Africa Caught in the Middle of Big-Power Conflicts

 —> Much has been written and said about how the world’s big powers have squeezed Africa into the middle of their global conflicts – from the Scramble for Africa in the late 1800s to the current impact of the Russia-Ukraine war. However, recently reading the book Modern Africa, one of the series of Captivating History book series, reminded me that these situations were not historical outliers, but rather part of a tragic trend that has plagued the continent and its inhabitants for more than a century and a half.

            The Scramble for Africa in the late 1800s was motivated by the desires of European countries to become the dominant world power at that time. European conflict with Muslims in the Middle East inspired a search for the legendary Prester John, whose attraction was as an ally in the Crusades in the Middle East from the 11th to the 13th centuries. He was said to be incredibly wealthy and have numerous soldiers to help defeat the Muslims who held the Holy Lands.

What the Europeans found were divided tribes that engaged in the slave trade, albeit with quite different ideas about the humanity of those enslaved. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was devastating to Africa, spiriting away millions of Africans who might have been significant contributors to their homelands, but whose descendants became significant contributors to their new homelands. Eventually, the slave trade profits waned, but European explorers found that the interior of Africa held significant natural resources beyond its people.

In 1878, Belgian King Leopold II was briefed by explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who told him of the riches that could be extracted from the Central Africa Congo Basin, such as gold, rubber and timber. Unfortunately for the Belgian king, information is fungible, and the French learned of Leopold’s plans and sent a naval officer – Pierre de Brazza (for whom Brazzaville in the now Republic of Congo was later named) – to investigate and create a colony north of where the Belgians had planned to begin their African empire.

Meanwhile, the British had their sights set on many parts of West, East and southern Africa, Germany carved out colonies from Cameroon and Togoland in the East to Namibia in the south to Tanganyika in the East. Italy sought to capture Eritrea, Ethiopia and other parts of northeastern Africa. Portugal ended up with five colonies – from the islands of Cape Verde and Sāo Tomé to Guinea-Bissau and Angola in Central and West Africa to Mozambique in the East. Spain grabbed several small territories off the Mediterranean coast and Equatorial Guinea. The Dutch, who had declined as a world power since 1700, didn’t have what was necessary to compete with other Europeans colonizers in Africa with one major exception: South Africa.

At the outset of the Belin Conference of 1884, 80% of Africa was independent, but soon only Liberia, which was seen as an American dependent, and Ethiopia escaped European control, but Ethiopia continued to be an Italian target of colonization through World War II.  The European division of African territory was done with European interests in mind and put clashing ethnic groups together in created countries that continue to have inter-ethnic disputes.

The Scramble for Africa only delayed the inevitable European conflict, which broke out in 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Apparently, Austria-Hungary and Serbia had been spoiling for conflict for some time, and this killing proved to be the trigger. Austria-Hungary enlisted the aid of Germany and the Ottoman Empire, while Serbia was aided by Russia, France and Great Britain at the outset. The United States would later join the so-called Allied forces fighting against Austria-Hungary’s coalition.

Of course, this European war inevitably involved Africa, as colonies were seen as targets to destabilize European opponents and force their militaries to defend African territories, bases for supply or sources of recruits for the war effort. Germany encouraged a Muslim group known as the Senussi to foreswear their friendly relations with Britain in Egypt, which ended up in a 1917 defeat for this Muslim group at the hands of the British and the Italians. The Senussi had successfully frustrated Italian incursions until then.

The Germans who had lost their African colonies through their defeat in what was called the Great War, signing the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that placed what Germans came to see as an onerous burden on that country. Eventually, Germany broke their agreement under Nazi rule, but their land grab didn’t end in Europe. The Allies (Britain, the United States, China and the Soviet Union faced off against the German coalition known the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan).

The Axis coalition targeted the Suez Canal early in the war, even though Egypt was independent from Britain because British troops still guarded it, and the Axis countries wanted to distract British troops. The Italians attacked Egypt from Libya in 1940, but a year later, they were on the brink of defeat when the German Afrika Korps, led by General Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) won a string of victories. The British seized the initiative in the North Africa campaign in 1942, and when the United States subsequently joined the British, the Axis’ North Africa campaign was all but over, ending their threat to the Suez Canal.

During both World Wars, African military recruits and other enlisted helpers were ill-treated, receiving substandard rations, clothing, housing and medical care. Whatever promises had been made to them were not kept. Millions of Africans suffered and died in the two World Wars, although the weakened European colonizers subsequently were forced to relinquish formal control of African colonies over the next three decades.

Unfortunately, the end of the two World Wars also coincided with the commencement of the Cold War between the United States and Russia. There was extraordinarily little room for neutrality. African governments were seen as allies or enemies. This was especially true in Angola, Ethiopia and Egypt.

The Portuguese favored one of the three independence parties – the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA in the Portuguese language acronym) – and set this political party up as the dominant power behind the scenes. After the MPLA seized the capital and declared the country a one-party state in 1975, the Soviet Union and Cuba backed them. The other two independence parties – the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA in Portuguese) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA in Portuguese) were supported by the United States and apartheid South Africa, who joined together to oppose communism in southern Africa. Any support from South Africa during this period, though, was considered a negative factor.

Despite cease-fires and 1992 national elections, the Angolan civil war continued off and on from 1975 until the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in June 1989. While this conflict was based on internal ethnic disputes, the fighting was fanned and supported by the United States and the Soviet Union as an extension of their Cold War. Not only did numerous Angolans die or were maimed in this conflict, but the indiscriminate landmine placements also prevented the return of agricultural production and prevented safe travel until a later anti-mining effort was implemented.

Ethiopia had long been a U.S. ally, and many Americans held Emperor Haile Selassie as a hero. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine as Man of the Year in 1936. Black Americans and others held a major rally in New York in that same year to urge the U.S. government to oppose Italian occupation of Ethiopia. After the defeat of Italy in World War II and the restoration of the Emperor, U.S.-Ethiopian relations blossomed.

That is, until the Marxist Dergue movement led by Mengistu Haile Mariam seized power and overthrew the Emperor in 1974. This action against a U.S. ally, in conjunction with its support from the Soviet Union and the so-called Red Terror campaign that led to thousands of Ethiopian deaths, caused a break in relations with Ethiopia. That was only reversed in 1991 with the Dergue’s removal. The incoming Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front was a U.S. ally again until internal changes in 2020 led to political dissension and a civil war based largely in the Tigray Province.

In Egypt, the United States had helped protect the Suez Canal – the gateway of oil from the Middle East to Europe and beyond – even to the extent of using its military to oust British and French forces. However, Egyptian President Abdel Nasser had pro-communist leanings. The U.S. government apparently decided to support Egyptian independence efforts. That support, as well as billions in military and economic aid eventually convinced Nasser to remain neutral in the Cold War.

Even after independence, though, Africa remains unduly affected by outside conflicts. China has been a Non-Aligned Movement partner of African since 1961. Recent concerns about China monopolizing strategic minerals in Africa caused the U.S. government to oppose what it considers Chinese hegemony in Africa. One program, called Clear Choice, created during the administration of Donald Trump, was initially intended to force an African choice between doing business with America or China. Fortunately, experienced Africa hands in the administration led the focus of Clear Choice to be changed to demonstrating the benefits of dealing with the United States as opposed to China, but frustrations with growing Chinese control over African resources could affect this calculus moving forward.

Today, the Russia-Ukraine war has had seriously negative impacts on African economies and its people. A shortage of grain from major producers Ukraine and Russia due to the fighting has caused spikes in food prices as has the lack of fertilizers from that region due to embargoes and shipping blockades. We hear about progress made in getting shipments of grain and fertilizer out, but this is a decision is driven by war politics in Europe and not because of concern over the war’s negative global effect, especially on developing nations.

So, a century and a half later, Africa still finds itself buffeted by the winds of conflict elsewhere. Pollution in other parts of the world has driven efforts to quickly move toward renewable energy sources regardless of how that affects fossil fuel-rich Africa that has a desperate need to industrialize. Critical minerals exist in abundance in Africa, but the world’s focus is on who outside of Africa has control, not how Africans can manage their own natural resources.

When will the broader world start to consider Africa’s needs as at least equal to if not superior to theirs, help to facilitate African countries to become more self-reliant and less reliant on outside assistance and stop using African countries and African people as pawns in a global, real-life Game of Thrones?