What You Should Know About The Cold War in Africa

Immediately after World War II, in the earliest phases of the Cold War, neither the United States nor the U.S.S.R. were overtly involved in African affairs, but that began to change by the early 1950s. Both superpowers were avowedly anti-imperialists, but the United States was concerned with its own Civil Rights movement, and provided little encouragement to African anti-colonial forces, with the critical exception of the Suez Crisis.

The U.S.S.R., however, while still offering only limited financial support, became one of the few friendly countries for nationalists forces fighting colonial governments.

By the early 1960s, the United States also became increasingly interested in African affairs, and there were many leaders who exploited Cold War politics to ensure the continuance of their rule despite critical financial shortfalls and large-scale internal opposition.

Post-Independence Military Aid

The most obvious impact of the Cold War was the military aid that western and Soviet powers supplied to African states and African rebel groups.

Much of this support came from the United States and the U.S.S.R., but former colonial powers like Britain and France also supported NATO-friendly forces, while Cuba, China, and East Germany supported socialist and soviet-aligned forces.This money and weaponry fueled civil wars and insurgencies in some countries and propped up dictators in others.

Support for Authoritarian States:

What is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most well-known examples of Cold War involvement in Africa.

In the early days of independence, the Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was seen by the West as a potential Soviet ally, and when Lumumba sought Soviet aid, it confirmed their suspicions. Several Western countries sought his assassination, which finally happened at the hands of secessionists in January 1961.


The United States and other western powers soon put their faith in Col. Joseph Mobutu, who came to power in 1965, and partly due to the aid of Western powers, remained in power until 1997. During those years, he amassed vast amounts of money as the DRC (then known as Zaire) became increasingly impoverished, yet he retained the crucial support of Western governments.

US support of Hissène Habré’s government in Chad offers another example.

Support for Insurgencies

The flip side to foreign support of authoritarian governments, was the support given to insurgencies. The classic example of this is Angola. By the mid-1960s,  there were no less than three, large liberation forces active in colonial Angola: the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

When independence was won in 1975, all three parties sought to control the new government. MPLA quickly gained control of the capital, and secured help from Cuba to hold off a Western-supported resistance from FNLA and UNITA. The civil war raged on until 2002, devastating the country and claiming the lives of a half a million people.

There is little doubt that the weapons and financial support Angolan political parties received made it possible to sustain a decades’ long war, but beyond that the story becomes more complex. In addition to changing levels of support between 1975-1990, the war itself did not end until 2002, nearly 12 years after the Cold War. Angola is, thus, an excellent example of the devastating impact of the Cold War on African states, while also standing as a reminder of the many other factors driving politics and conflicts during these years.


Written by PH

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