Africa, Relations with

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AFRICA, RELATIONS WITH. Despite its fascinating cultures and great needs, Africa has rarely interested U.S. policymakers for its own sake. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s they continued to view Africa primarily as a setting for U.S.-Soviet rivalries. Policies therefore were frequently superficial and clumsy, with little attention paid to their long-term effects on Africans. Four factors have been instrumental in shaping U.S. policies in Africa. First and most important was the Cold War, which drove U.S. policymakers to resist what they believed was Soviet expansion. The Central Intelligence Agency often emerged as a principal executor and, some have argued, maker of U.S. policy, conveying military aid, sometimes secretly, to African groups believed to be anticommunist. A second factor is the nearly thirty million Americans of African descent in the United States, enabled by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to elect increasing numbers of African Americans to Congress. African American politicians focused more government attention on African affairs than had been the case in the past. Third, the decades since 1970 have been marked by economic and political crises in many African states. Mass media widely publicized some of the more severe cases of destitution and starvation, inducing the U.S. government to pay attention to these areas, especially in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Rwanda. Fourth, the black African struggle against apartheid in South Africa often claimed center stage in U.S. policy, largely because South Africa's race relations were thought to resemble those of the United States.

Southern Africa (countries south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania) concerned U.S. policymakers in the 1970s and 1980s, because it was there that white minority rule continued the longest, despite efforts of blacks to end it. U.S. opposition to white rule, however, was complicated by Cold War considerations. Henry A. Kissinger, secretary of state during the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974) and Gerald R. Ford (1974–1977), concluded that white minority rulers deserved support because they were sympathetic to U.S. interests and, despite violent opposition, would hold on to power for the foreseeable future.

In the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, for example, guerrilla campaigns against Portuguese rule had been going on since the early 1960s. Although the United States was unsympathetic to Portuguese colonialism, it secretly supported the status quo because Portugal was a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally against the Soviet-and Cuban-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO). When losses in the war induced the Portuguese army to overthrow its own government in 1974, all Portuguese colonies in Africa were freed. FRELIMO and the MPLA established new governments in their respective countries. Immediately, however, the United States supported such pro-Western opposition movements as the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi. Because the Republic of South Africa ultimately supported Savimbi's UNITA, the United States found itself in an embarrassing alliance with the apartheid state. Congress ended support for the Angolan rebels in late 1975, but a civil war covertly financed by the United States and the Soviet Union raged for another twenty years. Even after the first national election in 1990 the fighting continued because Savimbi refused to accept the results. Decades of war left tens of thousands of land mines strewn across the region, maiming villagers, slowing economic recovery, and hampering relief efforts. War between UNITA and the Angola government flared again in 1998. By 2002, UNITA controlled valuable diamond mines and one-third of the countryside.

In Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia), a white minority defied British rule in 1965 and seized power to prevent a transfer of authority to black Africans. Blacks launched a guerrilla war led by the Marxist teacher Robert Mugabe, backed by the communist bloc; again the Nixon administration supported different nonsocialist black groups despite the fact that they had little popular support. The United States broke United Nations–sponsored sanctions against the white government by purchasing Rhodesian chromium, thereby improving the economic position of whites. The Democratic administration of President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981) did little to change these policies. Nonetheless, Mugabe's forces came to power in 1980, ending white rule in Zimbabwe. Mugabe's notoriously corrupt and brutal regime was still in power in 2002.

In South Africa, the United States opposed apartheid but did little of substance about it. U.S. leaders believed the main opposition group, the African National Congress, was dominated by communists, and therefore assumed that black majority rule would bring increased influence for the Soviet Union. The United States maintained economic and political ties with the white minority as it gently tried to persuade the South African government to moderate its racism, a tactic that was continued despite little evidence it was working. The U.S. government did nothing to persuade businesses to "disinvest" from the South African economy, a move that many thought would have a real effect. In fact, during the Nixon years, U.S. private investment in South Africa more than doubled.

The Carter administration owed its existence in part to black voters and initially stressed human rights in its foreign policy to a greater degree than did its Republican predecessors. Led by UN delegate Andrew Young, a civil rights veteran, the Carter administration increased its public condemnation of apartheid, although this policy did not materially undermine its existence. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 saw a return to the more tolerant policies of the Nixon years. Known as "constructive engagement," Reagan's approach stressed increased interaction between U.S. and South African interests, assuming that without economic cooperation, the United States would have no leverage to promote changes in South African society. The vigorously anticommunist Reagan also saw the opposition to apartheid as Soviet-dominated. Further, U.S. diplomats tended to see the situation in South Africa as similar to that of the American South of the 1950s, leading to faulty assumptions about the possibilities for peaceful change. In fact, most U.S. administrations made this same misjudgment to a certain extent. The increased power of blacks in Congress and activities of private organizations, especially the lobbying group Trans Africa, helped force a change in policy. Congress voted economic sanctions against South Africa in 1986, which Reagan reluctantly accepted. Worldwide sanctions and the increased violent resistance by black South Africans were important in bringing about the end of apartheid and the first free election in South Africa in 1994. The fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was also crucial, because thereafter the argument that the apartheid government was anticommunist lost its force.

The end of the Cold War had important implications for U.S. policy outside southern Africa. American policy had supported Mobutu Sese Seko, the military dictator of Zaire, because of his anticommunism and despite the brutalities of his rule. With the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. support gradually declined, although Mobutu still clung to power and to his $6 billion in European banks, while Zairian society disintegrated around him. In 1996, rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila, supported by foreign Tutsi soldiers, swept Mobutu from power and—consistent with his promise to reform and democratize the country—renamed it the Demcratic Republic of the Congo. But Kabila ousted the Tutsis from his fledgling government, souring his relations with neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. The sporadic fighting that ensued threatened to expand into a regional war. Kabila was assassinated in 2001; his son Joseph, who was named head of state, initiated attempts to alleviate the conflict.

A similar situation existed in the northeast African state of Somalia, but there the United States intervened with troops. Another military man, Siad Barre, had seized power in 1969 and played the United States against the Soviet Union, managing at times to gain the support of each. As the Cold War ended, Siad Barre was overthrown, but the massive weaponry brought by Cold War politics remained. Siad Barre's collapse led to bloody civil war. The war and a drought in 1992 produced mass starvation that was broadcast nightly on the world's television screens. U.S. and other troops under the auspices of the UN were successful in seeing that food reached destitute Somalis. When those troops tried to end the civil war, however, they failed spectacularly. The U.S. contingent withdrew in 1994 after the release of video footage showing the bodies of U.S. Marines, killed in a firefight after

their Blackhawk helicopter crashed, being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

The Somalia humiliation probably affected U.S. policy toward Rwanda, in central Africa, where drought and ethnic tension produced a volatile situation. In early 1994, a small group of politicians and their supporters began murdering opponents. This group lost control of the situation, and as the death toll reached the hundreds of thousands, the United States and UN, undoubtedly remembering Somalia, did little to stop it. It was not until the government was overthrown and mass media coverage began to have an effect that the United States and other nations intervened to alleviate the suffering of the half million refugees created by the strife.

In an unusual case, the United States bombed the north African state of Libya in 1986 to punish it for terrorist acts it was alleged to have sponsored and attempted to kill its leader, Mu'ammar al-Gadhafi, who survived, although some members of his family and entourage died. The United States kept a cautious eye on Gadhafi during the 1990s. After the devastating terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, President George W. Bush included Libya in his "Axis of Evil," countries suspected by the U.S. of actively supporting terrorists. Also in north Africa, the United States provided Egypt with economic and military aid to support Egyptian moves for peace in the Middle East.

U.S. activity in much of the rest of Africa was less obviously political. The Agency for International Development, the government's principal means of promoting economic development in poorer parts of the world, worked diligently in many areas of Africa. Although its projects have not always been well conceived, some succeeded in establishing better water supplies, halting soil erosion, and improving transportation. U.S. governmental and private agencies collaborated with the World Health Organization to control such diseases as smallpox and river blindness. Some U.S. activity in Africa focused on efforts to understand and cope with AIDS, which some theorize began in Africa. In any case, the disease spread quickly throughout the continent, threatening to decimate the populations of some nations in the twenty-first century. The U.S. has also given its tacit support to the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Although criticized for its failures to address human rights concerns or deal with corruption, SADC remained the continent's best hope for coping with the civil strife and cross-border wars that threatened to destabilize the region.

Despite successes, U.S. aid to Africa has been controversial. Some observers argued that there was too much stress on military aid, which until the late 1980s exceeded economic aid. The effect, they charged, was to prolong dictatorial "anticommunist" regimes with little popular support. Economic aid was criticized because it was misused by recipients, either to enrich themselves or to promote apparently socialist policies. Many of the same critics argued that the United States gained no advantage from this aid. With control of Congress passing to Republicans in 1995, whose numbers included many of these critics, African nations worried that U.S. aid to Africa would decrease considerably. The issue of U.S. support became especially crucial during the AIDS epidemic of the 1990s. AIDS emerged as the leading cause of death among African youth. Doctors feared that one-third of the population, including millions of children, were infected with the HIV virus. The administration of George W. Bush in 2002 pledged a half billion dollars to combat the epidemic. But some feared that a much greater commitment from industrialized nations would be needed to stave off a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented scale.

In the summer of 2002, U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill teamed with the popular singer Bono in a highly publicized ten-day tour of Africa. As this oddball pairing made clear, the renewed economic interest in Africa, combined with the continued civil strife and health concerns plaguing the region, ensures that Africa's role in U.S. foreign policy will continue to grow.


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El-Khawas, Mohamed A., and Barry Cohen, eds. The Kissinger Study of Southern Africa. Westport, Conn.: L. Hill, 1976.

Lemarchand, René, ed. American Policy in Southern Africa: The Stakes and the Stance. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981.

Meriwether, James Hunter. Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935–1961. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Minter, William. King Solomon's Mines Revisited: Western Interests and the Burdened History of Southern Africa. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Nwaubani, Ebere. The United States and Decolonization in West Africa, 1950–1960. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2001.

R. L.Watson/a. r.

See alsoAcquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) ; Atrocities in War ; Foreign Aid ; Somalia, Relations with ; South Africa, Relations with ; Terrorism .

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Africa, Relations with

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