US intervention in Africa: Through Angolan eyes

The rebel movement UNITA, which is subverting the peace process in Angola, is a product of US intervention in Africa during the Cold War. Tetteh Hormeku retraces US policy towards Angola since 1945 and asks if there has really been a change in US stance towards Africa.

ON 23 July, the UN Security Council expressed concern that the former UNITA rebels in Angola were trying to restore their military capabilities and warned of possible sanctions. Two days earlier, US troops had started landing to train soldiers in Uganda and Senegal, for what may ultimately become Africa's continental rapid deployment peacekeeping force. Aimed at promoting peace for economic development in Africa, the so-called African Crisis Response Initiative is expected in the short-term to involve Ghana, Tunisia, Ethiopia and Mali. The same week, American leaders arrived in Harare for the African-American-African summit to discuss economic development in Africa - more specifically American investment opportunities.

This is not the first time Africans are witnessing a unilateral American policy towards Africa, combining military and economic concerns. In fact, especially because it coincided with international concern about UNITA's destructive potential, it is reminiscent of the US role in Angola, using UNITA as a proxy.

As told with meticulous scholarship by George Wright in The Destruction of a Nation: United States Policy Towards Angola since 1945 (Pluto Press), the war against Angola was part of an American policy for Africa which began to take shape as far back as 1945. The fundamental objective, then as now, was to secure American leadership over a unified global economy. To achieve this, America had to do two things: secure an 'open door for capital', and destabilise and roll back 'those states that pursued development policies which prevented US-led international capital from dominating their economy and/or pursued a non-aligned foreign policy'.

Africa in the 40s: few threats

In shaping US policy in Africa in the 1940s, US policy-makers were influenced by two immediate considerations. The first was the absence of any tangible Soviet involvement in the continent at that time. The second was their perception of the nationalist movements then as not having the capacity to threaten the status quo. Africa was thus left to the administration of the Western European allies, while the US maintained vigilance over a number of colonies for strategic reasons and in order to expand US trade with them. These included Belgian Congo, Egypt, Liberia, Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria and apartheid South Africa which were seen as having raw materials for expanded industrial and military expansion.

In relation to Angola, this policy meant giving Portugal free rein. This was reinforced by Portugal's perceived importance to NATO, especially because of its control over the Azores archipelago, a strategically important military base for NATO. This became the strategy for subsequent administrations. Now and then some US administrations tried to find within the overall policy some 'neo-colonial' option for Angola. This was especially in the face of increasing nationalist activity in Africa, motivated by the fear that doing nothing would play into the hands of the Soviet Union and China.

Such was the case under President John F Kennedy, who put pressure more openly on Portugal, and also began to directly build some contacts with sections of the Angolan nationalist movement, including putting the FNLA's Holden Roberto on the CIA payroll. Nevertheless, for him too, NATO and Portugal strategic importance was overriding.

Nixon put an end to Kennedy's tactics. Aligning himself more firmly with Portugal, he provided military assistance that Portugal used against the Angolan nationalists. Side by side Nixon's support came expanded US capital investment in Angola. Under military protection from Portugal, Gulf-Oil expanded its operations from $150 million in 1969 to $300 million in 1975, an operation which in turn generated for Portugal 40% of its foreign earnings. Other major US oil companies, namely Union Carbide, Texaco, Mobil, and Argo Petro, flocked into Angola, as did other non-oil companies like Universal leaf and Tobacco, First National City Bank of New York, Firestone, Chase Manhattan Bank, General Electric and IBM.

Boom for US businesses

US exports to Angola soared from $54 million in 1969 to $166 million in 1973, a 245% increase. Most of this trade was in commodities like construction and mining, and heavy earth- moving equipment. In exchange, Angolan exports to the US, of mainly robusta coffee, stood almost steady at $37 million in 1968 and $38 million in 1973.

Nixon's assumption that Portugal would be able to militarily contain Angolan nationalism and provide the conditions for US investment was unravelled with the 1974 coup in Portugal. It set the stage for a more devastating US involvement in Angola. The coup at first yielded an agreement for political settlement in Angola, with elections to be contested by the main nationalist movements, MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA. In order to guarantee that the outcome of this settlement would not overturn the status quo ante, the US administration decided to exclude the MPLA (allegedly because of its Soviet support), and began to undermine the settlement. The US increased its arms support to the FNLA, which with support from Chinese military advisers, launched a military operation to conquer Angola for itself. In the ensuing civil war, the US would coordinate and furnish a joint South African, Zairois, FNLA and UNITA offensive against the MPLA. The latter was in turn forced to rely more on support from the Soviet Union, who in the face of American actions, abandoned their commitment to the political settlement. The MPLA also asked for and got Cuban operational help. This, together with US Congressional resistance to further direct US involvement in Angola, helped MPLA win the war.

Unfortunately, however, the MPLA victory provided the basis for a different kind of US military campaign against Angola. This was a campaign of destabilisation to demoralise the Angolan population and destroy economic infrastructure as a way of undermining the MPLA. Apartheid South Africa initiated this process, afraid that an MPLA regime would help undermine its own apartheid system. The US joined forces with them later. The chosen instrument for both was Jonas Savimbi's UNITA.

President Jimmy Carter kicked this off. Contrary to campaign promises, and to the wishes even of American business in Angola, he refused to recognise the Angola government. Indeed he linked recognition to a regional settlement. In addition, he got nations such as Morocco and China to provide arms to UNITA, thus circumventing the Clarke amendment, the US law which prohibited such aid. Above all, in his bid to get the law amended, he unleashed a cold-war political climate together with processes which directly supplemented South African activities in Angola. His successor, President Ronald Reagan, pushed further and more abrasively on all fronts.

For Reagan, Angola was a prime target in the effort to roll back the revolutionary nationalist regimes in the Third World - from Iran to Nicaragua - which had begun to put US global dominance under strain. Reagan established direct contact with South Africa, renewed US-South African military contacts and defended South African intervention in Angola at such fora as the UN Security Council. He also established immediate contact with UNITA leadership, and expanded the network of states and organisations which served as conduits for arms to UNITA, while he battled to change the US Clarke amendment. South Africa, Morocco, Zaire, and Israel were mobilised to give weapons and training to UNITA.

UNITA trained via Saudi Arabia

Starting in 1981, Saudi Arabia supplied Morocco with $50-70 million annually to train UNITA personnel. The Clarke amendment fell during Reagan's second term in office, thus clearing the way for direct covert aid to UNITA. The scale of the resulting aid can be gleaned from the following: $15 million in 1986, $15 million in 1987, $30 million in 1988 and $50 million in 1989.

With US material support, and with joint military operations with South Africa, Savimbi expanded operations and escalated the fighting over Angola. Already by 1987 one million people, or 12% of the population, were displaced. In addition, telecommunications facilities were blown up; government health clinics were burned down; 10,000 classrooms were ravaged; grain storage facilities and hydroelectric grids were destroyed;over 200 bridges were smashed.

Land mines were put in agricultural fields. Between 1980 and 1988, the government lost about $30 billion in revenue; and the amount of physical destruction stood at $22 billion.

As early as 1987, the fundamental impact of the war on Angola's independent economic developmental strategy had surfaced. In that year, the government introduced the Programme for Economic and Financial Restructuring. This programme, with its budgetary cuts, privatisation and encouragement of foreign capital, was patterned after the structural adjustment packages of the Bretton Woods institutions. Angola also applied to join the IMF at the demand of the international financial community in exchange for debt rescheduling.

This economic unravelling of Angola, however, was not translated immediately into military defeat. The Angola government, with the support of Cuban fighters, held off and, at crucial moments, inflicted defeats on the UNITA-South Africa war machine. The military stalemate, and its costs for South Africa, and 'Gorbachev's perestroika', paved the way for a negotiated political solution for Angola. While accepting this, US policy was geared towards ensuring, if not outright victory for UNITA, then some power-sharing with the Angolan government. To achieve this, the US continued to give military support to UNITA, even as negotiations went on.

The Bush administration carried this dual approach to perfection. It opened a liaison office in Luanda, and eased the way for IMF and World Bank loans to Angola. At the same time, in 1992 Bush provided $30 million in covert funding to Savimbi. Bush approached the 1992 political settlement under which elections were held, assuming that the Angolan people would vote for UNITA and against MPLA. When, as the elections approached, it realised that UNITA may not win, the Bush administration started to promote a formula of power-sharing, regardless of who won the elections. Meanwhile, the US administration still held back recognition of the Angolan government and permission to join the IMF and the World Bank as chips to secure compliance.

No more use for Savimbi

Savimbi refused to accept the results of the 1992 elections and went back to violence. By rejecting his place in a national government, and embarking on a war which he was not likely to win, Savimbi was exhausting his value as a US lever in the Angolan settlement. Nevertheless, the US would continue to protect UNITA against decisive action by the international community, particularly at the UN Security Council. Under President Bill Clinton, the US closed its eyes to UNITA excesses, while putting pressure on the latter to become part of a political settlement.

Savimbi's continual recourse to violence to wreck political settlements is testimony that, after years of indulgent grooming by the US, he has developed the capacity to strike out for his own ambitions, even when the strategic calculations of its patrons dictated otherwise. It is a capacity that Savimbi has kept up till today, prompting the June UN Security Council statement.

So as the US again strides into Africa with a new plan for the 'pacification' of the continent without waiting for mechanisms to ensure African control of this plan; as once again this strategy goes hand in hand with a push for US investment in Africa with corresponding reforms of Africa's economies; as the US seeks to fit all this within its exercise of leadership over the global economy - one is bound to ask one question. How long before the imperatives of US global leadership and economic interests in Africa transform its military initiative into many more UNITAs for beating Africa's economies into line? (Third World Resurgence No.89, January 1998)

Tetteh Hormeku is a Programme Officer with Third World Network's Africa Secretariat in Accra.