Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Book Review: Foreign Intervention in Africa

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa, Reviews by ruben eberlein on October 29, 2013

The Cold War between the superpowers has been quite a hot affair in Africa. Millions of people lost their lifes. A new book sheds light on this immediate history. Read the English version of my review which appeared in Konkret 11/13.

SchmidtAfrica’s latest history is not least the history of military, political and economic interventions that were and are staged by actors outside the continent. Probably no region of the world has been ‘integrated’ – by way of the transatlantic slave trade and colonisation – into the global world order so brutally such as the African continent. The nominal independence of many states during the sixties did not lead to a break in terms of the interplay between extraversion and intervention but continued this dynamics under different configurations.

Elisabeth Schmidt dedicates herself in a recently published monograph to an important aspect of foreign interventions in Africa, namely armed intrusions. She builds a huge bridge from the beginnings of national liberation in African countries until today’s interventions under the catchword ‘war on terror’. In course of eight chapters the author reviews, inter alia, the Congo crisis in the early sixties, the wars in the former portuguese colonies Moçambique, Guinea-Bissau and Angola as well as the politics of the great powers at the Horn of Africa. A distinct chapter is dedicated to the French politics vis-à-vis Africa between 1947 and 1993. Each part of the book  contains an elaborate literature list which recommends appropriate books in case the reader wants to deepen his knowledge on different aspects.

As it is probably anticipated by most readers, Schmidt describes the time between independence and the year 1989 foremost as a stage coined by competition of the superpowers and their camps as well as the French effort to neo-colonial control over its former empire. And this rivalry between the world powers about strategic advantages and loyal clients in Africa partly took grotesque forms. This fact has been made most explicit with the happenings at the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia under Haile Selassie proved to be a devoted ally of the USA and the West during the fifties and sixties. Selassie ruled with the help of a small aristocratic oligarchy which squeezed the peasants of the country recklessly in a feudal system, but human rights were of second importance when it came to the defence against communism and a questionable concept of ‘regime stability’. The neighbour and rival of Ethiopia, Somalia under Siad Barre, on the other hand, was a client of the Eastern block. Soviet and East German specialists educated Barre’s secret services, and the regime acquired quite a number of weapons from its allies.

The downfall of Haile Selassie after a devastating famine 1972/73 and the take-over by the Derg 1974, a military council under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, changed all this. Bit by bit, the top of the army in Ethiopia turned to the East and arranged secret weapon deliveries with the Soviet Union. In 1977/78, when Somalia started the war about the Ogaden region in the North East of Ethiopia where many ethnic Somalis lived, this new role allocation hardened. Now, Somalia served as a client of the West while the more and more repressive regime in Addis Abeba became an ally of the Eastern Bloc.

Schmidt analyses as well the not-that-cold wars in the portuguese (ex-)colonies. Millions of people lost their lifes during the struggles for power in Moçambiqe and Angola that lasted until 1992 and 2002 respectively, and they involved a number of external actors. In Angola, the MPLA (which still holds the power in the country today) was supported by the Soviet Union and its allies (foremost Cuba); the FNLA and Unita received help from the USA, South Africa, China and Zaire. Renamo in Moçambique, a creation of the South Rhodesian secret service, was used by Apartheid South Africa for the destabilisation of the Frelimo government and received indirect support from the US as well.

The merit of Schmidt’s book is the description of military interventions by extracontinental powers in Africa in their whole complexity and with all their contradictions. In doing this, it becomes clear that actors at the continent never were will-less victims of foreign powers but were capable of using the interests of the Great Powers to their own advantage. Nobody would be a better example for this fact than Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC). Mobutu and his entourage presented themselves for decades as warrantors for ‘stability’ and as a bulwart against communism. Doing so, they had no trouble to prey on the giant country rich in mineral and other resources.

In course of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, African rulers no longer had the possibility to stabilise their power by way of joining this or that camp. The military and financial support increasingly dried up, and the victorious West was even able to afford a look at despotic governance and the disrespect for human rights at the continent. The US, for instance, dropped its long-time client Samuel Doe in Liberia and helped this way to prepare the ground for the collapse of the state into zones of  competing warlords. For a long time, the disinterest for the ‘New Wars’ coined the reactions of the ‘international community’ which found its most dreadful expression during the genocide in Rwanda 1994 and the continuing conflict in Somalia.

The ‘war against terror’ as well as the run for strategically important minerals, in the meantime, brought Africa back to the center of attention of the European Union and the US. China joined the crowd as an important actor during the last years. Similar as during the times of the Cold War, African rulers secure their power partly by presenting themselves as reliable partners in the fight against Islamism. At the same time, military interventions under the auspices of the United Nations, the different regional organisations and the African Union increase.

The monograph of Elisabeth Schmidt provides an instructive historical overview of foreign military interventions in Africa since the Cold War. Nevertheless, a more explicit theoretical discussion would have been added even more value. As a conclusion of their case studies, Schmidt has to offer only the statement that military interventions did more harm than good to African states. This is, however, not a ground-breaking insight. It would have been appropriate, for example, to theorise the military interventions of the Great Powers and their allies in terms of Bourdieu as part of a transnational transfer of symbolic and economic capital which allowed African rulers to stay in power even when their legitimacy was  seriously in doubt.

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

This is the English version of my article in Konkret 11/13. You can download the text here (pdf).

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2 Responses

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  1. Jules said, on October 31, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Hi Ruben, that’s a pretty insightful review, but would you recommend it as a good read for someone interested in postcolonialism? Do you think it was worth your time?

    • ruben eberlein said, on October 31, 2013 at 1:46 pm

      Yes, it is a read worth the time, definitely. Although, as I think, a bit weak on the theoretical side.


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