. 726.

(17) Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, “Human Security twenty years on”, (June 2014).

(18) Esterhuyse, “The Iraqization of Africa?…”, pp. 115-116.

(19) Thomas Cullison, Charles Beadling, Elizabeth Erickson, “Global Health Engagement: A Military Medicine Core Competency”, (1/1/2016).

(20) Cheryl Pellerin, “Obama: UN will Mobilize Countries to fight Ebola Outbreak”, (25/9/2014).

(21) Samantha Power, “Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power at an Emergency Security Council Meeting on Ebola”, (18/9/2014).

(22)  Levich, Ibid, pp. 726-727.

(23) Ibid, pp. 724-725.  

(24) Vijay Prashad, “A New Cold War Over Oil”, (11/8/2007).

(25) Nick Turse, “The US will Invade West Africa in 2023 After an attack in New York—According to Pentagon War Game”, (22/10/2017).

(26) Adia Benton, “Whose Security?: Militarisation and Securitisation During West Africa’s Ebola Outbreak”, in The Politics of Fear: Médecins sans Frontières and the West African Ebola Epidemic, edited by Michiel Hofman and Sokhieng, (2017), pp. 28-30.

(27) Marouf Hasain Jr, Decolonizing Ebola Rhetorics Following the 2013-2016 West African Ebola Outbreak (2019).

(28) Benton, Ibid, pp. 26-27.

(29) Mark Honigsbaum, “Between Securitisation and Neglect: Managing Ebola at the Borders of Global Health”, Medical History Journal, (2017), p. 286.

(30) Levich, “The Gates Foundation…”, pp. 722-723.

(31) Kuzmarov, “How the CIA Helped Ruin Liberia”.

(32) Thomas Mountain, “Nobel for President, No Water for Citizens”, (12/10/2011).

(33) Levich, “The Gates Foundation..”, p. 723. See Susan Scutti, “Firestone keeping Ebola Away From Employers In Liberia through Low-tech Intervention program”, (13/10/2014).

(34) Levich, “The Gates Foundation…”, pp. 722-723.

(35) Ibid, p. 725.

(36) Thomas Cullison et al.

(37) MOD Updates, “RDF Hosts Seventh African Partner Outbreak Response Alliance (APORA 2019)”, (20/5/2019).

(38) Socialist Movement of Ghana’s Research Group, “Defending Our Sovereignty: US military Bases in Africa and the Future of the African Union”, (8/7/2021).

(39) Captain Christine Guthrie, “Uganda troops support US airlift missions”, (22/1/2014).

(40) Socialist Movement of Ghana, Ibid.

(41) Ibid.

(42) Ibid.

(43) Nick Turse, “Hillary Clinton’s State Department Gave South Sudan’s Military a Pass for its Child Soldiers”, (9/6/2016).

(44) Nick Turse, “US military says it has a “light footprint in Africa. These documents show a vast network of bases”, (1/12/2018).

(45) Socialist Movement of Ghana, Ibid.

Jean-Philippe Stone is an Irish post-graduate who recently completed a PhD in Modern History at the University of Oxford. He works as a Senior Correspondent at the Organization for World Peace. Read other articles by Jean-Philippe.