Thu. May 30th, 2024

By Howard W. French

Anyone with even a sketchy understanding of the Cold War knows that it was a time not only of intense direct competition between the reigning superpowers, but also of grand schemes by both the U.S. and USSR for integrating their allies and clients into adversarial blocs, as well as for poaching the partners of the rival power—especially in the developing world—into their own camp.

Throughout much of this era, the West regarded professions of neutrality among poorer countries with skepticism or even outright hostility. Beginning with the Eisenhower administration, the view took hold in Washington that non-alignment was just a pose, and that those who declared it had already begun an ineluctable drift into Moscow’s clutches.

The Soviet Union basically agreed. With far less wealth than the United States or its collection of allies, many of which were then reluctantly transitioning one by one away from imperialism, Moscow felt it could afford to be tolerant of the non-aligned. The greater the distance that newly independent countries established between them and their former colonizers, the more likely, the Kremlin felt, they would adopt a worldview that was sympathetic to socialism.

In my column last week, I discussed how some of the early to middle Cold War-era rivalry played out in Africa. In 1956, sensing the imminent end of the age of colonial rule, then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev abruptly pivoted 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 still received respectful hearings in the West, the United States and its European allies were forced to make a pivot of their own, and they suddenly began paying much more attention to Africa than had ever, especially for Washington, previously been the case. Development assistance, or so-called aid, became a major 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 nongovernmental organizations was born, whose aim was to help figure out the challenging puzzle of development—and for the latter group, the NGOs, not incidentally, to capture some of the government’s generous budgetary outlays.

What is lost in this deliberately streamlined narrative, appreciated far too little both in popular memory and among mainstream historians, is the energy, resourcefulness and creativity shown by many African leaders during the transition out of colonial rule amid a raging Cold War. 

Kwame Nkrumah led the way after Ghana’s independence in 1957, furiously attempting to conceive of an approach that would move his country quickly out of poverty and into the ranks of middle-income or even industrialized countries. He sensed that he needed engagement and help from both West and East in order to achieve this, and toward that end he joined the Commonwealth and maintained surprisingly flattering relations with Queen Elizabeth as well as with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline.

Africa’s economic impasse is the central and unacknowledged challenge to the world in the 21st century.

Nkrumah, an unapologetic socialist, thought that this would win him space to entertain productive relations with the Soviet bloc and pursue a policy of drawing African countries together under the banner of pan-Africanism. For him, the dual priorities of securing continental unity and positive engagement from the world’s major powers in his development agenda were matters of African survival. But the fierce Cold War competition then underway would not afford him much maneuvering room, and Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup that enjoyed—at a minimum—a wink and a nod from the CIA in 1966. 

Other African leaders of this era were granted even less wiggle room. Following Ghana into independence in 1958, Guinea was punished by France under President Charles de Gaulle for opting not to join a paternalist, Paris-led community of newly independent African states. To make an example of the Guinean anti-colonial leader Sekou Toure for its other African colonies, the French pulled out of their former colony almost overnight, famously trashing everything from government records to office furniture, abandoning hospitals and ripping out phone lines.

With time, though, playing one superpower off another became more normalized and ceased being the province of left-leaning governments in Africa. Despite being the United States’ most important client on the continent during the Cold War, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, whom the CIA helped install in power, eventually flirted with both China and North Korea. Ethiopia and Somalia, rivals in the Horn of Africa region, swapped their allegiances between Moscow and Washington in the late 1970s. And Angola, a steadfast Marxist client of the Soviet Union, astutely gave the American company Chevron the leading role in producing oil from its Cabinda enclave, under the theory that business interests would help temper America’s anti-communist ardor during Angola’s long, foreign-supported civil wars.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana talk as they sit in a limousine at Washington National Airport on March 8, 1961 (AP photo).

Beyond these kinds of acrobatics, though, what is most impressive about the 1960s in Africa is the variety and extent of economic and political experimentation on the continent, and the resourcefulness and imagination of leaders, beginning with Nkrumah, who sought desperately to forge a path toward greater prosperity. Equally impressive, and if anything even more important, is that regardless of ideology, every one of these attempts resulted in dead ends.

These include the agro-industrial state capitalism forged in Cote d’Ivoire by the conservative Felix Houphouet-Boigny in the 1960s and 1970s, which for a time, using commodity exports and migrant labor, made his country appear to many to be an economic miracle story. They also include the Tanzania of Julius Nyerere, who dreamed of nudging his nation forward in an egalitarian way through collective agriculture and a homegrown socialism shorn of ideas like class struggle and emphasizing industrial-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 nearly everywhere on the continent, this economic and ideological experimentation had failed, and people in much of the continent were thrust back to per capita levels of income no better than what they had known at independence. 

This, in fact, is the central and unacknowledged challenge that Africa poses to the world in the 21st century. No one seems to have much of a picture of how the continent that will see the overwhelming bulk of the world’s population growth over coming decades will reach the much higher economic equilibrium that is so urgently needed. Today, far fewer brains and even less good will seem devoted to this question, one of the most important problems facing humanity in the 21st century, than there were, say, in the early 1960s. And although we are a long way from the cut-and-slash great power competition of the Cold War, the strongest and wealthiest countries of the world show no sign of working together with the nations of Africa nor even, frankly, of competing among themselves to help solve their problems and fundamentally improve the lot of their people.

Africa’s economic impasse has been written off in a morally dishonest way for far too long. The pat, self-exculpatory answer offered for its inadequate progress has been corruption or a combination of bad choices and incompetence. To be sure, there have been plenty examples of these, but African corruption is unlikely to be very different in extent from the corruption seen in many other times and places. And the so-called bad choices of African governments must be weighed against the constantly shifting and often disastrous advice they have received over the decades from the outside world, and against the courageous, if so often forgotten, struggles of leaders in the early independence era to find a place for their nations in a global economy that is happy to extract wealth from Africa, but otherwise remains forbidding and hostile. 

Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, 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

Credits | WPR

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