Anyone with even the faintest understanding of the Cold War knows that it was a time not only of intense direct competition between the ruling superpowers, but also of grand plans by both the US and USSR to integrate their allies and clients into enemy blocs. as well as poaching the rival power’s partners – especially in the developing world – into their own camp.
For much of this era, the West regarded professions of neutrality in poorer countries with skepticism or even outright hostility. Beginning with the Eisenhower administration, the view in Washington was that non-alignment was just a pose, and that those who declared it had already started an inevitable drift into Moscow’s clutches.
The Soviet Union broadly agreed. With far less wealth than the United States or its collection of allies, many of whom then reluctantly passed over from imperialism one by one, Moscow felt it could afford to be tolerant of the non-aligned. The greater the distance newly independent countries had between them and their former colonizers, the more likely the Kremlin thought they would adopt a worldview sympathetic to socialism.
In my column last week, I discussed how some of the early-to-mid-Cold War rivalry played out in Africa. In 1956, when then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sensed the approaching end of the era of colonial rule, he abruptly changed his country’s foreign policy to invest much more political energy and financial resources in cultivating the so-called third world, and Africa quickly developed into a priority theater for the Russians.
At a time when domino theories were still respectfully heard in the West, the United States and its European allies were forced to make their own hub, and suddenly began to pay much more attention to Africa than ever before, especially to Washington, previously been the case. Development aid, or so-called aid, became an important feature of Western foreign policy. The White House and European capitals began to see a parade of visits from African leaders. And a small and then not-so-small industry of economists, other social scientists and non-governmental organizations was born whose goal was to help solve the challenging puzzle of development – and for the latter group, the NGOs, not casually, to part of the government’s generous budgetary expenditure.
What is lost in this deliberately streamlined narrative, far underappreciated in the memory of the populace and among mainstream historians alike, is the energy, ingenuity and creativity displayed by many African leaders during the transition from colonial rule amid of a raging Cold War.
Kwame Nkrumah led the way after Ghana’s independence in 1957, frantically trying to devise an approach that would quickly lift his country out of poverty and into the ranks of middle-income or even industrialized nations. He felt that he needed commitment and assistance from both the West and the East to achieve this, and to that end he joined the Commonwealth and maintained surprisingly flattering relations with Queen Elizabeth, as well as with US President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline.
Africa’s economic deadlock is the central and unrecognized challenge facing the world in the 21st century.
Nkrumah, an insolent socialist, thought this would give him the space to maintain productive relations with the Soviet bloc and pursue a policy of bringing African countries together under the banner of pan-Africanism. For him, the twin priorities of securing continental unity and positive involvement of the world’s major powers in his development agenda were matters of African survival. But the fierce Cold War competition going on at the time wouldn’t give him much room for maneuver, and Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup that enjoyed — at the very least — a wink and a nod from the CIA in 1966.
Other African leaders of the day were given even less leeway. After Ghana gained independence in 1958, Guinea was punished by France under President Charles de Gaulle for choosing not to join a paternalistic Paris-led community of newly independent African states. To set an example of the Guinean anti-colonial leader Sekou Touré for his other African colonies, the French withdrew from their former colony almost overnight, famously destroying everything from government files to office furniture, leaving hospitals and tearing out telephone lines.
Over time, however, playing one superpower of another became more normalized and was no longer the province of leftist governments in Africa. Despite being the United States’ main client on the continent during the Cold War, Zairean Mobutu Sese Seko, who helped the CIA rise to power, eventually flirted with both China and North Korea. Ethiopia and Somalia, rivals in the Horn of Africa, exchanged loyalties between Moscow and Washington in the late 1970s. And Angola, a steadfast Marxist customer of the Soviet Union, cleverly gave the American company Chevron the lead role in producing oil from the enclave of Cabinda, figuring that business interests would help temper America’s anti-communist fervor during the long, foreign-backed civil wars.
Beyond this kind of acrobatics, however, the most impressive thing about the 1960s in Africa is the variety and magnitude of economic and political experimentation on the continent, and the ingenuity and imagination of leaders, starting with Nkrumah, who desperately tried to pave a path to more welfare. Equally impressive, and perhaps more importantly, regardless of ideology, all these attempts led to dead ends.
These include the agro-industrial state capitalism forged in Ivory Coast in the 1960s and 1970s by the conservative Felix Houphouet-Boigny, which for a time made his country appear to many as an economic miracle by exploiting the export of raw materials and migrant workers. are. story. They also include the Tanzania of Julius Nyerere, who dreamed of advancing his country in an egalitarian way through collective farming and homegrown socialism, stripped of notions of class struggle and emphasizing industry-led growth. From left to right, others tried an impressive variety of strategies, but by the 1970s in many African countries, and by the 1980s almost everywhere on the continent, this economic and ideological experiment had failed, and people in much of the continent were reduced their per capita income was no better than what they had known at their independence.
In fact, this is the central and unrecognized challenge that Africa poses to the world in the 21st century. No one seems to have a good idea of how the continent that will see the overwhelming bulk of the world’s population grow in the coming decades will achieve the much higher economic equilibrium that is so urgently needed. Today, much less brains and even less good seems to have been devoted to this question, one of the most important problems facing humanity in the 21st century, than, for example, in the early 1960s. And while we are still a long way from the all-encompassing superpower competition of the Cold War, the world’s strongest and wealthiest nations show no sign of collaborating with the nations of Africa, not even, frankly, competing among themselves to solve their problems. and fundamentally improve the lot of their people.
The economic deadlock in Africa has been written off in a morally unfair way for far too long. The correct, self-excusing answer to the lack of progress was corruption or a combination of poor choices and incompetence. There are certainly plenty of examples of this, but it is unlikely that African corruption will be very different in scope from the corruption seen in many other times and places. And the so-called poor choices of African governments must be weighed against the fluctuating and often disastrous advice they have received from the outside world over the past decades, and the courageous, if so often forgotten, struggle of early independence-era leaders for a to take place for their nations in a global economy eager to extract wealth from Africa, but otherwise remain ominous and hostile.
Howard W. French is a foreign correspondent and writer on international affairs, and the author of five books, including the recently published Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World. You can follow him on Twitter at @hofrench. His weekly WPR column appears every Wednesday.