THE lengthening procession of new African states making their debut on the world scene must soon confront American policy-makers with still another difficult problem--the question of whether to grant them military assistance. It is all but inevitable that these countries will insist on exercising the fundamental right and responsibility of sovereign nations to raise and maintain military forces for self-defense. It is equally certain that the creation of national military establishments will impose burdens which their underdeveloped economies and unstable political structures are ill-prepared to sustain. It is also certain that the emergent states will seek to share these burdens and will look in many directions for military assistance--to the former metropoles, to the United States, to the Communist bloc.

If these premises are correct, what are the principal considerations which must be accommodated in the formulation of U.S. policy with regard to military assistance programs in Africa?

The relationships between Western European powers and their African colonies are being drastically transformed as a result of the political revolution sweeping the African continent. The conflict which this has engendered has presented the United States with one of its most serious foreign policy dilemmas; and the horns are likely to be sharpened as the former colonies turn to the United States for military assistance.

In North Africa the Algerian rebellion continues to agitate France's relationships with her two former protectorates. In Sub-Sahara Africa, where France is engaged in a last urgent effort to hold together her remaining African territories in a new French Community, the very presence of the secessionist state of Guinea represents a constant threat to the cohesiveness of the new Community. It is a foregone conclusion that the provision of American military assistance to these new African states would meet with sharp French disapproval. France would view such assistance as an attempt by the United States to displace her influence or undercut her policies in the area--as she did when the United States proposed to provide limited quantities of small arms to Tunisia. The shipments were authorized over French protests only after President Bourguiba had made thinly veiled allusions to looking elsewhere for arms. The issue of providing additional American military assistance to Tunisia remains and is being sorely aggravated by the continuous conflict in neighboring Algeria. It is also clear that military assistance to Guinea would, if anything, call forth an even stronger reaction from France in light of the uncertain prospects of the new French Community.

The act of withholding requested military assistance from newly independent African states is similarly fraught with grave difficulties. What Bourguiba threatened to do, President Sékou Touré of Guinea has in fact done. Guinea has received three shipments of arms from Czechoslovakia. This has caused considerable concern in the West. Apparently stung by the outcry of criticism in Western Europe and the United States, Sékou Touré has publicly stated that he accepted the Communist arms only after his request to the United States for rifles for Guinea's 2,000-man army was "spurned."[i] He stated in explicit terms why he believes his request for U.S. military assistance was ignored:

There is incontestably a sort of hiatus in these relations [between the United States and Guinea], conditioned, I think, on the side of the United States by French-American relationships. If you prefer, we have a feeling the evolution of our relations with the United States is closely dependent on the evolution of relations between France and Guinea.

There is a sort of subordination of our interest, which has been particularly marked recently.[ii]

This kind of reaction is likely to be characteristic of African leaders who may be rebuffed in their request for arms. A refusal by the United States is likely in their view to be just one more instance of our choosing the side of the former colonial power.

Happily not all the transformed relationships between Europe and Africa are as troubled as those just described. In the British area the advent of an independent Ghana and the transition of Nigeria toward independence have been accomplished under more friendly auspices. Nevertheless, if for any reason there should be a difference of opinion between the United Kingdom and one or the other of the new members of the Commonwealth over arms policy--as has been rumored to be the case with respect to Ghana's desire to establish an air force--and if the United States is looked to as an alternative source of supply, we would obviously face a dilemma. Hence, even where there is a friendly accommodation between the European metropole and its former colony, the question of whether to grant or withhold military assistance may still be a difficult one for the United States.

The demise of Italy as a colonial power has removed Libya and Somalia from the Italian defense umbrella. The provision of limited quantities of arms to Libya has not dismayed Italy, nor would larger shipments to the two former colonies be likely to do so. The problem here is the vacuum left by Italy's departure from Africa. The presence of a major American air base near Tripoli implies a commitment to defend Libya, but what will be our policy with regard to Somalia, which becomes independent next year?

The emergence of new states in Sub-Sahara Africa has acted to reawaken the two older independent African states of Liberia and Ethiopia. They are now competing for leadership with the new African states, which are themselves in competition with one another, with conflicting and overlapping plans for federations and unions. This competition is likely to be accentuated next year when the new states of Nigeria, Somalia, Togoland and the Cameroons make their appearance. In North Africa there is a vying for position between the newly independent states and Egypt. Tunisia has broken off diplomatic relations with Egypt amidst a storm of recriminations. There is also a growing rivalry between Egypt, with her aspirations to dominate the growing bloc of independent African states, and Ghana, with her dream of leadership of a pan-African movement which will embrace the entire continent.

The burgeoning rivalries between African states for prestige and leadership are being multiplied by a series of boundary and territorial claims by the new African states. The European "scramble for Africa" set off by the Berlin Conference in 1884 left a heritage of artificially contrived borderlines which newly independent African states are likely to seek to rectify. The divided Togolands and Cameroons and the fragmented Somalilands are obvious cases in point. There has already been an uneasy stirring of irredentist claims in all of these areas.

The introduction of American military assistance into this pan-African sweepstakes for political leadership inevitably means altering the balance of power between and among African areas. The situation is ripe for a dozen Indian-Pakistani situations where military aid to one party in a local dispute will inevitably cause a grievance in the rival country. If, as is likely, the competing country turns elsewhere for military assistance, then an armaments race is set in motion between African states and indirectly between the United States and the Communist bloc--or perhaps Egypt. Even more painful is the prospect of competition of this kind between the United States and one of its Western allies. Guinea, in its efforts to develop a military force, poses this very question. The growth of military power in Guinea is likely to induce the French to develop a stronger military establishment in the neighboring Republic of the Ivory Coast. In the first instance this will be a French force; but given the present rate of political developments in the French West African territories it seems likely that the Ivory Coast will soon have control over military forces based on its soil. If the United States should feel it necessary to attempt to supplant the Communist bloc as a source of arms for Guinea, we would then be presented with the spectacle of two NATO allies providing arms to rival African states.

II

In addition to the international implications of providing military assistance to newly independent African states, we should consider the impact of such assistance on the underdeveloped economies and unstable political structures of the nascent states. For any military effort above the minimum required for internal policing will affect the use of their resources and the distribution of political power.

The immediate danger is one of distorting the economic development pattern, as well as retarding the rate of development, by decisions to invest in military bases and production facilities rather than in productive sectors of the economy. Expansion of military forces involves not only the allocation of scarce material resources but also the diversion of limited supplies of skilled and semi-skilled manpower into the armed forces. Significant military expenditures in the absence of sufficient expansion of available consumer goods are also likely to create inflationary pressures which all too often bedevil underdeveloped countries striving to expand their economies rapidly.

Looming large on the political side is the problem of the distribution of power within the society. Changes in the size, quality and direction of a military effort in an underdeveloped state may well involve shifts in the balance of power from one political group to another, and, more often than not, in the relationship between military and civil authorities. This has led to a profusion of military dictatorships in Asia and--to a lesser extent--in Africa.

The pattern of independence movements fragmenting into multiple political factions, followed by political paralysis and administrative breakdown, has led to a series of military coups d'état in newly independent states. Large military efforts, supported by external assistance, have generally resulted in the enhancement of the military as a focus of power, prestige and stability in the presence of general political instability and economic stagnation. The part that external military assistance plays in raising the stature of military leaders should cause us to question the responsibility we bear for political developments--not all of them lamentable--in a number of countries. At the very least we should recognize that significant military efforts in unstable or underdeveloped states have ramifications of which the people of a wealthy, stable democracy can hardly be aware.

For example, it is next to impossible to ensure that U.S. assistance will not be misused by the recipient government. The use of armed force to suppress political opposition and to impose authoritarian rule is not unknown in newly independent states or in underdeveloped countries with unstable political régimes. There are already worrisome signs that Africa will not be different from other areas of the world in this regard. A recent report of a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recommending the reduction and eventual termination of grant military assistance to Latin American countries, is particularly apposite when it declares that "the use by a régime of U.S.-supplied armaments in civil strife has garnered us the wrath of people (not only in the country affected but throughout Latin America) who tend to equate our armaments with the régime using them."[iii]

Similarly it has not been unusual for newly independent or underdeveloped states confronted by serious internal difficulties to look to external ventures as a way out. The U.S. Mutual Security Act which governs the sale of military assistance attempts to guard against such eventualities by requiring that the United States obtain a commitment from a recipient nation that it will use such assistance "solely to maintain its internal security, its legitimate self-defense, or to permit it to participate in the defense of the area of which it is a part . . . and that it will not undertake any act of aggression against any other state."[iv]

The provisions controlling grants of military assistance are approximately the same, and in addition impose a requirement for continuous observation and review by "United States representatives" of U.S. military assistance.[v] Notwithstanding these provisions, experience in Latin America led the Congress to stipulate that military assistance to Latin American countries could be authorized by the President only when he has found that the assistance is "in accordance with defense plans" which require "the recipient nation to participate in missions important to the defense of the Western Hemisphere."[vi] Nevertheless, recent events in the Caribbean involving Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Venezuela, among others, make these controls and statements of intention of dubious value when a sovereign state is intent upon evading them. Hence, there is considerable risk that U.S. military assistance provided for self-defense will be misused either in internal suppression of political opposition or in external aggression--with unfavorable results for the United States.

III

In reaching policy decisions as to military assistance to African states, the United States must, of course, consider the alternative sources to which they might turn. The availability of the Communist bloc as well as the possible role of Egypt as an alternative source must be considered. Nasser's image of Egypt's tripartite role in world affairs--within the "Arab circle," the "African continent" and the "Islamic world"--is especially relevant to Africa, where all three roles converge, and where Egyptian propaganda and foreign policy are being pitched to these threefold interests.

At present it may be assumed that, with the exception of Egypt, most of the leaders of the independent African countries would rather receive military assistance from the United States or the West generally than from the Communist bloc or Egypt. This certainly is true of Tunisia, Ghana, Ethiopia and Liberia, and probably is true of Morocco and the Sudan. Recent Communist-bloc shipments of arms to Guinea raise a serious question as to her basic posture in world affairs. The arms situation, moreover, is complicated by the Algerian conflict. Military equipment and supplies have been provided to the rebels from Egypt--and perhaps from more distant lands--through Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. It is hard to estimate what, if any, lasting effect this may have on the "pipeline" countries.

Military assistance, much more than economic and technical aid, implies a type of intimacy and even collaboration which may involve taking sides in cold-war disputes. This is likely to be true even if the military equipment is purchased rather than received as a grant, for purchase may involve a credit agreement which, as in the Egyptian case, takes the form of a Communist mortgage on the one crop in a mono-crop economy.

The provision of military assistance, by sale or grant, generally involves a military mission to explain and demonstrate the uses of the new weapons and to train the forces of the recipient country in their maintenance and operation. As already noted, in cases of grant assistance the United States requires the presence of an inspection team to guard against misuse of the equipment provided. In one guise or another Communist nations require similar representation. Military assistance is also likely to impose on the recipient state a continuing dependence on the supplying country because of the need for spare parts and for modernization, renovation and replacement. The total implication to be drawn is that an African state, once committed to receiving military assistance of any volume, would find it extremely difficult to break away from the orbit of the supplying nation--whether the United States or any other. Thus a prime consideration in reaching a military assistance policy for Africa must be the fact that a program of arms aid assiduously administered by the Communist bloc would be a more formidable threat to our national interests than the more widely advertised threat of Soviet trade and economic aid.

IV

In the light of these considerations, what are the possible courses of action? First, we can provide military aid on a bilateral basis--the usual practice wherever the United States is supplying or selling arms as part of a military assistance program. Even where a regional organization exerts over-all responsibility for defense planning, training and operations, the bulk, if not all, of the U.S. military assistance is being provided on a bilateral basis. In Africa, the United States already has bilateral agreements with Ethiopia and Liberia and has sold arms to Tunisia.

The United States could continue to adhere to the policy of making such ad hoc arrangements wherever it was deemed in the United States interest to do so. But what has already been said suggests that an ad hoc bilateral approach is not the best way of furthering U.S. objectives in Africa. Such a policy might both retard the economic growth of many African states and, in some instances, influence the course of political evolution in ways incompatible with United States interests.

Alternatively, the United States could adopt a policy freezing the status quo, and thus limit its arms agreements in Africa to those now in existence. This would imply a judgment that, even if present commitments were still honored as a matter of good faith, military assistance programs--grant or sale--are not the best way of furthering American objectives in Africa. It is doubtful, however, that the United States would be able or willing to hold the line in the absence of a suitable regional or wider international agreement to assure the security of Africa and to control the introduction of arms into the area.

The United States might undertake to formulate for Africa a doctrine somewhat analogous to the Eisenhower Doctrine for the Middle East. This could take the form of a declaration of principle, by which the United States would underwrite the territorial integrity of states in the area against specified types of external aggression. Circumstances do not recommend a unilateral American declaration of this type. The existence of British, French, Belgian and Portuguese dependent territories in Africa would make a unilateral declaration all but impossible. In any case, such a declaration would have little value. The United States and the states and territories in the area share no common view as to what might constitute a clearly definable threat; and the independent states in the area, with the exception of Tunisia, and possibly the Sudan or Libya, remain unwilling to recognize openly the Egyptian threat of subverting their independence or sovereignty.

Another set of possibilities involves a multilateral approach on a country-by-country basis or on an area-wide basis. In a sense the American sale of arms to Tunisia could be viewed as multilateral, since the United Kingdom was consulted and agreed to participate in a coördinated transaction. This type of ad hoc multi-national approach, although in certain circumstances somewhat less objectionable than the strictly bilateral, is none the less subject to essentially the same limitations and shortcomings in that it would have an adverse effect on the economic and political development of African states.

There are more promising possibilities in a general multinational approach of the NATO powers, or at least of those NATO powers with African dependencies, plus the United States. Such an approach might take the form of a multilateral defense umbrella for all of Africa, supplemented by highly restricted arms assistance for the maintenance of internal law and order. This might well, of course, meet such strong opposition by the Communist bloc and Egypt that some African states would be deterred from responding; and it would raise awkward problems for any state which sought to obtain military assistance from the Communist bloc or Egypt. Egypt itself would probably have to be excluded by definition from the area to be covered by the guaranty because of her existing military-aid involvement with the Communist bloc; but almost any multilateral approach to Africa that involved arms limitation would exclude Egypt--if not for this reason, then because of her role as a Middle Eastern power.

Another possible multi-national approach would be an attempt to develop and negotiate within the framework of the United Nations an international convention which could guarantee the African area (probably excepting Egypt) against external aggression and externally supported subversion. At the same time, the agreement should impose a moratorium on the shipment of all arms other than those absolutely required to maintain internal law and order. A United Nations inspection force would be called upon to police the agreement. Such a convention might well be considered a preliminary step in the U.N. disarmament negotiations. Alternatively, an agreement of this kind might be negotiated outside the United Nations directly among the major powers.

Such a convention would largely remove the motivation of independent African states to maintain military forces for other than internal police purposes. The risk of irredentist adventures would be minimized, competition for prestige derived from military stature would be abated, and the whole climate for concentrating on development of viable economies and stable political institutions would be considerably improved. Of major importance, the danger of adding still another explosive issue--armament competition--to the highly charged African political situation would be for the most part removed.

Is such an agreement possible? A number of circumstances make the chances quite favorable.

First, at the present time (and the possibility of change puts a premium on speed) Africa is not a center of political, economic or military power of any considerable magnitude, and certainly not of a magnitude to affect the balance of power in the world for the foreseeable future. Hence neither side in the cold war would have to give up any substantial advantage which might accrue from military alliances or military assistance agreements with African states. On balance, the advantages to be derived from such a convention would appear to be with the West, because it has more to gain from a measure that avoids the diversion of African resources and efforts away from internal development.

Second, evolving military technology and strategic concepts make it most unlikely that in the long run either side in the cold war could have any over-riding need for bases in the African area. The Communist bloc has none now and is not likely to seek any. The United States position in Morocco is an extremely tenuous one. Similarly the French hold on its naval base at Bizerte in Tunisia is precarious. It is conceivable that the proposed convention could provide for a phased withdrawal which would not be more rapid than is likely to be the case anyway, as a result of insistent Moroccan and Tunisian pressures. The value of the United States and British bases in Libya, the American installation in Ethiopia, and the proposed British base in Kenya would have to be set against the advantage of a settlement which would further our objectives in all of Africa. It may be that as a trading matter the bases in Libya, the installation in Ethiopia or the potential base in Kenya could be retained as an offset to the Communist program of military assistance in Egypt. It may also be that a realistic appraisal of the changing political scene in Africa would indicate that the installations now in being or contemplated are likely to have a limited usefulness and a short life. Even Libya, whose economy is almost totally dependent on American and British aid, appears to be embarking on the dangerous game of "upping the ante" for use of bases on her territory. In North Africa, the United States and other Western powers are tenants who run the risk of being dispossessed at any time. Finally, it may be that developments in military technology will go further than they have already in reducing the importance of African bases.

Third, the African states have already shown some indication that they would be agreeable to accepting a guaranteed neutrality as a substitute for maintaining armed forces beyond their internal needs. In the "Resolution on International Peace" adopted at the Accra Conference in April 1958, the independent African states, after condemning plans for atomic tests in the Sahara, appealed "to the great powers to make every possible effort" to achieve a reduction of conventional armaments. The widespread desire of African states to avoid having to take sides in the cold war would suggest that they are likely to view guaranteed neutrality by all the great powers as a satisfactory arrangement.

If this is so, then from the Western viewpoint the chief obstacle to adoption of such an international convention is probably our North African bases. We should carefully weigh their value against the benefits to be derived from removing Africa as a new theater of cold-war competition for alliances and bilateral military relationships. If an assessment of the factors involved indicates that a phased withdrawal from these bases is strategically feasible (and perhaps politically inevitable), then it would seem highly desirable that the United States take the initiative in proposing such a convention at an early date.

Success in negotiating an agreement would help substantially to create an environment of security in which the emergent states of Africa could devote their energies and resources to the massive tasks of developing viable economies and stable political institutions. Failure to achieve the proposed convention because of Communist intransigence would clear the air and might demonstrate to Africa and the world at large the source of the generating force for the armaments race and of international tensions.

In any case, the United States is not likely to lose by taking the initiative and making the proposal in conjunction with our Western European allies. A negative response from the Communist world would leave us in no worse position than would otherwise obtain. On the contrary, it would emphasize throughout the Afro-Asian world our desire for peace and our willingness to take constructive steps to limit the involvement of such states in the cold war.

[i]The New York Times, April 30, 1959.

[ii]Ibid.

[iii] Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, Report on United States Relations with Latin America, May 12, 1959, p. 7.

[iv] Mutual Security Act of 1954, as amended, ch. I, § 106(a).

[v]Ibid., ch. II, § 142(10).

[vi]Ibid., ch. I, § 105(b) (4).

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ARNOLD RIVKIN, Director, African Economic and Political Development Project, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • More By Arnold Rivkin