Cold war adversaries used the African continent as their boxing ring

Cold war adversaries used the African continent as their boxing ring


Superpower rivalry complicated the efforts of new African nations to achieve peace and stability. As these nations sought financial and technical assistance from both the Soviet Union and the United States, they often found themselves caught up in the Cold War.


Angola. When civil war broke out in Angola after independence in 1975, the United States and the Soviet Union rushed arms and support to the rival factions. Soviet military advisers and Cuban troops supported the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) received aid from the United States. Fearing that the MPLA might assist Marxist rebels in Namibia, South Africa also supported UNITA. The MPLA eventually gained control, but about 50,000 Cuban troops stayed in Angola to help fight off continued attacks by UNITA.

For the next 12 years, Angola became a battleground for the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. When tensions between the two superpowers eased, moves were made to end the civil war in Angola. A regional agreement that linked independence for Namibia with the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola was reached in 1988. In May 1991, the MPLA and UNITA hammered out a peace treaty that also called for free elections late in 1992. The continued hostility between MPLA and UNITA leaders, however, left the success of the treaty in question.


The Horn of Africa. Soviet-American rivalry was even more complex in the Horn of Africa, a strategic area that includes Ethiopia and Somalia. The Horn overlooks the Red Sea as well as the Indian Ocean sea-lanes to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. It is also an area of relative instability, characterized by frequent border disputes and local independence movements.


Although the United States had established a military base in Ethiopia in the 1950s, when the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, a Marxist regime came to power. To support the socialist governments in Ethiopia and in nearby Somalia, the Soviet Union provided military aid and advisers. Cuban troops were stationed in Ethiopia. Although the Soviet Union gained a temporary advantage, it had provided arms to two traditionally hostile neighbors. When Somalia invaded Ethiopia in 1977, the Soviets supported Ethiopia. Somalia was defeated in 1978 by Cuban troops with Soviet weapons, but guerrilla fighting in the region continued until 1988.


The topsy-turvy situation created by superpower rivalry demonstrated that African nations often preferred practical assistance to ideological commitments. This became even clearer in the 1980s and early 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. In 1984 a worldwide relief effort was initiated to help Ethiopia during a severe drought. Somalia, also devastated by drought, called on its Arab neighbors and the United States for aid. Despite financial support, in 1991 the military dictatorships in both Somalia and Ethiopia collapsed. Their overthrow, however, only brought more problems.

Somalia descended into civil war as different clans and rival warlords fought for power. The fighting prevented humanitarian aid from reaching victims of the drought. Consequently, at the urging of the United States, in 1992 an international force, under the authority of the United Nations, intervened in Somalia. Unable to stop the bloodshed, the American-led force withdrew from the country in frustration in 1994.


Meanwhile Eritrea, a northern region of Ethiopia, won its independence after a long guerrilla war against the Ethiopian government.



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