Western sabotage of African anti-colonial struggles: the case of Germany

The key role played by the socialist countries, particularly the Soviet Union, Cuba and the GDR, in assisting the liberation struggles in former colonial countries in Africa is rarely acknowledged today. What is also rarely mentioned is the counter role played by Western nations in combatting and undermining those liberation struggles, writes John Green

In Germany at present there is an ongoing attempt to portray the GDR’s support for African liberation struggles as a cynical ploy and that the many Africans who came to the GDR to study, take up apprenticeships and gain work experience were exploited and suffered racist abuse. Although these allegations have been robustly refuted by former GDR experts and by many of those who came from Africa to study or work in the GDR, they are still reiterated on a regular basis as part of an ongoing campaign to delegitimise the GDR and its solidarity work. In this context, it is of interest to examine the role played by West Germany in African affairs.

In the immediate aftermath of the Portuguese Carnation Revolution and the withdrawal of Portuguese troops from the former colonial territories the situation became unstable and very critical: In 1977, the apartheid states of Southern Rhodesia and South Africa set up a powerful “counter-revolutionary” armed terrorist organisation called RENAMO (Resistencia Nacional Mocambicana; Mozambique National Resistance) to undermine the socialist People’s Republic of Mozambique. Other Western states, including the Federal Republic of Germany, in the form of its foreign intelligence service BND, gave considerable support, even though this involvement was denied for a long time.

It was not until 2012 that intelligence expert and head of the Research Institute for Peace Policy, Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, in an interview, revealed the involvement of the BND (German Secret Service) in RENAMO’s terror activities. He revealed that the BND had been involved in various proxy wars, including in Mozambique and Namibia.

He said: “By supporting RENAMO … the socialist state was to be destabilised so that it could not act as a model for the South African region. West German support for the terrorists began in the mid-1970s, when members of RENAMO were trained at a Bavarian police academy in Augsburg. This was followed, from 1983 onwards, by the supply of weapons and telecommunications equipment – paid for by the BND and supplied by South Africa. In 1988 and 1989, the BND’s resident office in Kenya’s capital Nairobi also provided support. It brokered high-ranking contacts between RENAMO leaders and the BND.”

In the resulting civil war in Mozambique, 900,000 people died and five million had to flee. The country was plunged into a devastating fratricidal war. Renamo explicitly targeted government infrastructure and those individuals who were better educated and were working in key jobs, like teachers, doctors and engineers in order to bring the young revolutionary government to its knees and make the country ungovernable. ~At the time, several thousand young Mozambicans sought refuge in the GDR, where they were offered places to study and learn useful trades.

To this day, the scandal of West German secret service involvement in terrorism in Mozambique and elsewhere can only be reconstructed incompletely on the basis of information already in the public domain. In order to really comprehend the scope of it, the BND secret services would have to open up its files on the matter. There is undoubtedly a whole litany of evidence of nefarious collusion between western nations to prevent, first, decolonisation itself, and then to undermine the emergent revolutionary governments in the African continent as a whole.

West Germany maintained cordial relations with South Africa following the war and throughout the 1970s and 80s. It had particularly strong links with the German population – the remnants of Germany’s colonial occupation – in Namibia. The country was visited regularly by leading figures such as Franz Josef Strauss, the leader of Germany’s conservative CSU party. In 1955 he became Federal Minister of Nuclear Energy, and in 1956 Defence Minister, charged with the build-up of the new West German defence forces. Namibia’s rich deposits of Uranium were vital in the development of the West’s nuclear weapons and for Germany’s nuclear power plants. West Germany was also a leading supplier of weapons to South Africa and were used in Mozambique in South Africa’s attempt to destabilise the new Frelimo government and also in the struggle against Swapo forces and the MPLA itself in in Angola.

South Africa was largely responsible for supplying the counter-revolutionary RENAMO forces in Mozambique. South African intelligence on Mozambican government counter- insurgency strategies and troop movements also played a continuing role in battles between Renamo and the FPLM into the late 1980s.

Though many Renamo supporters were resident in Portugal, from the early 1980s representatives of the organisation were maintained in a number of countries such as the United States, West Germany and Kenya.

Thousands of Renamo fighters were trained by South African instructors, and even deployed in Angola and Namibia, with evidence from former Renamo soldiers indicating that this training continued until at least 1988 inside both South Africa and Mozambique. South African contacts were also a vital part of Renamo’s economy of plunder. While South Africa and Renamo’s other external supporters carried a large financial burden, the task of supporting a 20,000-man army was massive. Elephant ivory, lion and zebra skins, precious stones and even timber were all taken from Mozambique’s interior and sold internationally.

Renamo also had success in making allies with members of organisations in the USA like the World Anti-Communist League, Freedom Inc, the Heritage Foundation, the Conservative Caucus, the American African Public Affairs Council, the Conservative Action Foundation. All gave Renamo political and financial support.

While Renamo launched attacks on civilian settlements for the forced recruitment of new fighters, porters and slave labour which were an essential process for the continued functioning of the organisation, their horrific violence against civilians was random and without any direct strategic benefit. These attacks often involved burning down homes, mutilating individuals by cutting off limbs, ears or breasts, and public killings.

The great tragedy of the post-colonial era for many African countries like Mozambique is that the combined powers of the Western countries and their support for ruthless counter-revolutionary forces were far more powerful and effective than any aid that the socialist countries were able to offer. And it is, of course, always much easier to destroy than to build.

There is still an urgent need to fully investigate and expose the collusion of Western powers in maintaining colonialism and sabotaging the anti-colonial and liberation struggles in Africa.

Some of the material in this piece was based on an article in the Berliner Zeitung (25.06.2024 ) DDR-Vertragsarbeiter: Verfehlte Rassismusvorwürfe und blinde Flecken der BRD (GDR-contract workers: false accusations of racism and blind spots of the FRG) by Ulrich van der Heyden

Prof. Ulrich van der Heyden, a historian, political scientist and specialist in the colonial history of Africa, has worked at the Free and Humboldt Universities in Berlin, and in South Africa. He is the author of numerous books on colonialism and German involvement in African affairs, and his book: GDR Development Policy in Africa. Doctrine and strategies between illusions and Reality 1960–1990 – the Example (South) Africa is a very informative read about the solidarity role of the GDR.

For anyone interested in more detail about the role of the GDR in Southern Africa, Prof. Ulrich van der Heyden’s book: GDR Development Policy in Africa. Doctrine and strategies between illusions and Reality 1960–1990 – the Example (South) Africa is a very informative read. Van der Heyden is a historian, political scientist and specialist in the colonial history of Africa, has worked at the Free and Humboldt Universities in Berlin, and in South Africa. He is the author of numerous books on colonialism and German involvement in African affairs.

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Photo: BND Headquarters / Olaf Kosinsky, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

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