Outsiders and Africa
Political and Military Engagement on the Continent (1991–2017)
AFRICA IS A continent that is often misunderstood. Misleading stereotypes smooth over differences among the continent’s fifty-four countries, resulting in oversimplifications and distortions. During the periods of decolonization (1956–75) and the Cold War (1945–91), discussions of Africa evoked images of poverty, corruption, and communist subversion. African nationalists, who were viewed as threatening to Western interests, were dismissed by many as communists controlled by external powers. During the first post–Cold War decade (1991–2001), images of brutal civil wars, and their expansion into regional conflagrations, dominated media portrayals of the continent. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the presence of terrorists in Africa—real and imagined—became the new bogeyman.1
As is the case with many stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in these simplistic understandings. Poverty, corruption, and violent conflicts have devastated many African countries. Less well known is the fact that many of the challenges facing the continent today are rooted in colonial political and economic practices, in Cold War alliances, and in attempts by outsiders to influence African political and economic systems during the decolonization and postindependence periods. Although conflicts in Africa emerged from local issues, external political and military interventions altered their dynamics and rendered them more lethal.
This book provides a new framework for thinking about foreign intervention in Africa, its purposes, and its consequences. It is not intended for specialists. It does not advance new theories, present the
results of recent primary research, or provide a detailed survey of current literature. Its target audience includes policymakers, humanitarian and human rights workers, students, and the general reading public. Its purpose is pedagogical, and the main points are illustrated with case studies synthesized from previously published work. The book’s format minimizes footnoting in favor of Suggested Reading sections at the conclusion of each chapter. This approach allows readers to follow the outlines of the argument without the distraction of footnotes and yet benefit from the direction of bibliographic essays. The recommended readings are limited to sources in English; most of the articles, reports, and documents are readily available online.
This book is the companion to an earlier work, Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror
(Cambridge University Press, 2013). Both volumes elucidate the role of outside powers in the political and economic crises that plague Africa today. The earlier volume focuses on foreign political and military intervention in Africa during the periods of decolonization and the Cold War, when the most significant intervention came from outside the continent. Intervention during those periods involved the former colonial powers (France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Portugal), as well as the Cold War powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and Cuba).2
External support for repressive regimes that served internal elites and outside interests and stole the people’s patrimony laid the foundations for numerous post–Cold War conflicts, which in turn attracted further foreign intervention. The present volume investigates external political and military intervention in Africa during the quarter century following the Cold War (1991–2017), when neighboring states and subregional, regional, and global organizations and networks joined extracontinental powers in support of diverse forces in the war-making and peace-building processes.3
During this period, the Cold War paradigm as justification for intervention was replaced by two new ones: response to instability, with the corollary of responsibility to protect, and the war on terror. These paradigms are developed more fully in chapter 2
Historical Background: Decolonization and the Cold War
The following assessment of decolonization and the Cold War in Africa establishes the basis for understanding the conflicts that troubled the
continent in their aftermath. During these overlapping periods, which spanned the years 1956 to 1991, European imperial powers and Cold War superpowers struggled to control African decolonization. As popular forces challenged the existing order, external powers intervened to impose or support African regimes that catered to their political and economic interests. Former colonial powers and the United States tended to support regimes that opposed communism and left colonial economic relationships intact. They often confused radical nationalism with communism, imagining Soviet manipulation where none existed. Western patronage was often based on the willingness of local actors to serve as Cold War allies and regional policemen, providing military bases for Western use and thwarting radical movements among their neighbors. With fewer means at its disposal and less intrinsic interest in the continent, the Soviet Union tended to increase its presence in response to escalated Western and, to a lesser extent, Chinese involvement. It supported movements and regimes that declared themselves in favor of scientific socialism and a Soviet-style model of development—regardless of their internal practices—as well as radical nationalist regimes that were shunned by the West. Although perceived by the United Sates to be following the Soviet lead, Cuba often took an independent route that was not always to the liking of its Soviet ally. China favored African political parties, movements, and regimes that opposed Soviet influence and ideology, which sometimes resulted in unofficial collaboration with the United States.
Serving outside interests and internal elites rather than popular majorities, many postcolonial African leaders were autocrats who used state resources to bind loyalists to them in a system called neopatrimonialism.4
Weakened by corruption and mismanagement, their governments clung to power through repression, co-optation, and fraud. Since colonial times, African countries had exported cheap primary commodities and imported expensive manufactured goods. Following the worldwide economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s, they faced crushing debts. They turned to international financial institutions and foreign banks and governments for relief. Embracing a market-oriented economic model known as neoliberalism, these Western-dominated entities required African countries to reduce state involvement in the economy as a condition for loans.5
Such policies imposed the greatest burdens on the poor, provoking food and fuel shortages, inflation, and unemployment. Economic hardship, political repression, and widespread corruption, which
exacerbated growing income gaps, led to a continentwide surge of prodemocracy movements in the early 1990s. Popular forces increasingly challenged repressive regimes, demanding fundamental political and economic reforms.
As their economies went into a tailspin, neopatrimonial states could no longer perform their basic functions: monopolizing the means of coercion, safeguarding their territories, and providing protection and social services to their citizens. Weakened leaders lost the means to appease their loyalists with power and resources. Dictators once bolstered by outside powers were swept away as internal prodemocracy forces struggled with warlords and other strongmen to control the political process.6
The ensuing chaos provided fertile ground for a new wave of foreign intervention, both internal and external to the continent. Resource-rich countries were particularly vulnerable as outsiders fought to control the production and flow of oil, natural gas, and strategic minerals.
During the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, extracontinental powers, neighboring states, and subregional, regional, and global organizations became entangled in numerous African conflicts, supporting governments and rebel movements as well as war-making and peace-building processes. Although countries outside the continent continued to involve themselves in African affairs, the most consequential foreign intervention during this period was intracontinental. A number of African states, sometimes assisted by extracontinental powers, supported warlords, dictators, and dissident movements in neighboring countries and fought for control of their neighbors’ resources. The United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), and various subregional organizations regularly intervened to broker, monitor, and enforce peace agreements.7
However, conflicting interests, corrupt practices, and human rights abuses by some member states at times worsened the strife.
The launch of the war on terror following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States brought new forms of intervention to Africa. Washington cultivated alliances with African governments and trained and equipped their militaries to assist in the US counterterrorism agenda. Some of these governments, like their Cold War predecessors, used US training and equipment to quash internal opposition. The United States also intensified unconventional military actions on the continent, deploying Special Operations Forces and utilizing unmanned drones outside of established war zones. US support for repressive regimes, warlords,
and foreign occupiers sometimes intensified local support for antigovernment insurgencies. International terrorist networks often seized the opportunity to harness local grievances and expand into territories they previously had not penetrated.
The Arab Spring (2011–13) generated another wave of external involvement as prodemocracy demonstrators and rebel movements ousted repressive rulers across North Africa and the Middle East. Extracontinental organizations, political powers, and networks responded to the instability with both unilateral and multilateral actions, allying themselves with forces they hoped would protect their long-term interests. International terrorist networks led by al-Qaeda and its Iraqi offshoot, the Islamic State, took advantage of local grievances to support a wide range of violent extremists, including drug smugglers, human traffickers, and petty criminals, as well as indigenous groups fighting secular or supposedly impious Muslim governments.
The societal breakdown that characterized the late Cold War and early post–Cold War periods resulted in the emergence of two new rationales for foreign intervention: response to instability—with its corollary, responsibility to protect—and the war on terror. Military intervention in a number of African countries was justified on the grounds that their domestic instability threatened international peace and security. In some cases, where large numbers of civilians were at risk and population displacement exacerbated regional tensions, the response to instability was reinforced by claims of the responsibility to protect. A relatively new international legal norm, this standard holds nation-states accountable for securing their citizens against “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and grants the international community the right to intervene if governments fail to fulfill their “responsibility to protect.”8
Emerging from the post–World War II expansion of democratic values and concern for human rights, the principle gained support after the Cold War, when internal breakdown in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa forced the international community to rethink its allegiance to the seventeenth-century principle of state sovereignty. In 2005, UN member states concluded that a state’s failure to protect its citizens could warrant foreign intervention.
The war on terror, which is generally associated with the George W. Bush administration and the 9/11 attacks, had roots in the late Cold War period. During the Cold War, the United States often deployed religion
in the struggle against communism. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed conservative Christian parties in Europe after World War II, hoping to undermine the appeal of communism to populations devastated by the war. In the Middle East, the CIA countered radical nationalism—which it erroneously conflated with communism—by supporting autocratic Muslim regimes that shared Western interests in opposing communism and in controlling the region’s enormous oil wealth. Where radical nationalists came to power, their secular regimes were frequently challenged by local Islamists, who believed that Islamic religious principles should serve as the basis of the social, political, and legal order.9
The secular regimes frequently responded with repression, arresting and imprisoning Islamists and forcing others to flee into exile. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to shore up its regional interests, the United States seized the opportunity to rally support from a Muslim minority who had turned to violence to achieve their ends. In collaboration with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other allies, the United States mobilized a multinational coalition that recruited, trained, armed, and financed Muslim militants from around the world to fight the 1979–89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After Soviet withdrawal, the militants dispersed, taking their weapons and terror tactics to new battlegrounds around the globe. Osama bin Laden, founder and patron of al-Qaeda, was among the most prominent of the Soviet-Afghan War veterans who spearheaded the emerging terrorist networks. In the 1990s, his organization was responsible for a number of attacks on US citizens and property, culminating in the September 11, 2001, strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The 9/11 attacks opened a new chapter in the war on terror and marked the beginning of another era of US military intervention, first in Central Asia and the Middle East, and subsequently in Africa. Cold War experiences had left a deep imprint on US attitudes and actions. Having mobilized violent extremists who claimed the mantle of Islam to counter the communist menace during the Cold War, the United States contributed to the globalization of terror in its aftermath. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, Soviet-Afghan War veterans and their acolytes turned their attention to the United States as the last remaining superpower and patron of what they perceived as impious Muslim regimes. During the Cold War, the United States had confounded radical African and Arab nationalism with communism and intervened in
local conflicts, with disastrous results. After the Cold War, many in the US government viewed a wide range of Muslims with suspicion, failing to distinguish between nonviolent Muslims with conservative religious beliefs and a small minority with questionable religious credentials who used violence to achieve their ends. Officials in Washington often glossed over differences between those who targeted local regimes due to longstanding grievances and a much smaller segment who attacked Western countries that, in their view, supported impious rulers, oppressed Muslims, and defiled Muslim holy lands. As a result, the US war on terror, like the war on communism, had unintended consequences that sometimes intensified local support for violent opposition groups.
The impact of foreign political and military intervention in Africa after the Cold War is illuminated by a series of subregional case studies, described at the end of this chapter. They provide evidence to support the book’s four central propositions.
First, free market austerity policies, imposed by international financial institutions acting through weak postcolonial states during decolonization and the Cold War, contributed to deadly struggles over power and resources in the post–Cold War period. As dictators were driven from power, indigenous strongmen, and in some cases neighboring states, intervened to further their own interests. Other international actors interceded in an attempt to restore regional stability or protect civilian lives. However, they tended to engage selectively, choosing conflict zones that impinged on their own political, economic, and strategic interests, while ignoring other conflicts and casualties. Although some interventions benefited civilian populations, others harmed them. The failure to intervene when strategic interests were not at stake also had dire consequences.
Second, the war on terror, like its Cold War antecedent, increased foreign military presence on the African continent and generated new external support for repressive governments. Expanded US involvement was particularly noteworthy. Concerned about US energy and physical security, Washington focused on countries rich in energy resources and those considered vulnerable to terrorist infiltration. US military aid, combined with commercial military sales and arms left over from the
Cold War, contributed to an escalation of violence in many parts of Africa. Rather than promoting security, US military and covert operations often intensified strife and undermined prospects for peace.
Third, although US counterterrorism initiatives cast a long shadow, they were not the only foreign interventions in Africa during this period. After the Cold War, the UN, the AU, and African subregional organizations played a growing role in diplomacy and peacekeeping initiatives, sometimes leading to multilateral military action. France, a former colonial power, maintained a strong military presence on the continent and intervened in numerous conflicts. Emerging powers such as China, India, Brazil, Turkey, and the Gulf states, which were heavily invested in African oil, minerals, and agricultural land, exerted new political infl...