“An excellent revolutionary situation exists in Africa” was the way Chou En-lai summed up his visit to the continent earlier this year. Was this mere wishful thinking on his part? Or was it a deliberate attempt to foster revolutionary thinking? The answer to the second question should be obvious. Not so the first. Chou En-lai thinks of revolution in Mao Tse-tung’s terms of “the seizure of power by armed force; the settlement of the issue by war is the central task of the highest form of revolution.” If Chou En-lai was indeed talking in this sense, his appraisal of Africa’s present condition is incorrect. There are a number of African states (other than just the remaining colonial territories) where the violent overthrow of government is possible; but it is highly unlikely that “seizure of power” will herald a Mao Tse-tung-type revolution. There is little reason to suppose that this is what would happen if the present rebels in the Congo were successful.

And yet, if one thinks of revolution in a different sense from Chou En-lai’s, there are strong grounds for the view that conditions in Africa favor a revolutionary rather than an evolutionary process. Changes are likely to be abrupt, drastic and even violent.

If one can talk about the “mood” of a continent, Africa’s mood strongly favors radical changes, both internally and internationally. There are, it is true, strong internal resistances, especially where traditionalist tribal society remains strong; but the pacemakers who wield power enjoy a general sanction to “leap into the twentieth century.” The authority of the modernizing élite is strongly reinforced by the energetic ambitions of Africans to liberate themselves not only from colonial rule but also from the bondage of backwardness and dependency. Both for themselves and their societies, they are impatient to become better educated and trained; to grow richer; and, above all, to achieve the dignity of equals with other races (especially with whites).

African independence is therefore an instrument to destroy the badge of shame which has attached for so long to black people. To overlook the strength of this feeling is to misjudge the true temper of Africa, to misunderstand a vital element in African foreign policies, and to underestimate the power-thrust of Pan-Africanism on certain issues, despite its internal tensions.

The realities of post-colonial Africa favor intemperate rather than temperate attitudes. These attitudes, however, are usually modified and restrained by other realities—the need, for example, to rely on overseas aid and capital. But while policies may be adapted to take account of these other realities, the basic attitudes remain. In certain circumstances the inhibitions felt under these restraints serve only to harden intemperate attitudes.

What are the basic realities of Africa? Briefly, I would describe them in the following order. The approaching end of colonialism finds the continent balkanized into a large number (potentially 52) of small, poor and weak states. While the continent as a whole is potentially rich, it is still desperately poor. Its resources are unevenly distributed; its main sources of economic wealth are controlled by expatriate firms or are dependent on external capital; its main export crops are subject to the vicissitudes of a world market over which African governments have little control; it has insufficient experts and trained personnel at all levels to man its technical services and to execute its development plans. Pan-Africanism has grown rapidly as an emotional and practical response to these conditions and to the inequalities felt by black people. But the Pan-Africanist movement contains within itself serious tensions produced by the differing interests and attitudes of its protagonists. (These range from Ghana’s President Nkrumah with his ideas for political unification to Malagasy’s President Tsiranana, whose belief in African unity is extremely slender.) Africa’s societies are in a state of flux: tribal society is disintegrating or being transformed; urbanization is advancing rapidly; unemployment, urban individualism and social rootlessness are being experienced on a large scale for the first time; new economic and social classes are emerging; the youth are becoming increasingly separated from tribal or family disciplines.

In Africa, the nation-state has preceded the formation of the nation: this presents awkward problems for national governments seeking to persuade, or coerce, tribal and regional units to acknowledge a central authority and a single overriding loyalty. Africa is obsessed with the danger of a second scramble to carve it up in more subtle ways. In the West, “neo-colonialism” is usually regarded as merely a Communist slogan; African leaders, including uncompromising anti-Communists like Nigeria’s Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, believe it to be a real threat. The continent is in a state of war against the remnants of colonialism—the white-controlled citadels in the Portuguese territories, in Rhodesia and especially in the Republic of South Africa. But Africa is militarily weak and vulnerable to internal and external attacks. Non-alignment is the dominant aspiration of the continent’s leaders; but they know that so far they have not been able to prevent Africa from becoming a battleground for influence between the West and the East, and between Moscow and Peking. Finally, there is the reality of government by a single party: of the 36 independent African states, only five still manage to cling to some form of parliamentary democracy. The one-party state is felt to meet the special needs of the present situation. Whether it can fulfill the wants as well as meet the needs remains a moot question.

These, then, are the principal realities which need to be taken into account in analyzing the interplay of African political forces.


Because politics is essentially a struggle for power, it is inevitable that where a single party takes to itself the monopoly of power, the political struggle should become increasingly radical or revolutionary. Those defending power come to rely more and more on tough methods; those in opposition are driven to adopt increasingly unconstitutional methods and to seek external support.

The process of transferring power within the single-party state originates within the palace. It generally has two stages. The first starts with the existence of acknowledged pressure groups within the ruling party which produces a continuous internal rivalry for power. The second stage sees the growth of an active opposition—acting subversively within the state or in exile, or both. The exile group is usually harbored by a neighboring country—the Congo rebels in Brazzaville and Burundi, the Sawabah Party of Niger in Ghana, the Rwanda exile movement, “The Cockroach,” in Burundi; there are also the examples of the exiled Communist parties of Algeria and the U.A.R. which operate either from Eastern Europe or China.

In this way internal party splits achieve an external dimension: it might go no further than involving other African states, or it might involve foreign powers. Irrespective of whether or not the opposition remains embedded in the ruling party or goes into exile, its methods become surreptitious. The effect of driving the opposition underground is that the rulers must look under their beds as well as out of their windows—a situation that greatly favors the growth of paranoidal tendencies. The rulers, fearing persecution, persecute those they fear. Often these fears are only too well grounded. Ghana’s President Nkrumah is justified in believing that one plot against his life was planned by his most trusted lieutenant, and a second by one of the most senior members of his security forces; in the Ivory Coast, President Houphouet-Boigny had to deal with no fewer than three plots in a single year, all of them involving ministerial colleagues. The creation of an atmosphere of suspicion works toward the establishment of a closed society: trade unions are controlled; the organs of information are supervised; the universities come under close state surveillance; the civil service is continuously purged; the promotion system works in favor of acolytes; the security forces are multiplied. (The U.A.R. has no fewer than five secret services which work independently, and jealously watch over each other.)

Because active opposition comes mainly from the élite or from those with special interests to defend, the degree of oppression involved is usually limited to comparatively small groups such as the intellectuals, or pressure groups like trade unions, or ethnocentric groups with particularist grievances which make for strong disaffection, e.g. the negroid tribes in the southern Sudan, the Watutsi of Rwanda, the northerners in Dahomey, the Tauregs in Mali, the Somalis in Kenya and Ethiopia, the Baganda in Uganda. Sometimes these ethnocentric centers of disaffection make common cause with other disaffected groups or with like-minded groups in neighboring countries. This is true, for example, of the Somalis in Kenya and in Ethiopia who look to Somalia; of the Watutsi of Rwanda who look to the Watutsi-dominated government of Burundi; of the southern Sudanese who look (so far without success) to Uganda, Kenya and the Central African Republic. These links between opposition elements and neighboring countries of course produce acute friction between the states involved.


The immediate problems faced by most newly independent African governments have been similar: first, to develop an apparatus of government capable of ensuring the survival of the new state within the frontiers established under colonial rule; second, to promote national consciousness among disparate ethnocentric elements; third, to achieve economic and social development at a pace which would cope with, if not fulfill, the high hopes that independence had aroused; fourth, to develop rapidly effective police and military forces capable of dealing with the problems of internal security and, in some cases, to protect national frontiers; and finally, to replace the old colonial relationship with a foreign policy that is relevant to the needs of the new Africa.

Within the continent, the new foreign policy had to give expression to the emotional and political desire for African “unity.” Further afield, it demanded new relationships with the former colonial powers as well as with other foreign powers. In practical terms this meant that African governments had to learn how to get on with each other, how to operate within a cold war situation, and how to avoid becoming entangled in the separate struggles within the Western and Communist camps. President Modibo Keita’s pragmatism makes it possible for Mali to lead the African chorus of praise for Peking while being an associate member of the “neo-colonialist” European Economic Community. To regard such an attitude as immoral is to miss two important points. The first is that African radical governments, while emotionally drawn toward Peking and Moscow, are able to make realistic decisions when it comes to adopting policies relevant to their own social development. The second point is that because present-day African governments are so heavily involved with the West, they feel a strong need to counterbalance their economic dependency by having cordial relations with the Communist countries.

At independence, all the African governments, with the single exception of Guinea, looked primarily to the West for economic and technical assistance to enable them to meet the five major challenges which have been described, Although some of them—notably the U.A.R., Ghana, Algeria and Mali—came to rely to a greater or a lesser extent on Russian and Chinese aid as well, all have nevertheless continued to look to the West to supply the major part of their economic, military and technical needs, and for their trade. All still receive more Western than Communist aid. Guinea is now the fourth largest African recipient of American aid ($39 million annually), after the U.A.R., Tunisia and Ethiopia.

The common experience of African governments has been that Western aid (for all its faults) has been more useful to them than Communist aid, except in the military field. But few of them feel that Western aid has been sufficient, or always of the right kind. All the major African states are now strongly convinced that aid is less important to their economic development than trade—a feeling which crystallized into positive demands for action during the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development earlier this year. They believe that fluctuations in commodity prices over the last ten years have more than wiped out the total monetary benefit to Africa of foreign aid from all sources. Henceforth, emphasis will be on the need for new international trade relationships. But although aid is now regarded as being of secondary importance, it is by no means thought to be of negligible value. Because Africa’s trade lies overwhelmingly with Europe and the United States, it is on Western leadership that the African states fasten their hopes—and, in the meantime, direct the shafts of their criticism.

Africa’s economic dependence on, and heavy involvement with, the West make it inevitable that economic and governmental failures at home should be attributed, at least in part, to the West. The West becomes the scapegoat for failures at home. It is blamed for not doing enough; for not responding in the right way; for not being sufficiently understanding of African needs; and not caring enough—beyond the protection of its own economic and strategic interests. These attitudes are shared by leaders one would readily identify as being well disposed to the West. This disillusionment, though by no means total or fixed, is a comparatively new phenomenon in Africa. In the past, African attitudes toward the West have always been strongly ambivalent but with the positive side usually more in evidence. Now the negative aspect is much more pronounced, and seems to be getting stronger.

How should one explain this disillusionment, and what does it portend? It is important to understand the frustrations caused by the limited capacity of newly independent governments to act effectively, especially in economic affairs. The limitations are of many kinds. For example, there is the widely accepted need to work within the established pattern of economic relationships since they are difficult to disturb in any major way without serious repercussions both abroad and at home. Here it should be noted that of all the African states only Guinea and the U.A.R. have experimented with revolutionary methods in their economic relations. Because most governments have been unwilling to adopt revolutionary methods, they have faced difficulties in mobilizing the masses for disciplined work in societies which are not easily amenable to discipline.

Frustrated and impotent, government leaders become anxious and defensive. They begin to feel that their survival is at stake; and because they are the leaders who brought their countries to independence, they tend to equate their own survival with the survival of their country’s independence. In this anxious mood they turn on their friends who they feel are letting them down. The more a government feels beholden to the West, or economically tied to one of the Western countries, the more strongly it reacts. This has already been seen in the relations between French-speaking countries and France, and one should expect other radical protests in this area.

Although the present African governments are led by pragmatists rather than doctrinalists, they sometimes select weapons from the Marxist armory to experiment with at home, e.g. ideas about centralized planning—reinforced, perhaps, with a Marxist planner or two; state farms or coöperative tractor stations. (So far few of these experiments have been markedly successful; nor indeed have they been pushed very far. In East Africa the most successful large-scale peasant coöperative scheme has been developed by the Israelis.) African leaders have remained attached to the idea of a mixed economy. Guinea, which tried to do without it, has turned back; in Ghana, after a strenuous internal party struggle, the first Seven Year Plan ended by expanding the private enterprise sector. In general it could be said that although some African countries have opened windows to Communist ideas, they have not opened the door to them. From the point of view of governments seeking ways of rapidly expanding their economies, relatively few practical gains have yet come from agreements with the Communist world, except in the special case of the U.A.R. Nevertheless, Nasser still gets more aid from the United States and West Germany than does any other African country; and even though Algeria and Mali have close ties with Russia and China respectively, their economies rest strongly on French aid, trade and preferences.

One of the crucial factors in African politics today is that few of the African states have so far succeeded in getting their economies moving at a pace fast enough to counteract the tensions set up by lack of economic opportunities. A country like Nigeria has to find new jobs for 700,000 school leavers and graduates in the six years spanned by the Development Plan which it adopted in 1962. To meet this target it will need about $1.8 billion, of which one-third must come from external sources. Approaching the end of the second year of its Development Plan, it has succeeded so far in getting less than half of its total foreign requirements. Yet if its plan should fail the inevitable result must be mass discontent in a highly articulate society—indeed, in the only really “open society” in the continent. All African governments, though in different degrees, face problems similar to those of Nigeria; and these are most acute in countries which have already achieved a reasonable level of development, where the rate of education, the tantalizing presence of a thin layer of prosperous tradesmen, farmers, bureaucrats and (especially) politicians, and the possibility of a richer society, are themselves active agents of discontent.

This discontent is to be found in a number of identifiable and potentially powerful pressure groups: urban workers, unemployed youth, the middle ranks of the civil service, young army officers and, notably, the intellectuals. These are the recruits for militant radicalism. The youth often suffer real hardship from the lack of educational and employment opportunities; the urban workers are caught up in an inflationary economy which allows costs to rise but keeps wages pegged; the “middle groups” resent the wide gap between themselves and their superiors; the intellectuals protest against the apparent ineffectiveness and inequities of the new order which have brought rewards to a new “bourgeois” class. All bitterly resent the nepotism and corruption prevalent in most African countries. Some feel strongly about the loss of civil rights.


Radicals in Africa can be divided into three broad categories: those who seek to bring about fundamental changes—the revolutionaries; those who believe in reform within the existing framework—the radical reformers; and those who are mainly concerned about the loss of civil rights and the growth of nepotism and corruption. Though still no larger than a cloud the size of a hand, this third group of radicals is nevertheless a significant element; what they lack in numbers they often make up for in quality and prestige. They sometimes coöperate with the other radicals but usually only in so far as it serves as an outlet for their own protest against the loss of personal freedom under the existing order.

With few exceptions, radicals usually work within the established political parties, constituting themselves into militant left-wings as distinctive caucuses. Their tactics, however, vary. Some operate as pressure groups; some seek to capture key positions within the party machinery or the government; some seek to establish themselves close to the actual sources of power whence they may hope to influence policy behind the scenes. In some countries the radical elements themselves constitute the leadership (Sékou Touré in Guinea, Modibo Keita in Mali, Nkrumah in Ghana, Ben Bella in Algeria); but because they are at the head of national front governments, their ability to implement radical policies is limited. In such situations the radical movements are used by the governmental leadership to prepare the ground for more “progressive” policies.

Where the radical group is not in office, its strength will depend primarily on the power-base in which it is rooted—a trade union, a youth group or, more often, a region. The “favorite son” of a major tribe or region is often in a strong bargaining position. Here one thinks of the Kenya leader, Oginga Odinga, who controls the Central Nyanza province. The youth wings of African political parties also constitute effective pressure groups—especially in single-party states.

But whether the radicals operate as reformers or as revolutionaries, their power is limited by their lack of resources. Apart from finance, they usually need information media and opportunities to extend patronage. In the African situation they also find it of immense benefit to be acclaimed abroad and to be known to have strong allies. Resources and opportunities of this kind are not easily available to dissidents inside their own countries; those in power usually take good care to see that these resources and privileges are retained in their own hands. So the leaders of the opposition go “shopping around.” They seek funds, scholarships or prestigious tours either for themselves or for their followers, from Western countries, African states, the non-aligned nations, or from the Communists. Where they go is largely determined by their brand of radicalism.

Most of the great nations and some of the smaller ones maintain agencies which, for one reason or another, are willing to provide aid of some kind. Because Western countries are mainly interested in preserving good relations with the present African governments, the amount of support available to dissident radicals is generally limited. And indeed—with the exception of those radicals primarily concerned with civil rights, such as the democratic trade-union leaders—most radicals shy away from the West precisely because they know that Western policies are geared largely to assisting African governments. They therefore tend to look to other African states, to the non-aligned nations (such as Jugoslavia and Israel), or to the Communists.

In their role as “leader-nations,” Ghana and the U.A.R. offer special attractions for radical politicians in other countries, especially as they are among the few ready to risk offering open support to dissident movements. By and large, the U.A.R. attracts the exiles from North Africa, while Ghana attracts those from West, East and Central Africa. But President Nkrumah is much bolder than President Nasser in offering himself as the leader of African radicalism. His ideology of consciencism is frankly intended to encourage his brand of militant Pan-Africanism and “scientific socialism” in rivalry to all other programs, including those of the Chinese and the Russians. Through the newspaper, The Spark, his message is carried weekly to radicals all over the continent, urging them to mobilize a single Africa-wide political movement of workers and peasants dedicated to “the African revolution.” These aims are promoted organizationally through the All African Trade Union Federation and the Bureau of African Affairs.

Outside Africa the radicals look mainly to Moscow and Peking, though it is hard to say which attracts more active interest. Generally both capitals are regarded as of equal value as “markets” in which to shop. Moscow, however, is much more circumspect than Peking in taking up the cause of dissident radicals—although it is a keen rival in offering support to the liberation movements operating in the Portuguese territories, in Rhodesia and in Southern Africa. The Soviets are inhibited in much the same way as are the Western countries; they, too, are concerned not to estrange the present African governments—a caution that became especially marked after they had burnt their fingers in Guinea in 1962. Nevertheless, they find plenty of opportunities to attract Africans on scholarships and visits; and if they believe the circumstances warrant, they may be willing to risk the displeasure of certain African governments. Their recent role in Zanzibar, where they firmly underpinned the initiative wrested by the East Germans from the Chinese after last January’s revolution, strained their relations with President Nyerere. It would appear that the Russians are most willing to take calculated risks when the objective is to outmaneuvre the Chinese.

Peking, though not entirely uninhibited, is much more venturesome in trying to maintain a balance between actively supporting revolutionary elements and strenuously courting governments which they wish to see liquidated. The Chinese tirelessly repeat that with few exceptions (Guinea, Mali, Algeria and Ghana) none of the African governments is truly independent; that their nominal independence can be made real only through violent struggle by the peasants and the proletariat; that there is no alternative to the use of force to liberate the economic resources and energies necessary for real progress. China’s own example of how to mobilize the masses strongly impresses radicals who deplore the massive wastage of their own human resources. And although there is no real evidence to show that Peking’s efforts are successful in winning the present leadership to China’s example of revolutionary struggle, nevertheless the teachings of Mao Tse-tung undoubtedly affect the ideas and tactics of younger radicals.

But in the last analysis, one is left with the overwhelmingly strong impression that Africans are less interested in the ideological teachings of Communism than in the practical support they hope to get from Peking and Moscow. The question arises: Who is using whom? Are the Communists successfully using the African radicals for their purposes or is it the other way around? At times it appears to be the former, but such victories as the Communists have had (the Congo rebellion is a good example) usually occur when there is a real coincidence of interests between them and the radical nationalists.

My own view is that African leaders who accept Communist help do so primarily because it suits their own interests to do so; they do not thereby become Communist converts or stooges. But they do undoubtedly feel a sense of gratitude for help received, and this might condition their sympathies if ever they should come to power. It would be well, therefore, to steer a cautious middle way between the attitudes of those who write off all recipients of Eastern aid as Communist stooges, and those who take the view that African leftist radicals can be relied upon to remain strictly non-aligned once they have got what they need from the Communists. This applies only to militant radicals who are not now in power. There is, so far, no evidence at all to support the view that African governments which receive economic or military aid from the Communists become instruments of Russian and Chinese policies any more than they do when taking Western aid. Obviously they are responsive to foreign pressures on particular issues, and some are more responsive to pressures from one side than the other; but on questions which touch the fundamentals of non-alignment, such pressures seldom produce results other than irritation.


A few major points should have now emerged. The first is that there is a considerable international involvement in the forces working for and against the survival of the present types of government in Africa and in influencing future leaders. If the governments now in power should continue to lose confidence in the West’s willingness and capacity to help them, or if they should fall because of their inability to meet the economic and social challenge facing them, one should expect to see a crop of much more radical governments emerge in Africa. The international orientation of these new radical governments will depend on the relative influence of the revolutionaries who receive backing from the Communists, as against that of the radical reformers who grow directly out of the African nationalist tradition and who have tried to avoid international entanglements.

Even if the present governments should successfully survive, it is probable (especially in French-speaking Africa) that they will do so by adopting much more radical policies both in their internal policies and in their external relations. The outcome of the contest for power, therefore, is unlikely to be between moderates and radicals, but between radical reformers and revolutionaries. In African terms the struggle is seen not as lying between Western and Communist influence, but as between different brands of African nationalism and socialism as opposed to foreign ideologies.

One final, perhaps crucial factor contributing to the growth of radicalism is Africa’s emotional involvement in the question of color. The anti-colonial struggle was not only a negative repudiation of foreign control and a rejection of European hegemony. It was also a positive assertion of the right and capacity of black men to take charge of their own destiny for the first time in several centuries.

The fulfillment of this historic mission required the removal of all forms of inequality between the former white dominators and the black underdog. Hence the aggressive insistence on an independent African presence in international affairs, the elimination of economic dependence and the Pan-Africanist assertion of a “Hands off Africa” policy not unlike the Monroe Doctrine. Of central importance to the achievement of these objectives is the removal of the last vestiges of “colonialism” in the continent—white overlordship in the Portuguese territories, in Rhodesia and in South Africa. The gravest offense to Africans is the practice of white supremacy on the African continent itself. The practice is symbolized by apartheid. On this single issue there are no “moderates” in Africa; all the leaders are agreed on the need to destroy white supremacy. They are also agreed as to method—direct and active support for the underground liberation movements; diplomatic isolation of South Africa, Portugal and Rhodesia; total economic sanctions.

For the African states the struggle against apartheid is a moral crusade. As with all crusaders they insist on a clear-cut division between their allies and their enemies. The Communists support them, albeit for their own particular reasons; the West opposes them—for this is the way Africans regard the West’s equivocal policies over Portugal and South Africa.

This total African involvement over South Africa, in particular, has produced a continental climate of opinion that is strong everywhere but strongest among the youth. It is angry. It is resentful. It is militant. It could become openly racist and vengeful. It is directed not only at Dr. Verwoerd’s régime but also against those who appear to support it directly or indirectly. This attitude was expressed in clear terms by the first summit meeting of African heads of state in Addis Ababa in 1963 in a resolution which “informs the allies of colonial powers that they must choose between their friendship for the African peoples, and their support of powers that oppress African peoples.”

The crusade against South Africa invests the militant radicals and the anti-Western forces with powerful weapons. The Communists are in a strong position to exploit these emotions in order to cast doubts on the integrity of Western motives in Africa. African suspicions about the Western role in Southern Africa strongly reinforce fears about neo-colonialism.

Most African leaders (including Presidents Nasser, Nkrumah and Nyerere) have publicly stated that neo-colonialism is not confined to the West. But because of the dominance of Western authority over Africa in the past and because of its continuing close involvement with African governments at present, the natural tendency is to associate the major threat of neo-colonialism with the West. This explains (without necessarily justifying) why the United States rather than China was singled out for special attack by the Organization of African Unity for supplying military aid to Prime Minister Tshombe’s government. Because of Mr. Tshombe’s own past record, anybody who helps him is almost certain to be accused of neo-colonialism by the majority of African leaders.

For the immediate future it is safe to predict that militant radicalism and anti-Western feelings will merge closely as the struggle in the Portuguese territories and South Africa grows sharper. The denouement of this struggle is likely to have a strong influence on the role and orientation of African radicalism.

Today the swing is against the West. It could swing strongly against the Communists if they persist in their efforts to involve Africa deeply in the Sino-Soviet rivalry. How far the swing goes against the West or turns against the Communists will depend to a considerable extent on the way Western policies measure up to the three crucial tests which emerge from this analysis: the challenge of the color clash in Southern Africa, the demands of economic development, and the Pan-Africanist insistence that outside powers not intervene in African affairs, except on terms acceptable to its protagonists.

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  • COLIN LEGUM, African correspondent of The Observer, London; co-author of “South Africa: Crisis for the West,” author of “Congo Disaster,” “Must Lose Africa?” and “Pan-Africanism”
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