Snuffed out democracies and poisoned toothpaste: how the Cold War wreaked havoc in post-colonial Africa

The years following the Second World War saw European empires lose their grasp on Africa. Lawrence James explores the efforts of the United States and Soviet Union to secure influence across the post-colonial continent

Nikita Khrushchev visits President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1964

Soon after dawn on 5 November 1956, British paratroopers drifted down on the El Gamil airfield near Port Said in northern Egypt. Simultaneously, French troops landed at Raswa and Port Fuad just to the south and east. The invasion of Port Said, and the operation to capture the Suez Canal, was launched. The following day, a huge sea and air assault, supporting landings of British tanks and marines, succeeded in taking the port. By midnight, British and French troops had secured the canal zone – and sparked fury from the United States and the Soviet Union. Both superpowers had been wooing Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser – first the US, which offered then withdrew financial support for the construction of an Aswan dam, then the Soviet Union, which sold Egypt large quantities of arms.

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The action by Britain and France, following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in July, was ostensibly launched to halt fighting between Egypt and Israel, which had invaded the Sinai Peninsula a week earlier. In truth, though, it marked a turning point – the end of direct actions by western powers in Africa, replaced by conflicts that spread across the continent as the west and the Soviet Union tussled for influence in newly or soon-to-be independent African nations: a proxy Cold War described as a “second scramble for Africa”.

Cold War conflicts played havoc with African politics and snuffed out many fledgling democracies

The years following the end of the Second World War saw both the start of the Cold War between the west and the eastern bloc, and the break-up of empires as colonies across Africa and Asia strove for independence. Africans were losers in the Cold War. The big players never fought each other head-on, but instead sponsored wars between their clients in Africa (and, indeed, in Asia) so that large swathes of the continent became war zones in which predominately locally recruited soldiers did the fighting. Liberation movements across southern Africa were sustained by the Soviet Union and Cuba, which sent large contingents of troops to support independence fighters. Nato also armed two colonial powers, France and Portugal, in their struggles against nationalist insurgents in Algeria, Angola and Mozambique. Millions died in these proxy wars throughout Africa; food production and distribution were disrupted, and regional famines followed.

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Cold War losers

Cold War conflicts played havoc with African politics. They skewed the complex processes of decolonisation, and snuffed out many of the fledgling democracies that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. US and Soviet intelligence agencies played kingmakers, financing and overseeing coups to install biddable rulers. Both powers tended to suborn corruptible local strongmen with military backgrounds and authoritarian instincts. It did not matter to the superpowers whether or not these dictators had any ideological commitment to communism or capitalist democracy, though many paid lip service to one of these ideologies when convenient. Cynical pragmatism prevailed in Washington and Moscow when selecting African clients. Underlying this common policy was the cynical maxim – reputedly uttered by US president Franklin D Roosevelt about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García, but equally applicable to any of the rivals’ chosen African despots – “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

This was the line taken by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1955 when he extended patronage to Nasser. Moscow’s doctrinal purists had dismissed Nasser as a radical nationalist in the mould of those military strongmen who held sway across South America. But Nasser was an ideal ally in Khrushchev’s new policy of challenging the west in Africa. From 1955, the Soviet Union poured modern warplanes and weaponry into Egypt, which Nasser deployed in clashes with Israel. Moscow’s propagandists portrayed Nasser as a champion of oppressed peoples in their worldwide struggle against imperialism and capitalism.

Washington followed suit. By 1959 the US state department was convinced that ‘democratic’ Africa was fragile and prepared to embrace authoritarian but reliable alternatives. The United States therefore welcomed the rule of General Ibrahim Abboud, who had in November 1958 seized power in recently independent Sudan, bordering Egypt to the south. Abboud declared himself an enemy of communism and of the Soviet-supported Nasser. The pattern was set for the next 30 years of proxy rivalry in Africa.

Exploiting decolonisation

Both the Soviet Union and the United States were quick to exploit the myriad difficulties that accompanied decolonisation in Africa. The Second World War had given enormous impetus to the embryonic nationalist movements in British and French colonies. Both powers had called on their African subjects to fight for them, and the response had been impressive: more than one million Africans fought in Europe, north Africa and the far east, and were repeatedly told that they were risking their lives for freedom and democracy.

Many returned home full of new ideas, and began to question the old imperial order. In Kenya’s villages, for example, young demobbed soldiers expressed their new confidence by scoffing at their chiefs and tribal elders. Elsewhere, this spilled over into anger. Krim Belkacem, who served in the French army and was later a partisan leader and a minister in the provisional Algerian government before independence, spoke for many veterans when he declared: “My brother returned from Europe with medals and frostbitten feet! There, everyone was equal! Why not here?”

Empires had always proclaimed intended reciprocity. Britain and France, in particular, had taken pride in the belief that their rule was benevolent and progressive, and that – at some unspecified date in the future – their colonies would achieve independence. After 1945, the pace of change quickened. In 1947 self-government was granted to India by Britain’s Labour government, which was also committed (as were the Conservatives) to self-determination for African colonies. That change was, they suggested, to be achieved over 40 or so years; impatient African nationalist politicians accused them of procrastination. The Soviets exploited such reactions, offering sympathy and friendship, and accusing the imperialists of slyly seeking to retain their power to exploit their subjects.

France, too, prevaricated. In 1948 President Vincent Auriol reminded Algerians that their country “was never a state; you were rescued from slavery as well as tribes fighting each other. Without France, what would you be or do?” This was the view of many French people, and of many of the 700,000 European settlers (colons) in Algeria who enjoyed the advantages of French citizenship. In 1954 the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front) began an uprising that triggered an eight-year partisan war of attrition in which more than a million died, most of them Arabs.

France persuaded a sceptical Washington that it was fighting communist-backed insurgents in Algeria; the result was that Sikorsky helicopters, manufactured in the United States and intended for Nato service, were used to hunt down Algerian guerrillas. The point was not lost on Soviet propagandists.

Spirit of nationalism

At this point, the United States was in a quandary. Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal were valuable Nato allies – but, if they persisted in resisting African nationalist movements or delaying independence, they were offering the Soviet Union a propaganda bonus. As US president Dwight D Eisenhower explained to Winston Churchill in 1954: “We are falsely pictured as the exploiters of people, the Soviets as their champions.” It would be foolhardy, he warned, to ignore the “fierce and growing spirit of nationalism” spreading across Africa and Asia. Moreover – and this was a growing source of anxiety for Washington – Britain and France no longer enjoyed their former prestige in Africa, and their efforts to cling on there imperilled American interests.

Neither Britain nor France would acknowledge their weaknesses. Rather, in 1956, they attempted to recover their old influence by their joint invasion of Egypt. This coup de main misfired. Afterwards, US secretary of state John Foster Dulles concluded that it was now imperative for America “to fill the vacuum of power which the British filled for a century”. The following year, when Vice-President Richard Nixon returned from an African tour he reported that “French patronage and influence in north Africa are decreasing at an alarming rate”.

The Soviet Union, too, hoped to fill that power vacuum, posing as the patron and armourer of colonial liberation movements. America did likewise. Both tended to favour ambitious local military men who possessed hard power on the ground. The officer and non-commissioned officer corps of former colonial armies became a praetorian guard of newly independent states, and palace revolutions propelled to power such figures as army commander Idi Amin in Uganda in a 1971 west-backed coup, and Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Soviets’ choice in Ethiopia, who effectively took power in 1974.

Winning influence in Africa

Britain was anxious that power in Africa was handed to dependable politicians. MI5 monitored nationalist movements, and trembled whenever it believed these movements might be penetrated by Soviet agents. During the 1950s Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, for example, MI5 investigated possible Soviet involvement but, when questioned, bewildered tribesmen asked: “What does a Russian look like?” and “Can Russians speak Swahili?” Clearly, the KGB was making little headway in east Africa.

One way by which the Soviets could win friends in the continent, as well as spread the Marxist-Leninist gospel among its future leaders, was to offer scholarships for Africans to study at universities in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. Some students were shocked by conditions in Moscow, which was summed up by one African visitor as having “no cars, no cafes, no good clothes or good food”. Others were appalled by everyday racism: one was asked by Russians whether Africans lived in houses.

The CIA brought dollars - and a hitman with poisoned toothpaste

Seducing the elected rulers of newly independent states proved the most effective policy for both the United States and the Soviet Union. Such leaders had come to power at the head of disciplined parties, practised the arts of messianic leadership, and fostered popular optimism. But could they deliver a golden age for their followers? Their backers assured them that they could. In the early 1960s the KGB cultivated Kwame Nkrumah, charismatic first prime minister then president of independent Ghana, only to discover (by breaking Ghanaian wireless codes) that he and his cronies were squirrelling away Soviet subsidies. The CIA wrote off Nkrumah as “a vain opportunist and playboy”, and in 1966 were believed to have been involved in a coup that toppled him from power. He went into exile, followed by 1,000 of his Soviet advisors. His corruption, like that of so many others of his kind, weakened economies and stifled growth.

The United States offered Africa’s new rulers what they needed to keep power: modern security systems. It has been reported that between 1963 and 1969 the United States Agency for International Development spent US$3.3m delivering radios and small arms to African police forces and instructing them in strike-breaking, riot control and investigating sedition. The one-party states that replaced colonial administrations were handed the apparatus of domestic coercion. By 1969 President Julius Nyerere, a self-declared ‘African socialist’, had accepted equipment worth over US$640,000 from the US for his police force, all of whom were members of the ruling Tanganyika African National Union Party. But he also accepted Soviet weaponry for his army. This was prudent: at this stage there was no knowing who would win the Cold War.

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West Berlin inhabitants wave at the newly erected Berlin Wall, 1961. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

“A second scramble for Africa”

As Soviet and American patronage (and arms) spread across the continent, Nyerere warned that “a second scramble for Africa by Russia and its satellites” was under way. He was responding to events in the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC) in 1960 following the withdrawal of the Belgians, who had enriched themselves on their colony’s mineral resources and neglected the welfare of their subjects: on independence day, 30 June 1960, the Congo had perhaps just 200 African graduates.

Within a week, the country dissolved into anarchy after the army mutinied. Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba threatened the nationalisation of foreign businesses, and looked to the Soviet Union for assistance. Soviet and Warsaw Pact aircraft, arms and ‘advisors’ were flown in to prop up his government. United Nations (UN) secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld feared the imminent ‘communisation’ of the Congo, despite the despatch of UN peacekeepers.

There was alarm in Washington, where CIA director Allen Dulles suspected that Lumumba was “a Castro or worse”, and the CIA moved in, supplied with dollars and a hitman instructed to assassinate Lumumba with poisoned toothpaste. The money secured the loyalty of Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (who later renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko), a ruthless, ambitious and venal chancer whom the CIA believed to be “childish” and easily led. He moved in America’s direction, used its cash to pay his soldiers, deployed them to expel the Soviets and detained Lumumba, who was murdered soon afterwards. The upshot was that the country’s resources remained an asset of the west, and the DRC endured five years of civil war. Welcomed by President John F Kennedy in 1963, Mobutu was America’s man. Following a coup in 1965, he stayed in power until 1997 and amassed a personal fortune estimated at several billion US dollars by siphoning off the nation’s wealth.

United States president John F Kennedy and Major General Joseph Mobutu
United States president John F Kennedy meets Major General Joseph Mobutu in 1963. Mobutu enjoyed substantial US support thanks to his anti-communist stance (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Cold War priorities dictated events in southern Africa, too. The United States treated Angola and Mozambique as strategic assets, arming the 200,000 Portuguese conscripts who fought a long-running war against local nationalist insurgents with an imported arsenal including napalm and defoliants. The conflicts in both countries ended in 1974 with Portugal throwing in the towel. In Angola a war of succession followed, with three rival nationalist parties fighting for power. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (its Portuguese name abbreviated to MPLA), led by Agostinho Neto who became the newly independent nation’s first president, was backed by the Soviet Union – which, in return, was allowed to establish a naval base at the country’s capital, Luanda. The United States threw its weight behind the rival party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), in co-operation with South Africa.

Substantial and decisive support came from Fidel Castro as part of what he saw as Cuba’s mission to engage in the global “conflict between privileged and underprivileged, humanity against imperialism”. By 1975, some 36,000 Cuban reservists with artillery, tanks and missile systems were serving in Angola, while Cuban doctors, teachers and technicians replaced their Portuguese counterparts who had returned home.

Castro’s commitment to Angola was integral to a strategy that would extend the struggle for independence to neighbouring South West Africa (later Namibia) and Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe). Inevitably, South Africa was drawn into the conflict, because Cubans were using Angolan bases to train guerrilla units. Some were destined for Rhodesia, where the white minority were defending themselves against nationalist partisans, some of whom enjoyed Soviet patronage. Under American and British pressure, Rhodesia consented to black majority rule in 1979.

End of Africa’s Cold War

By 1980, then, South Africa – ruled by what Castro called a “Fascist-Racist” regime – stood alone against the forces of African nationalism. For 40 years, the apartheid regime had presented itself as a bastion against communism – a stance that had secured it a steady flow of western arms. The Soviet Union and Cuba provided weapons and training camps for African National Congress guerrillas fighting black oppression by the apartheid government. South Africa was also, as US President Ronald Reagan remarked in 1981, “essential to the free world in its production of minerals we all must have”.

In the event, Reagan did not need to commit his country to support South Africa’s last stand; events inside the Soviet Union were now dictating the outcome of the Cold War in Africa. By the mid-1980s, the communist powerhouse was facing an economic crisis, losing a war in Afghanistan and overstretched in Africa. One Kremlin official, Anatoly Adamishin, spoke for many others when he asked: “Why, with all our problems, did we have to get involved [in Africa]?… We could not afford it.” Angola alone owed the Soviet Union US$5bn, which it could not repay. In 1977 the Soviets attempted to unseat Neto, whom they now distrusted. Afterwards he made oblique approaches towards the US.

It was left to the last leader of a communist Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to disengage from Africa. In 1988 he salvaged what he could in an agreement with the United States, by which all Soviet and Cuban forces would withdraw from the continent, and South Africa pulled out of Namibia, which was granted independence in 1990. Castro growled about “betrayal”, but acquiesced.

The Cold War in Africa had ended. The United States had won on points. But Africa was left, traumatised, to pick up the pieces and face the problems created by the corrupt dictatorships that were the Cold War’s lasting legacy.

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Lawrence James is a historian and author of Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016)

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This content first appeared in issue 3 of BBC World Histories magazine