Developments in Africa - and in the capitals of the great powers - made that continent an important testing ground for the foreign policies of the Western nations and the Soviet Union in 1978. While clearly still the dominant foreign influence in Africa, the Western countries were thrown on the defensive and groped for new ways of protecting their interests there. In the open diplomatic confrontation with the Soviet Union and Cuba, the West came off worst in the Horn of Africa but continued to maneuver actively in southern Africa. In neither area were the Western powers able to discourage the Soviet Union and Cuba from intervening militarily in the continent's internal affairs.

More positively, however, the new Western diplomatic approach aimed at developing close ties with African leaders to further common interests in southern African settlements showed definite promise. Whether Western diplomacy could be skillfully orchestrated to offset Soviet military activism was not clear as the year drew to a close. The trend which first began to emerge in 1975 was clearly evident three years later: Africa had become the scene of new Soviet efforts possibly foreshadowing important shifts even in the balance of world power between the West and the Soviets.

This bold Soviet policy coincided with - and benefited from - the strong disinclination in the West to become involved in any new military adventures in the Third World. Early in his Administration, President Carter declared that the United States would not become militarily involved in any foreign conflict simply because the Russians were there. The consistent pursuit of such a policy by the West was intended to foster détente and permit the level of arms shipments to Third World countries to be scaled down, but the evidently lower risk of open military confrontation with the United States also presented opportunities to the Soviets.

A larger question was raised by this conjunction of a lowered Western military role in much of the Third World with the Soviets' efforts to expand their influence and the delivery capacity of their armed forces. If they gave up the option of responding militarily, the NATO powers would have to rely on diplomatic means, but how could diplomatic means alone discourage the Soviets from using their military capacity in conflict situations in which the U.S.S.R. had an interest in intervening?

Before it was terminated because of congressional opposition in late 1975, the covert military assistance devised by Henry Kissinger in Angola was doomed to failure because of elements in the local Angolan situation which were not heeded by the United States. The Carter policy, on the other hand, emphasized "African solutions to African problems." This policy afforded few means to discourage Soviet activism in the Horn, however, and this failure set up a series of ambivalent responses or wobbles in Carter's policy which became evident by the spring of 1978.

The first was the debate, starting early in the year, about the possibility of linkage between détente and Soviet behavior in the Red Sea region. The second notable shift was President Carter's initial approval, after the second Shaba invasion from Angola in May, of the idea of a Western-sponsored African force to resist Soviet incursions. By midsummer, however, the Administration had demonstrated its continued commitment to working with Africans for political solutions through stepped-up diplomatic activity in southern Africa.


It was in the Horn that Soviet military involvement created shock waves that threatened détente. In the winter and early spring a vast infusion of Cuban troops and Soviet matériel enabled the Ethiopians to rout a Somali invasion of the country's Ogaden province. From the beginning of the year, an estimated 20,000 Cuban troops, 3,000 Soviet military technicians and about $2 billion in arms flowed into Ethiopia. The Somalis were defeated in the Ogaden in March, by a strategy worked out on the ground by three Soviet generals (a new development in Soviet policy).

Because the Soviets were helping to defend Ethiopia's territorial integrity, the United States was left without an appropriate countermove except to urge restraint and to warn off an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Conceding Ethiopia's right to seek outside help against aggression, in February Secretary of State Vance declared that the West was ready to supply arms to Somalia in case of possible subsequent Ethiopian aggression against the country. Given Somalia's irredentist designs against Kenya and Djibouti as well as Ethiopia, the United States could not, however, throw its political or military weight behind that country's cause. During a March visit to Mogadishu, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Richard Moose informed the Somali leadership that U.S. military aid to Somalia was contingent upon that country's renunciation of aggressive designs against the territory of its neighbors.

During the spring, U.S. concern about the boldness of the Soviet-Cuban intervention in force in Ethiopia (following that in Angola) deepened as the victorious Ethiopian army shifted the locus of its war effort to the Red Sea province of Eritrea. There the 18-year-old struggle by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) against the Ethiopian regime appeared to be the main obstacle to the consolidation of the country's Marxist-Leninist revolution. The Cubans, who had played a decisive role in the Ogaden fighting, chose not to commit their combatants against the Eritreans - whose cause they and the Russians had actively supported during the time of the late Emperor Haile Selassie. Soviet and Cuban advisers, however, buttressed the Ethiopians' military offensive, which began in April. With an enormous advantage in sophisticated weapons and manpower, the Ethiopian army by November had routed the ELF, lifted the siege around the Red Sea port of Massawa and captured the territory's third largest city, Keren. By December they had not yet opened the road to the capital, Asmara, but the EPLF had been driven back to its original mountain strongholds, and victory proclaimed by the government.

The regional powers in and around the Red Sea area - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan and Iran - voiced rising fears about the buildup of Soviet arms and political intervention in Ethiopia (where East European specialists were also engaged in trying to establish the organizational structure for a Marxist-Leninist mass organization). The seeming passivity of the Western powers in the face of the growing Soviet military reach increased their unease, and the possibility of new Soviet Red Sea bases following the victory in Eritrea was viewed with particular alarm.

For the U.S.S.R. this may be only the beginning of an increasingly costly involvement with Ethiopia's conflicts. The guerrillas still have significant conservative Arab backing and the struggle for Eritrean independence is likely to continue indefinitely unless the Soviets (backed this time by the Cubans, South Yemenis, Libyans and Palestinians) succeed in persuading the Ethiopian military regime on the one side, and the EPLF/ELF on the other, to compromise on a plan to establish a federation of Ethiopian and Eritrean Marxist-Leninist republics. Nor can the Ogaden problem be considered solved. President Siyad Barre's regime in Somalia survived its defeat in the Ogaden, and even retaliatory raids into Somalia by Ethiopian bombers did not forestall a reemergence of the Somali insurgency in the Ogaden which was evident by late fall.

But whether or not the longer term held potential "quagmires" in store for the Soviets, the immediate success of their massive aid commitment in assisting their Ethiopian ally to victory against a variety of adversaries increased a perceived tactical dilemma for the United States. American outrage at what was deemed to be Soviet transgression of the ground rules of détente was expressed by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who warned that Soviet-Cuban activities in Ethiopia could jeopardize SALT. In addition, tough, even threatening, statements by the President himself raised the possibility that the Administration was abandoning its goal of deemphasizing the cold war in Africa.


When Angola-based Shaba insurgents invaded Zaïre in May, the United States moved with alacrity to support the French and Belgian military bailout of the pro-Western Mobutu government. The invasion of the key mining province found the Zaïrean army as ill-prepared as it had been in 1977 when it had to be rescued by Moroccan forces, supported by Egypt and Sudan. Thousands of Zaïreans were killed in the attack as well as at least 130 whites, while a sizable number were taken hostage.

The invasion was put down only with the aid of more than 1,000 French and Belgian paratroopers. Although in 1977 it had limited its involvement to a modest shipment of spare parts, the United States now, in addition to supplying matériel, also ferried the French and Belgian troops. France and the United States subsequently agreed to provide logistical support for a pan-African force to be sent to Shaba to replace the French and Belgian troops there. (Morocco contributed 1,000 troops while Senegal, Ivory Coast, the Central African Empire, Togo, Gabon and Egypt made up the balance of a force totaling 2,700.) In addition, the Western powers approved a plan to shore up the Zaïrean economy through emergency loans administered by foreign experts under the supervision of the International Monetary Fund. This support enabled Mobutu to restore a semblance of security in Shaba, but his political position remained precarious and Zaïre's already straitened economy was brought to its knees by the disruption of its mining industry.

Although the CIA insisted that it had definite information about Cuban involvement, other Western intelligence agencies were inclined to absolve the Cubans (though not the East Germans, who were reliably reported to have helped train the invading cadres). American accusations against Cuba were vigorously denied by Fidel Castro, and even discounted in the American press. They may have been intended, however, chiefly to signal the end of U.S. patience. In a major policy speech at Annapolis on June 7, President Carter's warnings to the U.S.S.R. reached their apogee, when he declared that Soviet policy in Africa was harmful to détente, and warned that if détente was not reciprocal, the American people would not accept it. He added: "We and our African friends want to see a continent that is free of the dominance of outside powers; the persistent and increasing involvement of the Soviets and Cuba in Africa could deny this vision."1

Nonetheless, President Carter backed off from the idea of a Western-supported pan-African peacekeeping force after his initially positive reaction to the idea at the NATO summit in June. The idea, which was first floated at a Paris meeting of francophone African leaders in April, was enthusiastically supported by French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing but opposed by British Prime Minister James Callaghan.

The most decisive opposition, however, came from the Africans, whose reactions even to U.S./French support for the military forces sent to Shaba showed the dilemmas involved in Western military involvement in Africa. While responses were predictably mixed, some countries well disposed to the Carter Administration, like Tanzania and Nigeria, were sharply critical. Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere was particularly harsh; he accused the Western powers of insulting Africa, and termed it the height of arrogance for them to talk of establishing a pan-African security force, adding that "the danger to Africa does not come just from nations in the Eastern bloc. The West still continues to see Africa as being within its sphere of influence, and acts accordingly."


In July, the yearly African stocktaking at the Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit showed a clear and growing concern about outside intervention in the continent. In the Horn, OAU norms were clearly on the Ethiopian side - to defend the territorial integrity of an African state. In Shaba, the same norms dictated support for the Zaïre regime, but stopped far short of a pan-African peacekeeping force - which would, in effect, line up a segment of its membership for or against one side or the other in the cold war.

At Khartoum, Africa's leaders expressed their acute awareness of the increasing extent to which they were becoming entangled in international rivalries for influence, and of their relative weakness to do much about it. Few now sought to deny the dangers of foreign intervention. In addition, many acknowledged that responsibility for what was happening lay with Africans themselves, particularly through their growing reliance on external support to help deal with a rash of violent inter-African disputes.

African leaders divided sharply over whether the greater threat came from the West or the East. But a growing tendency to take Soviet military involvement in the continent more seriously than in the past was discernible. Seen through a Western lens, African leaders may have seemed to divide simply into "moderates" and "radicals" - the former being those critical of Soviet policies, and the latter those critical of Western policies. However, viewed within its African context, the divisions are both more complex and more interesting.

First, there are those more or less committed Marxist-Leninist states which, on issues of foreign intervention, can be relied upon to take a strongly anti-Western, and usually anti-Chinese, position. Those in this category include: Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé e Príncipe and the Congo. On other issues (such as Angola's position on Namibia and Mozambique's on Rhodesia) there is no predictability about their stand. For example, Angola and Mozambique seek and utilize U.S. and South African technological aid, respectively. Three more countries fit broadly into this category - Madagascar, Benin and Equatorial Guinea. (Although still officially a Marxist-Leninist state, Somalia is now strident in opposition to Soviet "intervention.")

Second, a group of hard-line anti-communist states (usually described for that reason as being "pro-Western") can be counted upon, whatever the merits of a particular issue, to take a strong line against Soviet and Cuban intervention, while generally endorsing (or even encouraging) greater Western involvement in certain African disputes. Those falling in this group are: Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Togo, Malawi, Gabon, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritius, the Central African Empire, Swaziland, Gambia, Zaïre, Chad, and the Comoros.

Third, several states tend broadly, but with some qualification, to support the anti-Soviet group on most issues: Kenya, Liberia, Upper Volta, Lesotho, Mauritania, Niger, Djibouti, Botswana, and Rwanda.

And fourth, there are states holding the middle ground, which include in their number some of the most influential leaders in Africa. Some are idiosyncratic (like Libya and Uganda); most are pragmatic - like Tanzania, Nigeria, Zambia, Algeria,2 Ghana, Cameroon, and now Guinea. The smaller countries that belong are Seychelles, Burundi, Sierra Leone, and Mali.

Most notable in the African political lineup this year was Guinea's switch from the pro-Soviet hard-liners into this last middle group. Coming in out of the cold - where he had been almost continuously since 1960 - Guinea's President Sekou Touré in March became reconciled with his two bitter enemies, President Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast and President Léopold Senghor of Senegal, the two grands hommes of francophone Africa. Subsequently, a significant change in his policy became apparent, with the promise of some relaxation of his harsh political system, the release of hundreds of political prisoners, and a return to much friendlier relations with France and other Western nations, including the United States. One of the losers from Touré's new policy was the Soviet Union, which lost at least some of its previous naval and air facilities at Conakry.

When we classify the 49 African countries in this way, it becomes evident that there are ten states that will usually defend any form of Soviet or Cuban intervention and almost three times that number that are likely to oppose any form of Soviet and Cuban intervention while remaining ready to endorse Western involvement in the continent's affairs. In practice, the middle group of 13 countries hold the balance, and their voices are usually decisive in determining the majority stand of the OAU on issues of foreign involvement.

The attitude of those in the pro-Soviet category was exemplified by the speeches of both the Angolan and Mozambican Presidents at the OAU summit. They insisted that in every case where the Soviets and Cubans were actively involved in the continent it was because they had been invited to assist legitimate African governments and bona fide liberation movements to fight against "imperialism," whereas every example of Western intervention was in support of reactionary regimes and forces, and against the liberation movements.

The anti-Soviet group's position was summed up by President Senghor in an interview - significantly with the Johannesburg Sunday Times (June 11, 1978) - in which he said:

The Russians have behaved very astutely in Africa. They have been pursuing age-old expansionist policies in the tradition of Czar Peter the Great. The Soviet Union is conscious that Lenin once wrote: "Whoever controls Africa controls Europe." . . . The West is illogical. If it wants us to defend ourselves against the forces of external aggression, against the forces of international communism, it must give us the means to do so. Otherwise it can sit back and watch Africa fall to international communism. The West doesn't want that to happen, but it also doesn't want to spend money to aid us. What we're experiencing at present is the first phase of World War III - and the East has the edge on us because it has definite objectives and is prepared to commit very efficient, modern and expensive means toward attaining them.

Reflecting the views of the influential middle group of largely noncommited nations, Nigeria's head of state, General Obasanjo, took the position of unreservedly condemning all foreign intervention in sovereign African nations. He saw the mercenary-led attacks in Benin and the Comoro Islands, and the intervention by "European powers in Central Africa" (meaning Zaïre) as foreign intervention - and rejected any idea of the Western nations discussing among themselves where to intervene in particular African situations. In respect to the liberation struggles, he said, the fact was that the only source of effective support came from the Eastern bloc countries and Cubans. However, he then went on to warn:

the Soviets and their friends not to overstay their welcome. Africa is not about to throw off one colonial yoke for another. Rather, they should hasten the political, economic and military capability of their African friends [i.e., the Angolans and Ethiopians] to stand on their own. . . . If the Soviets seek to maintain their presence indefinitely, they run the risk of being dubbed a new imperial power, as indeed they are already being called even by those with whom they have had long associations.

For their part, the Soviets' own assessment of their position, as evidenced in a midsummer manifesto on southern Africa, indicated a continued and increased involvement there. Indeed a new and intensified Soviet approach to the liberation struggle in the subcontinent was outlined in a TASS report in August.3 The core of this strategy is the development of a fighting front of progressive nationalist forces in close alliance with communist parties, with the latter given the familiar Marxist role as the vanguard of the armed struggle. This Soviet strategy corresponds to a significant development in radical African thought - in the growing importance of the idea of "superior weapons." The military strength of the "coalition of NATO and South Africa," it is argued, can be matched only by the Soviets. The value of "superior [Soviet] arms" was demonstrated in Angola and Ethiopia.4

Another significant feature of the Soviet manifesto, it may be noted, was the amount of space it devoted to attacking the Chinese as allies of the "imperialist conspiracy" in Africa. In fact, judged by short-term criteria, China's position continued much diminished during 1978, as few African leaders took Peking's frenzied campaign against the Russians very seriously. The Chinese tendency increasingly to support the same causes as the West in Africa (except for the liberation movements in the subcontinent) provided grist for Moscow's mill in its propaganda efforts to stigmatize the Chinese as "collaborators of the NATO powers," and as supporters of the continent's most reactionary regimes - a view which, incidentally, overlooked Soviet support for two of the continent's nastiest tyrannies - General Idi Amin's in Uganda and President Macias' in Equatorial Guinea.

In addition, the U.S.S.R. maintained the steady flow of military aid, which enabled Ethiopia to retake Eritrea by the end of the year. With their aid to Ethiopia and Angola justified by the OAU support for the maintenance of the African states' territorial integrity, neither the Soviet Union nor Cuba heeded Western demands for Cuban troop withdrawal. Always careful not to work against prevailing trends in African politics, however, the U.S.S.R. did not overtly obstruct the efforts of the front-line states - in concert with the Western powers - to achieve negotiated settlements in southern Africa. However, they continued to warn the African leaders against the danger of walking into a Western trap.

As far as the United States was concerned, midsummer brought a reaffirmation of its original approach. Talk of "linkage" petered out, at least temporarily, after the difficulties of tailoring a particular form of linkage to the particular situation in the Horn of Africa had become apparent. Beyond that, the effort espoused by the United States since the beginning of the Carter Administration to cooperate in fostering mutual interests with key African countries offered discernible payoffs. President Carter's visit to Nigeria in April (when he became the first serving American President to travel to Africa) had symbolized the pursuit of this relationship and acceptance of commitments to specific objectives of importance to African nations. These were set out by President Carter in his Lagos speech:

We share with you [i.e., Africans] a commitment to majority rule and individual human rights. In order to meet the basic needs of the people, we share with you a commitment to economic growth and to human development. We share with you a commitment to an Africa that is at peace, free from racism, free from military interference by outside nations, and free from the inevitable conflicts that come when the integrity of national boundaries are not respected. These three commitments shape our attitude towards your continent.

Western policies over the past two years have focused largely on the first of these aspirations as they applied to Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa. American and West European thinking here can be seen to have developed along parallel lines. The crux of this common approach is their recognition that the exclusion of the African majorities from power-sharing in southern Africa is inimical to long-term Western economic and strategic interests.

Both the Western initiatives, on Rhodesia and Namibia, were developed with the close cooperation of the front-line African states - including the Marxist-oriented regimes of Angola and Mozambique, in addition to Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana - and often the West African regional power Nigeria, as well. The effectiveness of Western diplomacy depended on the ability of the key African actors to bring in the liberation movements.

Thus for the United States the crucial question was whether to continue acting outraged with Angola (and its backers) over Shaba, or to persist, at least in southern Africa, with the theme of working with the Africans and damping local rivalries. Knitting up U.S. ties with Angola offered two gains: assisting a rapprochement between Angola and Zaïre that would reduce the chances of further Shabas, and getting Angola to bring South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) around.

In mid-June, the dispatching of U.S. envoy Donald McHenry to Angola signaled the Administration's continued commitment to its activist diplomacy and demonstrated the value thereof. In Angola, McHenry received assurances that Luanda would try to prevent Shaban rebels from infiltrating into Zaïre and also enlisted Angolan aid in bringing the SWAPO into a Namibian settlement.

The extraordinary rapprochement between Angola and Zaïre occurred in the middle of July when, thanks to OAU mediation, delegations from the two countries met in Brazzaville (Congo) to normalize relations. Their preliminary agreement was quickly followed by a visit by President Neto to Zaïre's capital from August 19 to 22, at the end of which a joint communiqué was issued which, inter alia, announced a decision to establish a joint commission under OAU auspices to ensure security along their borders. When Mobutu visited Angola's capital soon afterward, he was treated to a rousing popular welcome - whereas only a few months earlier he had been denounced as "an American stooge" and "a Chinese puppet."


Within this context of international action and reaction, the main focus of attention this year continued to be southern Africa. Western hopes for negotiated settlements rose, then dimmed, and then began to rise again regarding Namibia toward the year's end. In Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, however, "superior weapons" appeared increasingly likely to determine the outcome. Hopes began to fade in March for the success of the Anglo-American proposals to bring Rhodesia to independence as Zimbabwe under internationally acceptable conditions. A major obstacle was created with the signing on March 4 of an Internal Settlement Agreement between the Ian Smith regime and three black Rhodesian movements - Bishop Abel Muzorewa's United African National Congress (UANC), the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole's African National Congress (ANC-S) and Chief Jeremiah Chirau's Zimbabwe United People's Organization (ZUPO). The two wings of the Patriotic Front - Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) - denounced the agreement as a "sell-out"; they said they could have no confidence in the achievement of majority rule by the end of the year while Smith remained in charge of all the security forces and the guerrillas were to be disarmed as a prerequisite for the Patriotic Front's right to participate in the elections.

At an emergency summit meeting held on March 25, the front-line African Presidents asked for a categorical assurance from the U.S. and U.K. governments that they had not abandoned their proposals for solving the 12-year-old Rhodesian problem. London and Washington held that while the Internal Settlement marked an important step forward toward achieving majority rule, nothing could be hoped from any policy which did not include all the parties involved in the conflict. This stance aroused conservative opponents on both sides of the Atlantic, who insisted that the Internal Settlement deserved their governments' wholehearted support and that the claims of the "Marxist-led terrorists" of the Patriotic Front should be rejected. Proposals were also floated, both in the U.S. Congress and British Parliament, that sanctions should be lifted immediately.

The Anglo-American stand was that sanctions could in any case not be lifted unilaterally since they were applied under a mandatory resolution of the U.N. Security Council; that the fighting could not be stopped since a cease-fire required the agreement of the Patriotic Front; and that no settlement would be internationally acceptable which did not have the support of all the parties engaged in the Rhodesian conflict, as well as of the OAU. Moreover, for them to back only one side in the dispute would immediately wreck the Western strategy of engaging the support of Africa's leaders; this would also result in loss of African backing for the Namibian initiative. Furthermore, the predictable outcome of any decision by the Western powers to side with the new Salisbury regime would place the front-line Presidents under irresistible pressure to accept direct Soviet/Cuban involvement in Rhodesia - a possibility openly discussed by President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. In an attempt to keep up the momentum of the Anglo-American initiative, therefore, new proposals were published in October envisaging the establishment of an interim government shared by all the parties, and an interim British Resident Commissioner who would assume control over the security forces. The interim government could decide how and when elections should be arranged. The proposals were totally rejected by the Internal Settlement signatories and coolly received by the Patriotic Front, although broadly approved by the front-line Presidents. Nonetheless, efforts to arrange for all-party discussions of the proposals continued against a background of increasing violence in Rhodesia and a steady deterioration of the country's security and economic position.

From the beginning, the success of the Internal Settlement depended on the ability of Smith's black partners (derisorily referred to by the Patriotic Front as the "blacksmiths") to rally black Rhodesians to lay down their arms and refuse to shelter the guerrillas. Rather than pushing rapidly for reforms that would integrate the medical, educational and civil service systems, and abolish discriminatory land tenure and residential restriction, the new government temporized and seemed to place primary emphasis on reassuring whites that little would change. Far from diminishing, the level of fighting increased sharply. In the five years preceding the March settlement, some 7,000 people had been killed inside Rhodesia, virtually all of them black; yet during 1978, the number of fatalities had reached 12,000. Also significant was the rapidity with which the Salisbury regime lost effective control over the rural areas. Martial law was imposed over one-fifth of the country on October 4; by the end of that month over half the country had been brought under emergency law; by the end of November, three-quarters. Normal administration and law and order had thus broken down completely over almost the entire area inhabited by some five million black Rhodesians. The Rhodesian security authorities estimated that at least 5,000 guerrillas were operating inside the country; the Patriotic Front put the number at three times that figure.

Thus the whole character of the war had changed in Rhodesia in the less than nine months since the signing of the Internal Settlement agreement. The guerrillas had occupied the ground in considerable numbers, and were engaged in developing an alternative administration to Salisbury's. The fighting also had begun to assume the ominous characteristics of an inter-black civil war. Over 80 percent of the Rhodesian security forces were black (a phenomenon also witnessed in the final stages of the struggle in Mozambique, where the Portuguese had come to rely increasingly on black soldiers after 1973). Muzorewa and Sithole had been authorized by the security authorities to establish their own private armies in an attempt to consolidate their power bases in three or four of the tribal trust areas. More worrisome, the two wings of the Patriotic Front's forces - ZANLA and ZIPRA - were still fighting under independent commands - and the former had begun to establish itself in Matabeleland, the area traditionally regarded as the power base of the latter.

In some areas, mainly along the border with Mozambique, the majority of whites had abandoned their farms. In addition, the fighting increasingly spread across the borders into Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana, as the hard-pressed Rhodesian forces sought to destroy the guerrillas in their base camps or through hot pursuit. The security problems of these border countries - and especially of Zambia - became extremely serious and were only partially met by increased British military aid to Zambia. Frontline resentment at the limits of Western commitment were expressed by Zambia's President Kenneth Kaunda, who said to Ambassador Andrew Young, "You cannot tell me that the great powers which found it possible and necessary to overthrow Hitler lack the necessary resources to topple a lightweight like Ian Smith."

On the basis of its inability to maintain an effective administration and sustain morale, the Salisbury regime had begun to lose the war during the year; its leaders acknowledged in private that their success depended on their ability to attract external support to their side. This led them to concentrate on persuading the American and British publics to reverse their governments' policies by openly supporting the Internal Settlement. They also tried to persuade the new South African Prime Minister to commit himself more fully, in a military sense, to Rhodesia than had his predecessor, John Vorster.

The Salisbury regime felt that it had secured something of a breakthrough when the Carter Administration, yielding to pressure from a group of conservative Senators, permitted Smith, along with Muzorewa and Sithole, to visit the United States in October. The American decision drew strong criticism in Africa and was not much liked in Whitehall, where it was feared (as indeed proved right) that Smith would return home to make exaggerated claims about his success in turning Washington around toward support for the Internal Settlement, thus falsely bolstering white morale.

By the year's end it seemed clear that neither the Salisbury regime nor the Patriotic Front had sufficient authority or power acting on its own to impose its will on the country. With power thus dangerously fragmented, the situation could probably be saved only by one of two alternatives: successful all-party talks or the restoration of a British presence in Salisbury, marking the country's return to legality. With neither the Salisbury regime nor the Patriotic Front ready to compromise, the best option seemed to be in British intervention, which was strongly favored by the front-line African Presidents. But British public opinion was totally opposed to any intervention that would involve sending troops to Rhodesia. "No second Ulster" was the rallying cry.


On the other hand, however, the chances for an internationally recognized settlement in Namibia looked somewhat more hopeful. Because expectations of success for the Western-sponsored initiatives for U.N.-supervised elections had risen and then fallen sharply during the year, however, optimism seemed foolhardy.

Launched in the spring of 1977, the Western plan for Namibia negotiated with South Africa and the South West African People's Organization by the five Western members of the Security Council seemed very close to implementation in July 1978, when both SWAPO and Pretoria accepted it. The Namibian initiative was historic in at least one respect: it marked the first occasion when the major Western powers (including the maverick French) acted in close concert on an international issue which did not touch immediately on their own security interests. The so-called Contact Group (also familiarly known as the Gang of Five) included the United States, the United Kingdom, West Germany, France and Canada, with U.S. Ambassador McHenry as chairman.

On February 2, the Contact Group proposed proximity talks between South Africa and SWAPO to discuss their proposals for achieving an internationally acceptable settlement of Namibia's claim to independence. By the time that the group's proposals were formally introduced at the Security Council, on April 10, the South African government had given them its qualified approval, but SWAPO still withheld its endorsement. The chances of winning its support sank almost to zero when the South African army struck 250 kilometers deep into Angola on May 4 to attack SWAPO camps at Cassinga. With almost 600 Namibians killed and Angola infuriated by the attack, considerable diplomatic maneuvering was required (in which the front-line African states were prominently engaged) to get the negotiations back on the rails. Yet, less than two months later, on July 12, SWAPO announced its acceptance of the Contact Group's proposals at a meeting in Luanda, Angola's capital.

The remarkable feature of this change of mind by SWAPO was the vigorous role played by Angola's President Neto, along with the chairman of the front-line states, President Julius Nyerere, in persuading the very reluctant SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma to give his assent. The Angolan President's interest was obvious: an acceptable settlement in Namibia would both remove the menace of South Africa's military presence on his border, and avert the danger of having his country used as the base for an intensified and long military struggle against the South African army. The Soviet media made it clear that Moscow was somewhat less than enthusiastic about the endorsement given by SWAPO to the Western proposals, but the U.S.S.R. carefully abstained when they were presented to the Security Council.

A U.N. presence was formally established in Namibia on August 6 when, after more than 30 years of dispute with South Africa, the U.N. Secretary General's special representative, Martti Ahtisaari, arrived at the head of a 50-strong mission in Windhoek. South Africa, however, remained suspicious of SWAPO's intentions, while SWAPO kept up its guerrilla pressures on Namibia. It soon became clear that South Africa was unwilling to accept any U.N. proposals that would eliminate the certainty of defeating SWAPO in the elections to be held before independence, while Nujoma was equally determined not to accept any outcome that did not ensure a handover to SWAPO.

These conflicting interests came to the surface when Dr. Kurt Waldheim announced on August 30 that a peacekeeping force of 7,500 troops and up to 2,000 civilians would be required to supervise the elections in Namibia. South Africa rejected the need for such a large force, but was particularly opposed to Waldheim's insistence that the elections could not be held until seven months after the U.N. Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG) had been established. South Africa insisted on strict adherence to its own timetable, which envisaged elections before the end of the year. The reason for this was obvious: the longer SWAPO took to organize itself for the elections, the harder it would be to ensure that the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) - the party favored by Pretoria - would be likely to become the government at independence.

The 63-year-old South African Prime Minister, John Vorster, in announcing his decision to retire on September 20, declared at the same time that his government would proceed with elections in December without international supervision. The resignation of John Vorster after 13 years as South Africa's head of state was thought by many to signal the end of an era in which Pretoria's foreign policy was informed by efforts to achieve "détente" with its black neighbors. The Nationalist Party's subsequent selection of Defense Minister P.W. Botha as Prime Minister appeared to bode no good for the prospects of a U.N.-supervised transition. The victory of Botha over less hard-line rivals showed the kind of choice which the ruling party felt it had to make. More than ever, the dominant elements in white South Africa, while no longer convinced that it would assure their future, seemed to see no alternative to apartheid and mobilization of the country's resources for what their army leader, General Magnus Malan, called "a total war effort."

The new Prime Minister has been frequently reported to support the view that sanctions were bound to be applied sooner or later and that he would prefer that they come sooner in order to demonstrate their ineffectiveness as a weapon in the armory of international diplomacy. (To some extent, Iran's cutoff of oil to South Africa is seen in that country as effectively equivalent to sanctions, given the Republic's virtually total dependence on that source.) However, Botha's views on international questions are to some extent an unknown quantity. He is certainly a much more complex character than is suggested by the ascription to him of hard-line attitudes. His career shows him as particularly tough on questions of security (he was mainly responsible for the disastrous decision to commit South African forces to Angola in 1975); but in other ways he was sometimes more flexible than his predecessors. Whether he would commit South Africa to a course of unyielding defiance against a hostile world remained to be seen.

Only two Namibian parties, the white-led DTA and the all-white Aktuur welcomed the decision to hold elections, which was otherwise universally condemned. The OAU called for severe sanctions, including a mandatory oil embargo, to "teach South Africa a lesson." On September 29, the U.N. Security Council instructed Waldheim to go ahead with setting up UNTAG and gave South Africa an ultimatum to accept the world body's decisions. Under Western pressures, no specific threat accompanied the ultimatum. Nevertheless, the Western powers fully realized that the issue of selective sanctions could not be avoided if South Africa rejected the ultimatum.

In a remarkable act of unity, the five Western members of the Security Council sent their foreign ministers (in the case of France its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs) to Pretoria in mid-October to make a collective démarche on the new Prime Minister. The mission was unsuccessful, as Botha stood firmly on his decision to go ahead with elections on December 4, though promising that he would work to persuade whatever government was elected to resume the negotiations with the United Nations. Meanwhile, the Western nations were faced with the difficult task of avoiding any immediate call by the Security Council for sanctions against South Africa while still awaiting future developments after the elections were out of the way.

In the event, the tissue of Western/front-line (cum Nigerian) cooperation held together, as all waited with some pessimism for Pretoria's next move. Whether the results of the elections reassured the Nationalist leadership - the turnout was good and, with SWAPO outside, predictably highly pro-DTA - or political prudence reasserted itself, the South African government in late December once again agreed to go ahead with U.N.-supervised elections. Successful implementation of a U.N.-supervised transition to majority rule would represent a major Western victory in the campaign to minimize Soviet influence in the area. Continued equivocation on the part of South Africa, on the other hand, would present the Western powers with extremely difficult domestic and international political dilemmas. Unless the U.N. plan goes forward, a showdown on the question of sanctions cannot be averted indefinitely.


Although this article has dwelt overwhelmingly on crisis, several positive signs of strength in African political institutions may be of equal long-term significance. While Nigeria, with one-fourth of Africa's population, took a long stride toward restoring civilian democracy in scheduled 1979 elections, Kenya accomplished a smooth transition to a new government following the death of Jomo Kenyatta, Upper Volta held free elections, and Senegal broadened its one-party system to encompass two additional parties. The focus of Western attention, however, is unfortunately bound to be on the difficult cases. The Horn's conflicts have left a decided impact which, by the end of the year, flowed into Western concerns about turmoil in the adjoining pro-Western Persian Gulf oil power, Iran. Indeed, given U.S. concern about Soviet activity in what Brzezinski has called "arcs of instability," what happens in the African crisis areas is clearly linked to senatorial passage of SALT. With the United States at a loss as to how to "counter the Soviets" in the Horn and barely holding onto the possibility of a peaceful settlement in Namibia, the big question for 1979 may be whether the Soviets will be restrained by the SALT link.

Finally, looking at developments in Africa during the year, it is clear that the failure of Western nations to define for themselves and to communicate to the world an effective policy for dealing with Soviet military intervention in the continent has obscured very real Western political achievements in Africa. Thus, at this juncture, those who strongly dissent from any idea of returning to open or clandestine military intervention must show what other positive methods are available to resist Soviet expansionism.

One answer to this important question repeats an argument first popularized by the Chinese, which goes like this: Soviet military intervention, often on the side of minority regimes or movements, can produce only short-term successes; in the end, the Russians and Cubans will be found simply to have dug their own graves. There is a good deal of truth in this, but it comes much more convincingly from the Chinese than from Westerners since they see political developments on a completely different time-scale, and are much less troubled by the thought of how many people will have been cast into the pit before it closes up over the Russians and Cubans. Neither is it enough to say that Soviet policy will inevitably fail because it has done so in countries like Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and North Yemen, from which the Soviets were ejected after a time. Times have certainly changed in Africa and one cannot predict that comforting patterns will hold in a rapidly changing continent.

But considerable Western strengths on the continent can be utilized through stepped-up determination and attention. Despite disagreements over the Western nations' reluctance to move more forcefully against the Smith regime and South Africa, the structure of cooperation with the front-line African Presidents and Nigeria held up astonishingly well. The extraordinary nature of this relationship might, perhaps, have been better appreciated by Western audiences if, instead of working so closely with Western leaders to achieve agreed objectives, the African leaders had been cooperating with Soviet and Cuban diplomacy.

Paradoxically, one essential element in the closer Afro-Western diplomatic relationship was that the Western powers did not show themselves to be motivated simply by a desire to outmaneuver the Russians and Cubans - even though the practical result was to exclude them from both the Rhodesian and Namibian initiatives. If there is an element of hope in the West's ability to develop an effective response to the Soviet challenge in the Third World, it lies in the possibility of using the model developed of engaging the active cooperation of the most effective African leaders (not the most reactionary) to pursue mutually agreed objectives. But if such a policy is to succeed, it will require not only the harmonization of Western and Third World interests, but also the kind of massive material commitments (not necessarily, or preferably, military) undertaken by the communist powers in Angola and Ethiopia.


1 This statement of American policy was broadly similar to one made by China. In a speech made on the same day as Carter's Annapolis speech, the PRC Deputy Prime Minister, Teng Hsiao-ping, supported the idea of a pan-African security force and accused the "latecoming super-power" of continually "dispatching additional mercenaries to Africa to kindle the flames of war. . . . Before the war flames it had fanned up in the Horn of Africa had died down it recently engineered a second incursion into Zaïre by mercenaries." His speech came soon after a visit to Zaïre by the PRC Foreign Minister Huang Hua, followed on June 18 by a Chinese military team to help train Mobutu's navy and then by the army chief of staff and Deputy Defense Minister, General Hao-tien.

2 Although Algeria is placed in this group, it is somewhat more rhetorically anti-Western than the others.

3 TASS Report, Dateline Moscow, August 26, 1978, reproduced in BBC Monitor Service, August 30, 1978, SU/5903/A5/1.

4 The necessity for "superior weapons" as a clinching element in the political choice of "strategic allies" was reportedly posited even in debates held on South Africa's Robben Island prison among black Africans convicted of political crimes. According to one informant, who had emerged from the Island after serving a sentence of 15 years, the ANC's charismatic leader, Nelson Mandela, found himself in a very tiny minority in the debate among Robben Islanders in opposing the "superior weapons" argument.

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
  • Colin Legum is Africa correspondent and Associate Editor of The Observer (London) and is Editor of the Africa Contemporary Record. He is the author of Pan-Africanism: A Short Political Guide, Southern Africa: The Secret Diplomacy of Detente, South Africa at the Crossroads, and other works.
  • More By Colin Legum