Decolonialising Africa and the Superpowers: Book review

Two recently published books, one on the role in Africa of the US and the other on the Soviet Union on the continent provide greatly contrasting perspectives as well as significant additions to the historiology of Africa’s plight under colonialism and it its post-colonial years.  In bringing together a vast wealth of previous research and newly available  archive materials they plot in great detail the highs and lows of the struggle for independence in Africa, writes Bob Newland

Many today argue that imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism are problems of the past. For me they remain very real. As recent events in Niger and her neighbours have highlighted, the distorted economic relationship between France and her former colonies continues but renewed efforts in many of them to redress the balance are frequently condemned by western observers. That of course is only a small part of the global reality. 

These two recent publications: ‘White Malice’ and ‘Cold War Liberation’ provide an optic through which terrible historical events can enable us to see and understand many developments in Africa today. 

Long struggles for independence followed the division of Africa between colonial powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884/5. These received an enormous boost following World War 2 when the United Nations’ founding charter demanded an end to colonialism. 

It was in this spirit that Ghana gained its independence in 1957 welcomed by its first President Kwame Nkruma in just sixteen words ‘At long last the battle has ended and Ghana, our beloved country, is free for ever.’  In 1958 Ghana hosted the All African People’s Conference at which Nkrumah launched his vision of a United States of Africa.   

Nkrumah was inspired by the victory of the United States (US) over British Colonialism and the unity of these former colonies which he believed were key to securing their ongoing independence. Sadly it was the US which proved the greatest enemy of African independence destroying the hopes of those heady days and leaving behind a continent striven by conflict and poverty. 

Williams examines the attempts by Britain, France and Belgium to retain the valuable resources of their former colonies following independence and US efforts to supplant them. She focusses on Ghana and the Congo where CIA intervention is driven in general by anti-communism and specifically by US fears that the vast uranium reserves of the Congo might fall into the hands of the Soviet Union. 

The CIA introduced many agents backed up by a vast network of CIA funded businesses, social and cultural organisations, publishing houses and journals. Williams tells a horror story of assassinations, military coups and corruption. Evidence of Eisenhower’s consent to the assassination of Lumumba and direct CIA involvement in his kidnapping and murder is shameful. Williams also suggests that it was a CIA plane which shot down the aircraft carrying UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold who the US believed to be too close to Nkrumah and other leaders of independent Africa. 

Nkrumah’s support for African liberation movements led the to the CIA determination to get rid of him. Having failed in several assassination attempts they organised a coup to overthrow him while he was overseas attempting to broker an end to the Vietnam War.  Exiled in Egypt, Nkrumah subsequently died of leukaemia, a fate shared by other African revolutionaries. Williams identifies a programme of chemical warfare funded by the CIA which may well have been behind these premature deaths. 

Many well know militants feature in the telling of this story including Franz Fanon, Paul Robeson and Malcolm X.  Williams also confirms the involvement of the CIA in the arrest of Nelson Mandela in Pietermaritzburg following his return to South Africa after receiving military training overseas. 

This extraordinary exposure of the CIA’s role in frustrating true independence in Africa and robbing it of its wealth is an important read for any student of African history and those who seek to support the future complete political  and economic independence of that beautiful continent. 

What a contrasting story is told in ‘Cold War Liberation’. This details the support by the Soviet Union and its allies for the armed struggles for the liberation of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau from their Portuguese colonial masters. 

Much of what it reports is well known. However, the author argues there is a different story behind the success and extent of Soviet assistance – the special relationship between Soviet representatives in Africa and the leaders of the liberation movements. 

An important part of the story is the degree to which African agency is credited with the defeat of Portugal. This was no proxy war or foreign intervention. However, with the independence movements beginning in the 1950s it did take place in the context of the cold war. The author argues that the leaders of MPLA, FRELIMO and PAIGC worked together to exploit this and persuade the Soviet Union to provide them with substantial support.   

African revolutionaries Cabral, Neto, Andrada and dos Santos developed a close relationship while studying in Lisbon.  They were no puppets but a well-educated elite struggling for power in the countries whose independence they sought to achieve. Their involvement in Lisbon with the illegal Portuguese Communist Party and subsequent Soviet support probably influenced their political perspectives with a growing commitment to socialism much along the lines of the Soviet command model.  

Khrushchev had considerable interest in African affairs and following his rise to power promoted a group of survivors of the Stalin purges, including Potekhin, Ponomarev and Shelepin, to key political and intelligence posts. They in turn developed a team who built personal relations with leaders of the liberation movements and became their sponsors.   

Telepneva argues Soviet support was won and delivered by that mixed team made up of Soviet administrators, from Central Committee Departments, Diplomats, KGB officers and Military Intelligence (GRU), who acquired the title ‘Mediators of Liberation’. She suggests they were able to win ever increasing support from Moscow for their African friends while the top Kremlin leadership had their eyes firmly focussed on events in the US. 

While acknowledging Soviet support for national liberation movements in Africa was seen to reflect its own interests  the book argues that this was not a matter of Soviet expansionism but rather a reflection of the Soviet Communist Party’s policy of proletarian internationalism. This convergence Telepneva suggests was well understood and effectively exploited by the African leaders.      

Telepneva explores the wider issues of the Cold War including the impact of deteriorating Sino-Soviet relations on support and development of the struggles. She also reflects on divisions within the liberation movements and alternative figures and forces to those favoured by the Soviet Union. 

Things did not always go smoothly between the African leaders and the Soviet Union. Internal divisions, regional politics and overspill from the Sino-Soviet dispute all contributed to ups and downs in support. Telepneva’s access to newly released Russian archive materials provides a mass of detail including reports from KGB and GRU agents working alongside the liberation movements, diplomatic reports and political assessments from Soviet international committees and military sources.  

Following the 1974 ‘Carnation Revolution’ in Portugal most of its colonies negotiated their independence. Angolan independence was met with substantial opposition in a civil war where MPLA was confronted  by US and South African sponsored armed forces. Eventually South Africa invaded and its forces threatened to overrun the Angolan defences.   

Many readers will be aware of the extraordinary assistance to MPLA provided by Cuba whose army defeated the South African forces at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. This led to the withdrawal of South African forces, consolidated the independence of Angola and prompted the start of negotiations between the Vorster Regime and the ANC leading eventually to the end of Apartheid. Telepneva uses a wide range of materials, including hitherto unavailable Soviet archives, to tell the unbelievably complex tale of the behind the scenes activities that made Cuban intervention possible.  

Compared with the exposure of the appalling actions of the US against the African liberation movements in ‘White Malice’, ‘Cold War Liberation’ paints a powerful picture of internationalist support for them from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. The detail of political, diplomatic and military engagement makes the book a valuable source of understanding a little explored aspect of the liberation struggles. Telepneva’s style is easy to read making the book even more enjoyable. 

It is rare that two books are published at the same time considering the same period of history from such contrasting perspectives. Together they provide a significant addition to the historiology of Africa’s plight under colonialism and it its post-colonial years.  In bringing together a vast wealth of previous research and newly available  archive materials they plot in great detail the highs and lows of the struggle for independence in Africa.  I cannot recommend them too highly.    

‘White Malice, the CIA and the neocolonialism of Africa’. Susan Williams. Hurst Publishers London: Paperback £17.99 and ‘Cold War Liberation, the Soviet Union and the Collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961-1975’.  Natalia Telepneva. The University of North Carolina Press: Paperback $35.95. 

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