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  • Writer's pictureThe Pendulum

Loyalties to Liberators? The African Countries Weary of the West

Updated: 5 days ago

Matthew M. Ployhart

It was a chaotic scene in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on February 14th, 1961. A reader of the American New York Times that day would have been alarmed by the rioting that was reportedly occurring in the capital of what many considered to be the world’s most successful and prosperous communist country. Following a planned protest of 30,000 students, the demonstration turned violent, as officials had suspected it might. The Belgian embassy in Yugoslavia was ransacked by protesters, with many of its offices completely destroyed, and everything from furniture to paintings dragged out onto the snowy streets and burned. Students hurled rocks through the windows of the French embassy, and the American embassy, too, was under threat. By the evening, as things began to abate, a heavy police presence reinstated order throughout the area, but the Belgian embassy had been left ransacked, property had been destroyed, and even the automobiles of embassy officials had been ruined.

The chaos in Yugoslavia that day was intense and out of the ordinary, but the origin of the anger and turmoil among so many students and protesters initially comes across as perhaps even more peculiar: the source of their anger rested over five thousand kilometers away, in Central Africa, in the heart of the recently-liberated Congo. Protests in Belgrade were in response to the killing of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who had recently been pronounced dead at age 35. But Yugoslav students and activists suspected what has now been confirmed: that the killing of the former leader of the Congo had, in fact, been an assassination backed by a Belgian government worried about their financial interests in the region.

Although this is almost universally accepted as fact today (something which the current Belgian government has attempted to reconcile with by offering only minor words of apology and regret), the Belgian government at the time denied any involvement in the assassination, except that they had tried to negotiate humane treatment for Lumumba, who had earlier been imprisoned by political opposition. The brutal assassination of the democratically-elected leader (and it was a particularly gruesome assassination, involving beatings and torture) was also quietly backed by the United States. Yet, despite the then-speculative nature of Western involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, his death drew protests and acts of activism and even violence throughout the world.

(Above) Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in Brussels, Belgium, in 1960.

The same day Americans would have been reading about widespread protests in Belgrade, it was also reported that thousands of protesters in Warsaw, Poland, marched to the Belgian Embassy, where they then proceeded to hurl stones and break windows. The Associated Press noted the presence of left-wing protesters in Rome throwing stones at the Belgian embassy in Italy, resulting in fourteen arrests, while elsewhere it was declared that young communists in Austria were protesting at the Belgian embassy in Vienna – “Hang the murderers of Lumumba!” was reportedly shouted among them. Other reports from other newspapers detailed displays of everything from activism and protest  to shows of solidarity and mourning by Africans and leftists from as far and wide as Johannesburg (South Africa) to Moscow (Russia), from Khartoum (Sudan) to Cairo (Egypt), and from Lahore (Pakistan) to Tel Aviv (Israel).


If the pattern here seems obvious, it’s because it is: besides those who had direct ethnic or national ties to the African continent, by far those feeling the most outrage regarding the assassination of the Congolese prime minister came overwhelmingly from the left, in almost every sense of the word – from leftists, socialists, and communists, to those hailing from Eastern Europe and the East Bloc. Fidel Castro, of Cuba, had condemned the “imperialism and financial monopolies” whose evils had driven those behind the assassination to commit the act. Yugoslavia, as well – while not a part of the East Bloc, and certainly not aligned with the Soviet Union – also condemned the political murder. President Josip Broz “Tito,” before embarking to the North of Africa himself, placed moral responsibility for the assassination on the United Nations, as well as “the Belgian colonizers,” according to the New York Times.

In fact, despite being a communist country itself, Yugoslavia established what is known as the international Non-Aligned Movement under President Tito at the Belgrade Conference in 1961, which at the time sought to facilitate self-determination among its members (including the Congo), who wished to remain independent and unaligned to either the Soviet-led East or the American-led West. Still an organization today, it has over 120 members, albeit with somewhat more broad, modern goals, such as eliminating international inequities and fostering cooperation. This of course is merely one facet of what I explore in this article – that many of the relationships forged between Communist countries in the East and African nations seeking independence continue to have influence today, in contemporary politics.

I observed this personally while a student in Belgrade last year. Although Yugoslavia no longer exists, the loyalties and devotion that many Belgraders feel towards the Congo is still very apparent, and was expressed by several students I spoke with at the University of Belgrade. One political science faculty member, in fact, mentioned that a considerable number of Congolese students still travel to Serbia (of which Belgrade is the capital) to study there. There is even a student hall devoted to the deceased Congolese leader: Patrice Lumumba Dormitory (or just “Patrice”), constructed in 1962.


(Above) Yugoslav President "Tito," along with the prime ministers of India and Egypt, initiate the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961.

To be clear, however, as readers have likely already assumed, the issue of loyalties formed between African nations and those elsewhere in the world do not fall evenly on one side or the other, nor is there an obvious, clear-cut divide between just two sides. There are many nations in Africa that are on largely-positive terms with the West. America alone has almost always supported Kenya since its independence, traded extensively with Senegal, upheld and respected Botswana as an pristine example of a stable, democratic African state, and enjoyed close political cooperation with Morocco against extremist terrorist groups in North Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, in spite of everything I will devote the rest of this article to discussing, much of Africa maintains close and long-established ties with the West that are not without historical precedent.

Yet, the degree to which the East (and, for the purposes of this essay, I will be using “East” to refer to communist and former communist countries in general, primarily those in Eastern Europe and Asia) was devoted to Africa, at least when compared to their Western counterparts, certainly seems to display a peculiar level of commitment. It seems odd that the East Bloc and others should have mourned the death of Lumumba when, quite frankly, he was not a particularly promising Moscow ally. According to the US Department of State’s Office of the Historian, following outbursts of violence in the newly-independent nation between Belgian soldiers and a mutiny of Congolese troops called the Congolese National Army, Lumumba turned to the United Nations (UN) for help – not the East or the East Bloc. The UN intervention efforts in the Congo were even supported by the United States, a country which Lumumba visited himself in 1960, where he requested the support and presence of American teachers, technical experts, and even soldiers in the Congo (which was never granted).

Lumumba was a champion of “national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity,” notes University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Afro-American studies professor Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja in The Guardian. While certainly a progressive, the Department of State notes that Lumumba had merely turned to the Soviets for technical expertise and military equipment. Nevertheless, it was enough to enrage the West; the United States even drawing up their own plans to assassinate the Congolese Prime Minister (who, in all frankness, had the potential to be an important Western ally). The East, by contrast, was surprisingly angry about the assassination. Even countries such as Yugoslavia, who had nothing to gain from Soviet contributions to the Congo’s resources (contributions which were sparse to begin with), displayed varying levels of devotion to African independence.

The Western view of African independence, meanwhile, often tended to be anything but forgiving. A 2023 Politico article written by Stuart Reid, author of The Lumumba Plot: The Secret History of the CIA and a Cold War Assassination, offers a quote from American President Eisenhower on his opinions regarding decolonization: “the determination of the peoples [of Africa] for self-rule, their own flag, and their own vote in the United Nations resembled a torrent overrunning everything in its path.” The lack of enthusiasm from the US and much of the West for decolonization can partially explain the mess that was left behind in much of Africa. Former imperialist powers pulling out of the continent left underdeveloped, fragile nations behind them with lacking infrastructure and political officials in power who often lacked both the means and the education to govern their new countries properly.

Predictably, things often turned bad, be it the emergence of ethnic conflicts in the wake of European withdrawal, or the continued violence inflicted by whites and Westerners who fought tooth-and-nail to hold on to the fewer and fewer remaining states that were still stuck under colonial rule, from French Algeria in the North, to Portuguese Mozambique in the East, to the white-supremacist state of Rhodesia in the South. Often to preserve their own financial interests, many other Western nations resorted to simply backing the sides of their choice in the conflicts and civil wars that erupted following the abrupt departure of imperialist European forces that put little effort into ensuring the states they left behind would be able to operate and function properly.

In the case of the Congo, the West was anything but accommodating. Though Lumumba was invited to visit Washington in 1960, he was treated with little respect – rather than meeting with the Congolese leader, President Eisenhower decided to attend the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Lumumba, on the other hand, was eager to prove his trustworthiness, and had even planned to gift the President an ivory lamp and a wooden statue.

In all fairness, the arrival of the Congolese Prime Minister had been last-minute, and Eisenhower was also troubled by the fact that his mother was currently dying. Yet, Lumumba was treated by other US officials as a back-burner project – Reid notes that, “the U.S. government reduced its honors [to Lumumba’s delegation] to the bare minimum required by diplomatic protocol.” It should be noted that Lumumba was far from a perfect politician – he had been arrested for embezzlement in the early years of his career as a postal official – yet this treatment of a foreign leader by the US is unfortunately not one without parallel in other instances of Western-Third World interaction.

Many communist countries, on the other hand – particularly those of the East Bloc or the USSR, but also more-neutral states such as Yugoslavia – were often eager to support or sometimes even arm revolutionaries, freedom fighters, and anti-imperial movements as more and more countries slipped towards independence. Joana Gomes, of Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa, described her role as a nurse in the movement to liberate her country from Portuguese rule in a recent interview with the New York Times. The rebels who fought the Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau in the 1960s and 70s witnessed much violence and bloodshed, but they were not without their allies. “For many African countries,” the article reports, “ties with Moscow run deep. The Soviet Union supported many African liberation wars, supplying training, education and weapons to freedom fighters like Ms. Gomes. Nearly six decades later, she hasn’t forgotten.”

Africans were sent to the Soviet Union for training in medicine, arms, and warfare, and returned to aid the liberation efforts in their home countries. Often, those that remain remember how the East Bloc had helped them. The African National Congress – a South-African political party (in power today) that displayed strong opposition to racism and Apartheid in South Africa – had turned to Moscow for help during its struggle for equality. A similar but more-radical organization, the Pan Africanist Congress (of Azania), for a time turned to Beijing, in communist China.

As another example, following the withdrawal of the Portuguese from Angola in 1974, a bloody, three-sided civil war ensued that the USSR helped to end. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola, supported by the US (and, interestingly, but not surprisingly, US-backed Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko), was challenged militarily by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a Marxist organization backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba. The MPLA would ultimately emerge as the victor, and Angola’s flag today proudly displays what looks remarkably similar to a hammer-and-sickle, albeit with a half-gear wheel and a machete in place of the tools of the international Marxist movement.

It also helped that the ideologies behind many of the rebel movements in Africa, from pan-Africanism to outright Marxist thought, were perceived as socialist, and thus gained communist sympathies. Perhaps the most frank example of this perception is the following: “there was not a single liberation movement in Africa that was not fighting for socialism.” This line, notably, was uttered by revolutionary American socialist Assata Shakur (currently living in self-exile in Cuba). Yet it sheds light on a remarkably simple matter: many African movements were interpreted as having socialist or leftist goals - and many of them truly did - something which communist nations were quick to invest in.

The reason this is relevant to contemporary international relations, of course, is because many of the friendships that were forged between Eastern powers and freedom fighters in Africa still live on. According to a July 2023 article by AP News, Russian president Vladimir Putin recently hosted seventeen African leaders at the Russia-Africa summit that month, highlighting a long historical tradition of Russo-African relations. Yet, such interaction comes even as tensions continue to escalate between Russia and the West amid current political crises, including accusations of election interference in the 2016 US Presidential election as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine. Russia, since its 2014 invasion of Ukraine – which itself is fighting to maintain its own sovereignty and independence – has been cited for its brutality and abuses of human rights, as the current, ongoing war has recently claimed as many as 10,000 civilian lives, according to the United Nations in November of last year.

However, this has not dissuaded many African nations from their loyalties to the former Soviet Union. According to the New York Times, “sixteen of the 35 countries that abstained from the United Nations vote to condemn Russia’s actions were in Africa, as was one of the five that voted no, Eritrea.” While the suffering that Ukrainian people endure is usually looked upon with regret and sadness by many Africans, Russia is still often judged as the justified side in the conflict, while the West receives far less sympathy. For many, this comes down to simple historical reasoning. Manuel dos Santos, another former freedom fighter in the struggle for the independence of Guinea-Bissau, made his point frankly: “I used to have a Kalashnikov. The Portuguese had American weapons…It’s as simple as that.”

(Above) Rebel fighters in Portuguese Guinea (modern Guinea-Bissau) during the Guinea-Bissau War of Independence. Many such fighters were trained or armed by the USSR.

Of course, not all modern relations between African and Eastern-European/former communist countries stem from historical precedent alone. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan American think tank, African nations have many strategic reasons to continue to support countries such as Russia. For one, the current war in Ukraine has resulted in the disruption of imports of vital shipments of grain and fertilizer to African countries. “This reliance on imports underpins an unwillingness to join Western sanctions against Russia, which many African countries see as counterproductive,” the Council on Foreign Relations notes, adding that, to avoid the consequences of such sanctions from the West, Russia has drastically increased their exportation of oil to Africa, benefitting the latter.

Nevertheless, contemporary circumstances can only go so far to explain the trend of close African relations with countries such as Russia. After all, Russia’s actions in Africa still pale in comparison to those of the West. Furthermore, Russia’s renewed offensive in Ukraine in 2022 seems to have resulted in garnering much disapproval from many on the African continent, including the influential African Union, as well as many individual countries. To put it in perspective even further, although Putin welcomed seventeen state leaders to St. Petersburg for the Russia-Africa summit last year, this was less than half the original number of attendees at the first such event in 2019, which involved 43 heads of state. Many actions by Moscow to deliver aid to African nations, furthermore, are slight in comparison to those of the United Nations and other Western-influenced organizations (such as in the realm of food deliveries).

Yet, despite these factors, the influence of countries such as Russia in Africa is still significant. African countries form the largest voting bloc in the United Nations, and are an important piece of the international puzzle – they are also a bloc that was particularly divided on criticisms of Russian action in Ukraine. The countries which have not been pushed away from Russia due to the latter’s recent actions, furthermore, seem to have been pulled closer to Moscow’s orbit, notably South Africa (though it should be noted that both Russia and South Africa are also members of the BRICS economic group of emerging economies). Meanwhile, states such as Burkina Faso and Mali see Russia as a clear ally, while countries like Ethiopia and Uganda have enjoyed recent diplomatic support from Moscow. Egypt, another strategic ally for Russia, has also “moved closer” to its Eastern-European trading partner. Russia has ultimately been investing more and more into the African continent, and its activity in the region – though still less than that of the West – is undoubtedly increasing.

Such modern examples of cooperation between Africa and various allies in the East are nevertheless underscored by decades of historical precedent. After all, if morality is to be considered, what motivation would states such as Angola have to align themselves with the United States, a country which happily supported the invasion of Angola by Apartheid South Africa in the mid 1970s? (Although it should be noted that cooperation between the US and Angola has improved significantly since the 1990s). Yet the picture is murkier than this, as is often the case when analyzing historical topics of such breadth and complexity.

For one, China, whose activity in Africa parallels even that of the West, has somewhat of a mixed legacy in Africa (they, for a time, supported those in the Angolan Civil War who fought those that the USSR chose to side with, though China would pull out  of the conflict once South Africa became involved). Currently, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has seen the completion of massive financial investments and large-scale construction projects in Africa, which China hopes will boost the infrastructure of the continent – a project which “53 out of 54 nations in Africa are” a part of, notes the Observer Research Foundation. And despite decreasing Chinese investment on the continent since its peak in 2016, the country still has large ties with many African governments. Furthermore, although China’s infrastructure initiatives are largely self-serving (the concept of a “new silk road” certainly reads as a bit one-sided), the bottom line is that a hydroelectric dam in Karuma Falls, Uganda, is still a hydroelectric dam in Uganda. And while efforts like this, and those of the East Bloc in the 1960s, highlight at least a modest devotion to the development and independence of African countries, this was often not the case for the West, which was also eager for influence on the continent.

(Above) Karuma Falls, Uganda. Efforts by China, founded and currently governed by the Communist Party of China, have sponsored projects that allow countries like Uganda harness the energy from natural sources, such as this.

Turning back to the Congo, despite the refusal of the US to consider Lumumba’s modest requests for money and machinery, America and its allies were still particularly interested in maintaining Western control in the region. “With the outbreak of the Cold War, it was inevitable that the US and its western allies would not be prepared to let Africans have effective control over strategic raw materials, lest these fall in the hands of their enemies in the Soviet camp,” notes Nzongola-Ntalaja. Thus, rather than pursue the establishment of a Western-friendly nation through the creation of a stable, democratic state via the lending of financial aid and the provision of basic machinery and equipment; in the Congo’s case, the US decided instead to back a corrupt and self-serving dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the Congo for decades and amassed billions of dollars for himself. The benefit of his regime to the West was that his policies catered to Western financial interests – the fact that this was at the expense of his critically-impoverished citizenry seems to have mattered little to anyone.

That is not to imply, however, that alliances forged between African leaders and communist nations opposing Western domination were always constructive. Indeed, in attempting to spread their influence throughout the African continent, both Western and Eastern powers contributed to no small number of atrocities. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the Gukurahundi genocide (1983-87) in Zimbabwe, in which North Korean-trained soldiers of the notorious 5th Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army tortured, massacred, and detained thousands of primarily-Ndebele civilians, ultimately killing about 20,000 people. This was done in a manner so brutal that one Austrian missionary who had also lived through the Second World War in Europe described the horrors being committed in Zimbabwe as worse than those committed by the Nazi Gestapo. It should be noted, however, that the West was also quite reluctant to intervene, even when knowledge about the genocide had been leaked, largely due to fears that it would push Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe closer to the USSR or Communist China.

Modern acts of violence in Africa with at least indirect involvement from Eastern powers continue to occur, as well. Lax oversight of private security companies contracted to protect Chinese investment operations in Africa have resulted in the abuse and even killings of African civilians by private soldiers. The infamous (though now-defunct) Wagner mercenary group, which until June 2023 had carried out much of the Russian war effort in Ukraine, is also known to have committed numerous atrocities in Africa, such as their having “razed entire villages and murdered civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR) to advance their economic interests in the mining sector," according to the US Department of State in February, 2024. Wagner also "participated in the unlawful execution of people in Mali, raided artisanal gold mines in Sudan, and undermined democratic institutions in every country where they have worked." This is an organization which the Russian Federation had a remarkable amount of involvement with: Russian President Vladimir Putin having contributed 86 billion rubles to it from May 2022 to May 2023 alone (which is $940 million in October, 2023 US dollars).

(Above) Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2022.

Yet, despite the likely continuance of such atrocities by Wagner-affiliated contractors and groups (even in light of the death of its leader and co-founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, last year), many loyalties continue to lie with the perpetrators of such violence. The relationship between North Korea and Zimbabwe, for instance, has only recently begun to wane, as cooperation between the two countries has decreased over the past few years. Yet the reasons for which their long friendship was maintained has wide-reaching implications for other African states who still sympathize with their former communist allies. A CNBC report from 2018 affirmed that the Zimbabwe-North Korea relationship was merely symbolic for Zimbabwe, “a demonstration of defiance against the West.” These relationships can sometimes be vital, of course. According to former Chatham House think tank member Daragh Neville, an Africa-North Korea expert, “it is foreign trade and military links [with Africa] that are keeping North Korea’s head above water.” Nevertheless, the fact that longstanding historical ties with countries who had once aided African liberation on their own can be sufficient to justify the continuance of modern relations has significant implications indeed, especially as it was countries such as Russia, China, and Cuba who often aided African movements against imperialism.

To a large extent, however, the alliances that the East and the West forged with various African interest groups or governments had a lot to do with where they simply happened to already be politically: ultimately, both sides were fairly self-interested – even Yugoslavia’s efforts to maintain a network of “non-aligned” and self-deterministic states can be interpreted as a measure to strengthen the legitimacy of its own efforts to stay independent of foreign influence. The bottom line is that Western interests often happened to fall on the side of maintaining the status-quo, while the East found its allies with the people opposed to it.

Refardless, today, many of those revolutionaries and freedom-fighters from the anti-imperialist movements that were often backed or supported by communist powers are still influential in countries across Africa, and many citizens within these nations still sympathize with their former (and sometimes current) allies. In specific instances, government corruption that prevents real democratic elections from taking place also contributes to ensuring that national allegiances do not shift easily.

Of course, this is an extremely complex issue, and the entirety of African relations with Eastern Europe and Asia cannot be summarized in a simple essay (especially because, as mentioned, Africa is composed of over fifty independent nations). There is no solid “East” or “West” Bloc, and many countries vying for influence in Africa that may have been allies historically are nonetheless at odds with each other in their activities on the continent. Furthermore, the historical trends outlined in this article are in many places remarkably oversimplified, and many events are far more complicated than they at first appear (my attempt to simplify the web of alliances and logistics in a three-pronged civil war in Angola that saw participation from the Soviet Union, China, the United States, South Africa, and Cuba, I will admit, is something of a historical injustice). The historical precedent of allegiance between post-imperialist African nations and communist and former communist powers, in instances in which there even is one, is typically anything but simple.

Yet, for many countries, people, and organizations in Africa, this historical precedent does exist, and at the end of the day, the liberation activists and freedom-fighters of yesteryear who later held many positions of power in their home nations tend to perceive their former allies warmly, rather than the Western world that too often attempted to hold them down under imperialism and oppression, even if doing so, in many instances, is harmful to their own self-interest (once again, recall that the war in Ukraine has drastically reduced grain exports to Africa).

The Congo is a sad and tragic story. Half of its population would die harvesting ivory and rubber for the Belgians. Following the assassination of Lumumba, Mobutu would essentially rule the country until the mid 1990s, amassing one of the largest personal fortunes ever created. Decades of corrupt leadership would follow, until Felix Tshisekedi’s election in 2019 saw the “first peaceful transition of power…since independence in 1960,” according to the BBC. Tshisekedi is an arguably progressive leader, albeit one without the means or the resources to implement any reforms, and one still surrounded by some controversies of his own. The country also lies on the brink of a third war with Rwanda. Like almost every other African Nation, the Congo today remains a member of the international Non-Aligned Movement. Sitting atop a wealth of natural resources, the country should not be among the ten poorest in the world, and yet it still is.

The Congo would never fall under the influence of the Soviets – yet the assassination of Lumumba, and the horrors committed by the US-backed regime that followed, would essentially ensure that the modern Congo would never be a stable ally for the West. Indeed, the US could have gained an important partner if it had supported democracy and development in the Congo instead of quietly approving the assassination of their democratically-elected prime minister. Lumumba had the potential to help turn the Congo into a great friend of the US. An American official of relevance in the 1960s, interviewed long after the assassination, demonstrated this eerily: “why did we [hate Lumumba]?” He couldn’t remember.

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