Did post-colonial Africa benefit from the altering global hegemony of the Cold War?

Photo by Shedrack Salami on Unsplash

‘When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’ — African proverb

Just as the end of First World War heralded in change in the geopolitical landscape with the end of many colonial empires, so too did the end of the Second World War as European nations reassessed their position as a colonial power in foreign lands. The period immediately following the cessation of hostilities saw the West and the Soviet Union begin to face off at an ever-increasing rate that held the globe captured in fear of two superpowers unleashing atomic weapons on one another. The period from 1947 through to 1991 is known as the Cold War. It is a time when competing ideologies would dominate foreign policy of the USA and USSR in an attempt to outdo each other in gaining ideological support from allies. Africa, a continent made up of nations that had been subject to colonial power was also freeing itself of these shackles and presented opportunities for nations to exercise their type of ideology on to these fledgling nations. This article will look at this period of time and address how the USA, USSR and China all looked towards Africa as a means of either economic or political hegemony. I will argue that what each of these nations set out to do did not always meet the objectives of the African nations and as global geopolitics shifted over the decades, an absence of interest from some, left a void for others to fill.


The continent of Africa can best be described as a conundrum when it comes to human history. A rich and diverse continent that lays claims to the birthplace of modern humans and who’s number one export has been the global population of homo sapiens. Africa has also been connected to many parts of the world through trade routes that go back many centuries, this includes China and Southeast Asia, as has been evident through archaeological finds. However, the last few centuries have seen the continent, and its people, exploited by multiple external and internal nations and different groups. It was the European powers that formalised the most exploitive process through the carving up of the continent at the 1884 Conference of Berlin as they resorted to a colonialist approach to Africa. These extractive and exploitive practices led to African countries unable to gain any economic wealth and resulted in inefficiencies that kept nations in a perpetual state of underdevelopment. Change started to occur after the end of World War Two. With the rise of the Cold War, predominately in the northern hemisphere, a wave of post-colonial activity in Africa saw many nations become independent and seek an ideological fit that would suit their future plans for growth. Kalu (2018) argues that this push for independence was partly driven by the devastation in Europe that showed Africans that their colonial masters were far from invincible. It was also at this time that the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) came into existence following the Korean War as many nations that did not have alignment with the superpowers looked to form a bloc that could support each other. Of the 120 nations that participated, many were newly independent states from Africa. It was a platform for the denouncing of colonialism and the use of their collective moral force to remain independent of foreign influence. One could argue that this was the point that China saw an opportunity to invest both economically and with human capital by sending doctors and work brigades to assist new nations on the ground. Whether the alliances formed with the broader NAM objectives helped African nations to develop and progress is debatable as many members in Africa were in open conflict with each other. Kalu (2018) argues that many nations carried on utilising the exploitive structures that colonialism had created, and this destabilised any regional hope of nations working together. Another factor that limited African nations in becoming economically independent quicker was the lack of technology that existed in Africa across multiple disciplines. Africa has not made any real contribution to technology or science in modern times and has therefore relied on agriculture which in of itself is problematic as it links economies to global pricing. This early Cold War period and the emergence of independent post-colonial nations looking to become self-determinant, politically, and economically, was ripe territory for different ideologies to enter. These Cold War tensions being played out by the superpowers would find their way into Africa and the early work being done by China would also come into play as ideologies fractured along different lines. Price (1988) argues that the remedies offered by these actors were not a good fit for many African nations as a mix of market forces and direction from the state needed to be employed for them to achieve economic progress. The following sections will look at how the US, Soviets and China each dealt with Africa during this Cold War period.

United States

Of the three countries to be focused on in this article, it is the United States that was a lone voice of democracy when compared to the Soviet Union, China, and even the intervention of Cuba in Africa. With most western democracies keen to exit as post-colonial independence grew, the United States filled the void during the Cold War in its promotion of free market capitalism. This was done through selective foreign policy initiatives that varied over time and as different US Presidents came to office. What level of US intervention took place in Africa is challenging to gauge as many authors list policies and interests on a continuum that can be measured on differing levels. For example, some argue that they contributed towards internal conflicts through supporting democratic governments that opposed socialism to the other end of the spectrum as the US having a low profile in terms of any interference. Of course, there can be varying degrees of assistance and focus within these claims and also possible for two things to be true at the same time. The main focus the US adopted however was the furthering of the policy of containment towards the Soviet Union, and in the case of Africa, the influence of socialism on new independent states. The US was supportive of decolonisation and independence being sought from, what were effectively the US’s recent war time allies, but were keen to ensure that free markets existed that allowed external countries to trade unencumbered with African nations. This was done by championing supporters of democracy or those opposed to socialism and/or Soviet backing. This manifested itself in some situations where perceived threats led to the US completely misunderstanding the nationalist views of some parties, particularly in the case of how the US assessed the dynamics in Southern Africa. As US foreign policy towards Africa evolved during the duration of the Cold War, 1976 saw a different approach emerge as tensions erupted in Angola that drew military forces from Cuba and South Africa, and support being given by the Soviet Union. It was at this point that the US could have directly intervened in an African conflict but was ultimately avoided as the US Senate was wary of overseas intervention so close to the disaster in Vietnam. The Carter administration wanted Africa to resolve their own issues and prompted internal African organisations, such as the Organisation for African Unity, to step in and take the role of mediator. This changed again with Reagan coming to power in 1980 and his aspiration in building the US sense of purpose in multiple sectors, and in regards to Africa, dealing with countries that were in openly antagonizing the US. Rothschild (2001) argues that this stance often led the US to once again misunderstanding Africa and its concerns and preferred goals. With the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the end of the Cold War, the US pulled back from its focus on Africa and displayed less urgency when providing assistance.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union that can be viewed as the biggest enigma when looking at their activities and policies towards Africa. The early Cold War years saw Stalin still as the leader of the USSR and they showed very little interest in Africa and the nationalist movements that were beginning to emerge there. It wasn’t until after his death in 1953, and under the leadership of Khrushchev, that the Soviet Union looked to the events in Africa as potential to for exporting their particular brand of socialism. However, from the outset, the Soviet Union’s focus was not equal to that of the US. The end of World War Two had completely different outcomes that shaped these two powers, the US emerged as a global power, yet the Soviet Union had lost over 25 million people and its economic capacity was reduced by almost a half. The US’s promotion of free markets and slow accumulation of wealth was counter to the Soviet model of redistribution of wealth, development of heavy industry and agricultural industry undergoing collectivization. The Soviets were also keen to export their military equipment and in 1955 made moves into Africa through the sale, via Czechoslovakia, of weapons worth $45.7 million. This early period demonstrated how the Soviet Union viewed their policy towards Africa as also being one of political and ideological support. Brayton (1979) argues that a major principal of Leninism is that of spreading communism abroad. This is seen demonstrated in the early support of emerging independent nations that could be classed as unstable poverty states that had the greatest discontent amongst their population and were led by governments only too happy to receive help in controlling unrest and economic development. This approach continued under Khrushchev until his death in 1971. Under Brezhnev though, the Soviet Union increased military aid to liberation movements aligned with Marxist ideology that were in conflict with colonial powers and countries still governed by whites in Southern Africa. This shift was in reaction to Egypt expelling Soviet military advisers and the Soviet Union abandoned any strategic policy towards Africa and took the agnostic view that they would seek to push Soviet influence anywhere that was receptive. Another factor that complicated the relationship of the Soviet Union in Africa is how they came in to conflict with China from an ideological perspective. So much so that at times they supported competing interests in Africa. Furthermore, Cuba also took an independent foreign policy stance with respect to Africa, and even though they were deemed a close ally of the Soviet Union by the US, their activities in Africa would at times, put a strain on their relationship. For the period of the Cold War, it could be seen that a clear focus by the Soviet Union was lacking as they ultimately failed to facilitate significant aid or trade in Africa and resulted in an overall poor history of any economic collaboration with African nations.


China’s approach to Africa during the Cold War was far more nuanced than that of the US and the Soviet Union. Without being a nuclear superpower, China had to take a different approach by building its influence and winning support. As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement and an advocate of the ‘south-south’ approach to cooperation with Africa, the fault lines that ruptured between the Soviet Union and China in regard to socialist ideology set them on a clear, if sometimes imperfect goal in Africa. China’s Cold War interaction with Africa commenced in 1956 as they established formal relations with Egypt and as an alternative to the Soviet Union and the US for aspiring independent nations. These early interactions found traction in some African countries through Chairman Mao’s belief that economic development was possible through people's consciousness being developed first. However, it was after 1959 when the Sino-Soviet alliance fell apart as Mao believed the Soviet pursuit of détente was not in line with true revolutionary doctrine. This shifted the focus from who was willing to contribute the most and at the same time, demand the least, something Chinese policy set out. It was in 1965 that the Chinese decided to fund the TanZam railway project, at significant cost to a developing country, when other actors failed to do so. This assistance, done with favorable terms, fitted in with the China’s African policy, as laid out by Chou En-lai’s 5-point plan. This being to support African people in their fight against imperialism and build national independence. The railway project was a significant step in building bilateral relations as it demonstrated that China was willing to invest large capital projects, a key element in post-colonial Africa. Following this, China further assisted with the development of many sporting stadiums in 54 African counties, so much so that the term ‘sports diplomacy’ has been used to describe this activity. Following Mao’s death, China implemented market reforms that focused on economic growth, something that appealed further to African nations as they sought similar economic independence. It is the post-Cold War period that has seen China’s economic growth and assistance escalate to new heights as they became a global economic superpower. This is not to say that China’s assistance to Africa has not come under scrutiny as a new form of colonialism and that aid is predominately directed at nations with resources that China has a keen interest in.


The African continent has been a contested region for many centuries. It has also been a place that has seen unforgivable exploitation by others from slavery to the extraction of its mineral wealth. This article focused on the period of post-colonial activity that occurred at the same time as the Cold War was underway between two superpowers over different ideological and geopolitical positions. When an opportunity for good presented itself to nations, both inside Africa and those on the outside to lift populations from poverty through sustainable economic growth, the world cherry picked what actions to take based on selfish pursuits. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the US withdraw support as the need to contend with global socialism receded and even China took a more open market stance, rather than that of counterrevolutionary change. Through all of this, it is the people of Africa who have suffered as assistance either disappeared or came with a loan that may never be paid back. Africa nations are also to blame in this as many failed to realize opportunities presented as strongmen vied for dictatorships and filled their own pockets at the expense of their people. Did Africa benefit during this time? Not directly, it would seem, but it may still take some time to see if the lessons learnt have been meaningless



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warren coppard

Interested in history, culture, business and the pursuit of knowledge