NATO, Russia, and Africa: Cold War Lessons from the Non-Aligned Movement

Conversations in Africa and by Africans must continue to be centered on the continent's growth and development, rather than being overshadowed by the current superpower conflict.

During the four decades that the Cold War lasted, not one single bullet was fired within the territories of the two contending parties in the crisis, the United States and the former Soviet Union. Their territories were insulated from the numerous shots that were fired in Africa by both countries in what became known as “proxy wars.” In many cases, Africa’s immediate post-independence development crisis has been linked to the Cold War era’s unchecked interference in the continent’s internal affairs by the USSR and the US. To minimize Cold War collateral damage, African and Asian nations formed the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), an organization whose members aimed to distance themselves from the ideological warfare of the global super powers.

In the developing tensions Africa faces today as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is here argued that taking a non-aligned stance will, in the long and short term, serve Africa’s geostrategic interests much more than pitching their tent with either side in the crisis.

NATO, Warsaw Pact and Africa

The Cold War was the hostility that brewed after WWII between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other hand. The Cold War was exactly what it was: a war characterized by cold, enduring hostility between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

The Soviets were staunch communists who were convinced that their ideology should rule the world. They sought to extend communism to the whole world. The Soviet leadership was highly protective of the territories they controlled in Eastern Europe and built very strong communist governments across that region.

The ultra-capitalist Americans and the British, for their part, were fearful of the permanent dominance of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe as well as the encroachment of communism in Western Europe. 

The countries of Western Europe and the United States formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 for greater military cooperation and collective defense against the USSR. The Soviets went on to form the Warsaw Pact in 1955, which was comprised of the European communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Expanding their global spheres of influence was crucial for both nations in the conflict. One major way they both went about realizing that ambition was by recruiting friendly governments in less-advanced countries whose territories could be utilized for hosting nuclear warfare or whose citizens could be mobilized in the case of conventional warfare. Africa was a fertile ground for the USSR and NATO’s global leadership ambitions.

From Colonialism to Superpower Dominance

The end of WWII and the massive loss of life, and destruction it brought, heralded a period of soul searching in Europe about the unfairness of colonialism.  In addition, many Africans were becoming more assertive and were actively demanding independence from the Europeans. At the same time, the US and the USSR, which had no colonies, wanted a part of the African cake and were pushing for independence. Suddenly, Africans who wanted independence had platforms to voice their demands.

In addition, since WWII depleted many human and material resources in Europe, continued colonialism in Africa for all the stated reasons became unsustainable. Independence was granted to African countries, often with minimum economic and other support from their former colonizers. The United States and the Soviet Union stepped in to fill the void left by the former colonizers.

Unchecked, the United States and the former Soviet Union openly and excessively interfered in and controlled the political economies of many countries in Africa, south of the Sahara. Covertly, their secret services planned and executed wars, coups, counter-coups, insurgencies, economic crashes, and just about any strategy that could destabilize African states. The target was to ensure dominance and control. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were killed in wars in the Congo Crisis (1960–1965), in the Ogaden War (1977–78), in the Angolan Civil War (1975–2002), in the South African Border War/Namibian War of Independence (1966–1990), to mention a few. Progressive African leaders such as Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and others were killed, toppled or imprisoned. Several overt and covert measures aimed at ensuring that African economies remained dependent on either the Eastern or the Western bloc in the conflict were pursued by the super powers. 

The Non-Aligned Movement

To avoid being caught in the Cold War crossfire that engulfed the globe, some countries of Africa and Asia came together to form the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). At its first meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, countries took a decision to delink from the East vs. West ideological conflict.

As a prerequisite for membership, the nations of the Non-Aligned Movement were not allowed to be members of any multilateral military alliance (such as NATO) or negotiate a bilateral military accord with one of the super powers. Moreover, equity was – and remains – the watchword among member states of the Non-Aligned Movement, where all members are given equal weight, unlike in the United Nations.

Member states of the Non-Aligned Movement are not passive onlookers in global affairs, but strong proponents and advocates of self-determination who speak out strongly against all forms of imperialism. It became an umbrella term for developing countries to come together to vocalize their interests and have an impact on world affairs outside of the overarching topic of the Cold War.

Unlike the Warsaw Pact, which was disbanded along with the rest of the USSR, the Non-Aligned Movement remained functional until this date. Although the end of the Cold War led the organization to reassess its relevance in global affairs, the movement continues to champion interdependency, mutual respect for all nations, and an end to imperialism.

Africa and the Ukraine Conflict

In today’s Russia-Ukraine war, where both sides in the conflict and their allies have historical and contemporary axes to grind with each other, Africa can plead its membership in the Non-Aligned Movement to maintain a middle ground in its response to the conflict. Maintaining a middle ground does not translate to keeping mute on the humanitarian aspect of the crisis, with emphasis on the situation of Africans in Ukraine. Yet, such utterances must be tempered with diplomacy and a clear message of what it hopes to achieve, which is the protection of civilian life. Nothing in such statements should indicate an opinion or a point of view on either side of the unfolding crisis.

Africans should not, as advocated by the Non-Aligned Movement, allow the current Russia/Ukraine rattle to deter them from strongly focusing on their pursuit of economic, social, and political advancement, independent of the feuding nations. Conversations in Africa and by Africans must continue to be centered on the continent’s growth and development, rather than being overshadowed by the current superpower conflict. After all, grave injustices against Africa have been perpetuated by all parties in the Russian/Ukraine conflict and their supporters. Aligning with any side will only result in a harvest of even graver consequences for Africa down the line.


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