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Africa: Interventions in Historical Perspective

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 28, 2013 (130528)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"This book has demonstrated that during the period of decolonization and the Cold War (1945-91) and the first two decades of its aftermath (1991-2010), foreign intervention in Africa strongly influenced the outcome of conflicts and the fate of African nations. However, foreign powers did not simply impose their will on a passive continent or use African actors as proxies for their own interests. Rather, external powers interacted in complex ways with African societies. While foreign governments took advantage of divisions within African societies to promote their own interests, African actors also used external alliances for their own ends." - Elizabeth Schmidt, Foreign Intervention in Africa, 2013

Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror, by Elizabeth Schmidt, to which I contributed a foreword, provides a historical overview ranging over the period following World War II until the first decade of this century. Intended for classroom use as well as for a wider readership, it highlights both the significant impact and the complexity of interventions in this period, both by powers outside the continent and by African states against their neighbors.

With permission from the author, this AfricaFocus Bulletin contains several sections from the book: the concluding chapter, the foreword, and a summary of the organization of the book.

To order the book from Amazon or Powell's Books, or to see further selections using Amazon's "look inside" feature, visit

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on peace and security issues, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror, by Elizabeth Schmidt. Cambridge University Press, 2013.


This book has demonstrated that during the period of decolonization and the Cold War (1945-91) and the first two decades of its aftermath (1991-2010), foreign intervention in Africa strongly influenced the outcome of conflicts and the fate of African nations. However, foreign powers did not simply impose their will on a passive continent or use African actors as proxies for their own interests. Rather, external powers interacted in complex ways with African societies. While foreign governments took advantage of divisions within African societies to promote their own interests, African actors also used external alliances for their own ends.

The scale and character of the interventions varied across time and space, reflecting both the interests and concerns of foreign powers and the regional and national contexts in which they occurred. Although most interventions during the Cold War and decolonization period were perpetrated by extracontinental powers, African nations also embroiled themselves in their neighbors' affairs. During the period of state collapse (1991-2001), the most serious instances of foreign intervention involved intracontinental powers, which in turn implicated regional and extracontinental peacekeeping forces. The narrative of the global war on terror emerged during the first decade of the twentyfirst century (2001-10), focusing on real or imagined threats from Islamist extremists in several parts of the continent. However, this period also witnessed an array of interventions that were unrelated to the war on terror, as global, continental, and regional organizations became involved in African conflicts on behalf of political and economic interests and for humanitarian and peacemaking purposes. In many instances, the boundaries between conflicting objectives were muddled.

Although varying in their specifics, the case studies presented in this book support four general observations. First, both colonial and Cold War powers attempted to control the decolonization process in ways that would advance their interests. While Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal tried to influence political and economic practices in their former colonies, France, more than any other power, engaged in military actions to protect its interests. The colonial powers hoped to establish neocolonial regimes that would function much as before, operating on behalf of external political and economic interests. The Cold War superpowers looked forward to a new international order in which they would play the leading roles. When their interests converged, the United States preferred to let European powers take the lead in their former colonies, as in the case of Belgium in the Congo and Britain in Rhodesia.

However, when old-style imperialist policies threatened to provide opportunities for the Soviet Union, the United States opposed its NATO allies, as it did during the Suez Crisis and the Algerian independence war. The Soviet Union generally increased its involvement in response to intervention by the United States and its associates, as it did in the Congo and Angola. However, Moscow was sometimes drawn into regional conflicts when its African allies were threatened by outside forces, as in the case of Ethiopia after the 1977 Somali invasion. Although viewed by the West as a Soviet proxy, Cuba often navigated its own course, as it did in Angola and Eritrea. Hostile to Moscow after the Sino-Soviet split, China promoted political movements that rivaled those backed by the Soviet Union, throwing its support to ZANU in Zimbabwe and the FNLA and UNITA in Angola.

The second observation suggests that conflicts during the Cold War and decolonization period, free market austerity policies imposed by international financial institutions, and weak postcolonial states led to deadly struggles over power and resources in the post-Cold War period. The cases of Liberia, Somalia, and Zaire demonstrate the ways in which ColdWar era despots who repressed their citizenry and plundered their countries' resources were vulnerable to political pressures once their sponsors abandoned them. In the case of Sudan, a weakened dictator sought support from radical Islamists, which resulted in retaliatory action by the United States. As dictators were driven from power, indigenous strongmen and neighboring states intervened to further their own interests, while international peacekeeping forces sometimes ameliorated and in other instances exacerbated the crises.

The third observation is that Washington's global war on terror resulted in increased foreign military presence on the continent and renewed support for repressive regimes. Concerned about U.S. energy and physical security, Washington focused on countries rich in energy resources and those considered vulnerable to terrorist infiltration. U.S. military aid, combined with commercial sales and arms left over from the Cold War, contributed to an escalation of violence in many parts of Africa. Rather than promoting security, American military and covert operations in the Horn and the Sahel often provoked intensified conflict and undermined the prospects for peace negotiations. A notable exception during this period was in Sudan, where international peace efforts supported by the African Union, the United States, and other international forces resulted in a fragile peace accord that led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011. Despite this success, serious differences were not resolved, and the region continued to be wracked by violence.

Although American counterterrorism initiatives cast a large shadow, they were not the only foreign interventions in Africa during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Together with the UN, the African Union and various regional organizations played a growing role in diplomacy and peacekeeping initiatives, which sometimes led to multilateral military action. Emerging powers such as China, India, Brazil, Turkey, and the Middle Eastern Gulf states, which were heavily invested in African oil, minerals, and agricultural land, exerted increased political influence. Although these countries often reinforced the powers of repressive regimes, in some instances they used their authority to promote peace and security efforts. Public pressure for "humanitarian intervention" in response to African crises also contributed to new foreign involvement. Although activist groups in Western countries put the spotlight on mass atrocities and mobilized support for action to protect African civilians, they often oversimplified complex issues and proposed the kinds of military solutions that historically have had negative effects on civilian populations.

The fourth and final observation suggests that during the period under consideration (1945-2010), foreign intervention in Africa generally did more harm than good. External involvement often intensified conflicts and rendered them more lethal. Even humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, which were weakened by inadequate mandates, funding, and information and undermined by conflicting interests, sometimes hurt the people they were intended to help. At the close of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the merits and demerits of foreign intervention remained hotly contested, while the consequences of failure to intervene were also the subject of much debate. As the second decade opened with no clear path for moving forward, it became increasingly imperative that the voices of African civil society be heard and that in future debates over foreign involvement, the people of the affected countries set the agenda.


by William Minter, June 2012

Foreign intervention, as this survey by Elizabeth Schmidt makes clear, is no simple concept to define. The reality is no less complex than the definition. Even in the periods of the slave trade and of established colonial rule, the dominant powers from outside the continent had to take account of local realities. African societies defeated on the battlefield and subordinated to economic coercion found ways to resist, adapt to, or manipulate the presence of outside powers.

From 1945 to 1991, most of the period covered by this book, the Cold War between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, dominated world politics. Outsiders often viewed African conflicts as reflecting this global contest. Although superpower competition may have been the dominant factor in European confrontations, in Africa the realities did not fit as easily into a bipolar framework. The colonial powers retained influence and had their own distinct interests as their control over the continent diminished. The Soviet Union led a coherent bloc including most of Eastern Europe. However, other communist powers, including Yugoslavia, Cuba, and China, had their own foreign policies, based on distinct interests in Africa. Most significantly, African nations themselves, along with Asian and Latin American countries, shared an alternate dominant narrative based on anticolonialism and nonalignment between the superpowers. Different nations within Africa, and different political forces within each country, had their own interests, which led them to seek international alliances and sometimes invite external intervention against domestic enemies or neighboring countries.

No continent-wide account of this complex period could even come close to being "complete." However, Schmidt's wide-ranging review of multiple case studies succeeds in paying due attention to nuance without getting bogged down in detailed narratives and academic disputes. [Full disclosure: I served as a consultant on this book project, reviewing drafts, discussing the topics, and raising difficult-to-answer questions with the author.]

In each case, the historical record allows for differences among historians and social scientists in evaluating the scale and character of external intervention and the relative influence by external and internal actors on the outcomes. Assessments of the damage done or the possible positive effects of intervention also vary depending on who is doing the evaluation. Most would probably agree on the horrific negative balance of the slave trade and of colonial rule, particularly when combined with expropriation of land and property by European settlers, and most would probably agree with Schmidt's considered judgment that in most cases external intervention from 1945 to 2010 brought more harm than benefit. However, sharp disagreements will undoubtedly continue in evaluating particular interventions, past, present, or future.

In my personal opinion, the 1979 overthrow of Idi Amin in Uganda by Tanzanian troops, for example, was more justified than would have been a failure to intervene, although subsequent events made clear that it was hardly a solution to Uganda's problems. Similarly, in my judgment, the intervention of Cuban troops in Angola in 1975 to counter Central Intelligence Agency and South African intervention, and their role in subsequent years in protecting Angola against attacks by South Africa and the UNITA rebels, was also justified. Moreover, if the international community had not failed to intervene against the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of lives probably could have been saved.

All such judgments admittedly depend on incomplete evidence and hypothetical reasoning about the options not chosen, as well as on value judgments of both observers and participants. What should be clearly rejected, however, are simplistic accounts that reduce events to a simple story of dueling outside interventions or a clear dichotomy between external and internal causes of conflict. The postcolonial wars in Angola and Mozambique, for example, which I analyzed in Apartheid's Contras, were neither simply civil wars nor conflicts among proxies of the United States, Soviet Union, Cuba, and South Africa. Instead, internal, global, and regional conflicts intersected in complex patterns, which shifted over time. Moreover, as many scholars have demonstrated with more finely grained analyses, in each country these wars featured local realities with their own distinctive features.

For the policy analyst or social justice activist trying to make sense of and support or oppose today's interventions, factual information is almost always incomplete, and the motives of those involved are mixed. There are no simple formulas. Supporting (or opposing) an intervention simply because the United States, the African Union, or the United Nations supports it, for example, would be a recipe for ignoring the realities of particular cases and the contradictions within the policies of these states and institutions themselves. The concept of a purely humanitarian intervention simply to aid innocent civilians, with no political or military implications, is an illusion. An intervention with a limited mandate, such as to protect corridors for relief supplies, may or may not be justified in a particular case. Yet it will have political consequences; it will weaken some forces and strengthen others. So, of course, will unilateral or multilateral interventions designed to combat terrorism, reverse a coup against an elected government, or "protect civilians" against human rights abuses by a repressive regime or a rebel movement.

However, ruling out all interventions ignores the fact that inaction also affects the outcome of any conflict, by deferring de facto to the most powerful and ruthless forces on the ground. The balance of forces between governments and rebel movements, whatever their ideological orientation or extent of abuses against civilians, is affected by their structural links to the outside world, including political and economic as well as military ties. Finally, the failure of diplomatic action, which should be the first resort, may also lead to enormous human costs.

There is no alternative to making fallible judgments about particular cases. The human suffering from some conflicts does indeed "cry out" for intervention. Yet the consequences of actual interventions can appall even those who called for the interventions in the first place. It would be easier if there were some formula to tell us which interventions would alleviate human suffering and increase the possibility that people would get a chance for a fresh start and which interventions should be opposed because of ulterior motives or the high probability of making things worse. If, as I believe, such reliable formulas do not exist, it is better to recognize that, and then get on with sorting out our messy and inevitably inconclusive collective judgments on specific cases. As a corollary, we must recognize the likelihood of ongoing disagreements among humanitarians, progressives, and people of goodwill. If "dialogue" is needed among internal parties to a conflict, it is equally essential among outsiders, including not only representatives of states and multilateral agencies but also national and international civil society.

In the context of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the danger of too much intervention or bungled intervention seems more likely than the danger of no intervention at all. The impetus to intervene is coming not only from outside governments, most notably that of the United States, in response to real or imagined terrorist threats. It is also coming from African governments and rebel movements, which are increasingly turning to African regional organizations; the United Nations; and bilateral suppliers of arms, training, and security personnel (both public and private). Increased multilateral involvement in conflicts both within and across borders is no doubt inevitable. However, the outcomes are as uncertain as ever. The consequences are far too great for the decisions to be made by governments behind closed doors, without transparency and input from a wider range of voices, particularly those most affected.

Today, in comparison to much of the period covered in this book, modern communications technologies allow for more transparent decisions, more consultation, and better checks on the ulterior motives of parties to a conflict and of those who volunteer to be peacemakers. Whether this opportunity leads to better decision making depends, first, on the decision makers themselves. It also depends on the capacity of media and scholars to provide deeper analysis that rejects simplistic solutions and on local and international civil society to sustain the pressure for genuine human security.

Organization of the Book

The book is organized into eight chapters. The first seven chapters investigate nationalism and decolonization during the Cold War (1945-91). Chapters 2-7 each focus on a particular geographic region or on multiple regions colonized by a single European power. These chapters examine the ways in which African actors sought outside assistance to bolster their positions in internal struggles and how their external allies introduced geopolitical considerations into local and regional conflicts. Some of these considerations were rooted in past colonial relationships and current bilateral and regional alliances; others were related to the Cold War. Although some local actors initially benefited from outside intervention, the increasingly militarized conflicts were decidedly detrimental to civilian populations, and their negative impact intensified over time. The final chapter considers the period following the Cold War and explores cases from several regions.

To explain why foreign powers became embroiled in these conflicts, Chapter 1 examines the ideologies, interests, and practices of the main external actors, including both former colonial and new Cold War powers. Chapters 2-6 survey major arenas of conflict that are representative of broad trends in foreign intervention during this period. Chapter 2 focuses on North Africa, including Nasser's Egypt, which served as a model of radical nationalism and nonalignment for many African countries, and Algeria, which fought a long war for independence from France. Chapter 3 examines the former Belgian Congo, the site of the first Cold War crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. Chapter 4 investigates the three Portuguese colonies on the African mainland, where decolonization came only after protracted guerrilla war involving outside players. Chapter 5 explores the white-ruled countries of Southern Africa, where indigenous actors backed by external powers engaged in armed struggle against settler regimes. Chapter 6 examines the Horn of Africa, where shifting Cold War and regional alliances and conflicts wrought widespread devastation and instability that have outlasted the Cold War. Chapter 7 takes a different approach, focusing on French intervention in Africa, as France moved aggressively to retain close military and economic ties to its former colonies, to expand its influence into other Francophone countries, and to stave off Anglo-American encroachment.

Chapter 8 explores the aftermath of decolonization and the Cold War, focusing on the periods of state collapse (1991-2001) and the global war on terror (2001-10). As dictators were abandoned by their external benefactors, countries already buffeted by economic and political crises lapsed into violent conflict. Neighboring states intervened to support proxy forces that would allow them to gain control over lucrative resources. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the ensuing global war on terror sparked a new wave of foreign intervention in Africa. American aid became increasingly militarized, focusing on oil- and gas-rich countries and those considered strategic to the American war on terror. A new generation of African strongmen benefited from U.S. military and economic largess, transforming the old rallying cry against "communism" into a new one against "terrorism" - a catchall term used to justify cracking down on a broad range of domestic dissent.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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