Unlike Afghanistan or El Salvador, Africa is not in the ‘backyard’ of either of the superpowers. But this has not saved it from the East-West tug-of-war. As soon as the fading European powers began turning their backs on colonial Africa, the US and the Soviet Union moved swiftly into place.
Early Soviet involvement in black Africa was in response to the ideological split between Peking and Moscow. In the 1960s the newly-independent nations of Africa had transformed the voting balance in the United Nations General Assembly: for China to gain her rightful place at the UN, they had to be won over.
With the help of the US, the Taiwan regime, led by the exiled Chiang Kai-Shek, had won recognition from the moderates’ in the Organisation of African Unity. So in early 1964, Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai began an historic tour through the continent; finding it ‘ripe for revolution’ - and so confirming the rightwing view that it was safer to stick with Taiwan.
A few months later, Nikita Khrushchev arrived in Egypt for the opening ceremonies of the Aswan Dam. He proclaimed the’ Soviet Union’s eagerness to help those African countries who had ‘broken the chains of imperialist oppression’ and stressed that there was only one true form of communism. The ideological struggle for Africa was on.
By this stage the US was also heavily committed to making friends in Africa. It knew relatively little about the continent or the people, and some of its early efforts at spreading ideas about the ‘American way of life’ were painfully heavy-handed. One free gramophone record, given away by the US information services, began by declaring that American blacks (heard on the record singing negro spirituals) had left Africa to ‘find a place in the sun’ across the Atlantic. The record was hurriedly withdrawn when somebody realised that Africans had not yet forgotten the slave trade.
Washington relied heavily at the outset on traditional British judgments on Africa. It was a basic article of faith to old-style Tories such as Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home that the ‘Cape route between the Atlantic and Indian oceans must be safeguarded. Much of British policy in Africa revolved around this conviction - as has the US view of South Africa, right up to today.
Of course, to the world’s most powerful capitalist nation Africa meant more than shaping up to the Soviets and Chinese in a tussle for hearts and minds or keeping the sea lanes open in some hypothetical war. There was also the business potential - and the need to guarantee the flow of strategic minerals.
The Congo (later Zaire) was of consuming interest to the US from the day in 1960 when the Belgians scurried out. The Congo had rightly been called a geological scandal’ because of its great mineral wealth; so, as the US State Department saw matters, it was imperative to keep that vast country in safe hands.
Operating amid the tumult of a United Nations operation mounted to prevent the secession of Katanga province, the Americans quickly latched on to General Joseph Desire Mobutu as their best bet. The President, Kasavubu, was never really trusted, on account of being partly Chinese. And the Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was rated by the CIA as totally unreliable.
Lumumba did not last long. He was kidnapped by Mobutu, flown down to Katanga and shot by white mercenaries. The CIA has denied any part in the murder but few people who were in the Congo at the time doubt its complicity. (An intriguing re-creation of that dire affair may be found in the play ‘Murderous Angels’ by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was working on the spot for the UN when Lumumba died.)
Zaire is an ideal case-study of superpower involvement in Africa, because the US has stuck with Mobutu for more than 20 years. The CIA provided an internal air service, run through a company registered in Luxembourg, to help his army put down insurrections in the early years. The supply of minerals, both strategic and commercial, has been splendidly maintained: the director of one of the biggest US diamond exporters in Zaire was formerly the CIA station chief in Kinshasa. Moreover, a country that borders on so many other African states from Sudan to Angola and dominates the heart of the continent has been firmly retained as a ‘sphere of interest’.
Congress has at times made trouble over blatant US protection for a leader so manifestly corrupt, with enormous private wealth and a notorious record on human rights. But Mobutu has been astute enough to play the Zionist card - by recognising Israel in 1982 he was able to win the undying support of the relevant lobbies in Washington. This has suited the State Department and the Pentagon perfectly, for the Israelis are now providing military training and looking after Mobutu’s personal security system.
This US-Israeli liaison is also to be found in Liberia - which has kept such close links with its founder that the US dollar is still the only official currency. Despite the bloody manner in which he came to power, both countries have full-heartedly welcomed Dr Samuel K Doe (his doctorate was an honour bestowed by the University of Seoul, South Korea). But the most significant cooperation is centred upon South Africa, which is by far the most important friend of Israel on the continent and likewise has never ceased to be the nub of America’s economic and political attentions.
In theory, the Soviet Union and China have had a built-in advantage over the US in southern Africa, on account of their role in the liberation struggle. They have never hesitated to supply arms to the freedom-fighters and to give them training (like the US, they have also had their surrogates - the German Democratic Republic, North Korea, and some of the Balkan countries). The US, more sensitive to public criticism than the Soviets, has had to limit itself to non-military backing and the covert action of the CIA, as in Angola.
Yet the Communist countries, and the Soviet Union in particular, have had a disappointing time in southern Africa. It is not merely that Moscow and Peking have often worked at cross-purposes, backing opposing liberation movements. Worse, they both badly under-estimated the size of the task.
The past year has dramatically shown the ability of South Africa - in alliance with the guerilla movements it has fostered in Angola and Mozambique - to roll back the ‘Communist threat’. The US, through the tireless diplomacy of Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, has played a key role in Pretoria’s triumph - bringing Mozambique to the negotiating table at Nkomati. The Russians have been given a bloody nose; suffering the added mortification of having to seek South African help to set free a score of kidnapped Russian geologists in Mozambique.
Now that China is playing a much smaller role in black Africa, the Soviet Union is less concerned to stay the course. Moscow is starting to shrug its shoulders. As a Tass correspondent said to me in a Nigerian bar; ‘They say "Africa for the Africans" - well, they can have it.’ This is a far cry from the mid-Seventies, when 20.000 Chinese were building the 1.200 mile Tan-Zam railway, a project begun at the height of the Cultural Revolution as Peking’s answer to the Aswan Dam. Now Canadians and West Germans are helping to keep the railway running and the great Russian dam is embedded in a trenchantly anti-Communist Egypt.
The US State Department may feel confident that it has the Soviet Union well on the defensive in Africa. All that is lacking now is the expulsion of the Cubans from Angola and Ethiopia. That would be a great feather in Ronald Reagan’s ten-gallon hat. But there are financial factors of a curious kind: Havana is paid handsomely for each soldier it has in Africa - in hard cash, by the host nation. If only the CIA could extract enough dollars from the US Treasury to compensate the Cubans, that little difficulty might be solved.
Without the vexing presence of the Communists, the US view of black Africa could be much more relaxed and casual. There would still be, of course, Colonel Qadafi, who many Washington thinkers regard as an ogre set on conquering the entire globe (starting in Chad and working out from there). President Nimeiri of Sudan has successfully played on those fears to make himself black Africa’s largest recipient of US aid - 20 per cent of it military. The rationale is that if Sudan went ‘sour’, that might threaten Egypt which in turn might threaten Israel.
Nowadays, with the economic blight that has swept over Africa, the continent has been a commercial disappointment to the US. Apart from South Africa exports of manufactured goods to the region are negligible, and the commercial banks do little business there anymore. The exports are mainly wheat, maize and rice, the vast bulk going as food aid under the PL480 programme. This does meet the genuine humanitarian concern of liberal Americans and helps to keep the mid-West farmers content by finding an outlet for some of their surpluses. As long as Africa’s main peril is famine, Moscow cannot compete with Washington in what President Kennedy once called ‘breaking the bonds of mass misery’. And the US will continue to find friends in Africa.
Richard Hall is Africa correspondent of the London Observer