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2014-01-29 12.13.51

Cold War African history is one of my favorite topics to discuss, so I had to manufacture an excuse to get out of work yesterday and hear Lauren Sinclair, a PhD student at NYU speak at American University on ‘Situating the Nigerian Civil War in US-Africa Cold War Policy.’  My already high levels of excitement soared to even greater heights when I discovered that she is managing to tackle this topic while pursuing a degree in International Education – my ideal career field.

I often complain about speakers at events making general comments that most Africa watchers could be qualified to utter based on a moderate perusal of AllAfrica.com on a daily basis.  While those events do little to develop my personal knowledge, I realized yesterday that they make my summary recaps much easier.  Lauren Sinclair spoke on a unique angle within an oft overlooked topic (albeit one that is gaining increasing prominence) and a brief post cannot do it justice, despite the ease in which she made her presentation accessible to all audiences.

As I understand it, Sinclair is working on a thesis that examines ‘how and in what capacity did American Africanists shape US – Africa foreign policy from 1966 – 1971?’ Her case studies are Nigeria, Angola, Congo, and South Africa.

[I wonder why she picked those years?  Carl LeVan of AU rather intriguingly introduced Sinclair by praising her taste in music, perhaps the end date of her thesis is a tribute to the birth year of 2pac Shakur, or to Joseph Kabila, the Congo’s President, although I have no idea if he is a patron of the arts.]

2014-01-29 12.01.40

Sinclair begin her remarks by noting the increasing rise of Africa in US academic and political circles following the end of World War II.  The House Subcommittee on African Affairs was established in 1945, its Senate counterpart (of which JFK was a chair) in 1958, the same year as the African Studies Association. In 1960, ‘the year of Africa’, the CIA established its Africa Division.

Sinclair also provided a quick, but comprehensive overview of Nigeria’s post-independence government and the conditions that led to the emergence of civil war in 1967.  She noted that while the US government was officially neutral in the conflict, US policy ‘advantaged the federal military government.’  This position was in conflict with much of US academia, who were sympathetic to the plight of the Biafran rebels and advocated for humanitarian relief for the dissidents.

The highlight of Sinclair’s presentation was a brief investigation of Conor Cruise O’Brien, an Irish Professor at NYU who had served as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana from 1962 – 1965.  O’Brien advocated for humanitarian relief for Biafra and a ceasefire to negotiate a political settlement.  O’Brien’s apparent support for Biafra’s succession was particularly interesting as he had opposed the succession of Katanga from the Congo in 1961 as a UN representative.

Sinclair closed by making a compelling case for the relevance of scholarship in understanding how contemporary policies are forged and in considering what the contribution of scholars to policy can be, as academics seeks to produce relevant, yet balanced scholarship.

The audience consisted of a good dose of (mostly female) AU students, several AU faculty, and local figures of the DC Africa scene like Emira Woods and Herbert Howe.

LeVan (L) and Sinclair (R)

LeVan (L) and Sinclair (R)