essays

Jul 1, 1978

The Plumb Line: Getting Tough in Zaire

Rothbard explores the difficulties of maintaining American hegemony in the post-colonial world.

The Establishment media put it this way: After shilly-shallying in a weak and indecisive manner, the Carter administration has at last decided to “get tough” in Africa against the Cuban (and behind them the Soviet) menace. President Carter himself has kept up a drumfire of hysteria about the spectre of Cuban troops in the recent invasions of the Shaba province of Zaire from bases in Angola. This bogey was used as the pretext for America’s decision to go military in its continuing intervention in Africa. Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were kept on the alert while American planes were used to fly Belgian and French paratroopers into Kolwezi, in Shaba province, to successfully put down the rebellion. The “integrity” of Zaire was, temporarily, saved once again, and the Cubans beaten back.

Except there are several things very wrong with this picture. For one, the Cubans deny vehemently and absolutely, privately and publicly, that they had anything—directly or indirectly—to do with the invasion. Now, the Cubans are no more above a little deception than any other government; but the unsettling point is that, until now, the Cubans have not been at all shy in proclaiming their role in responding to invitations by friendly left-wing governments in Africa. In Angola and in Ethiopia they have boasted of their military success; why the sudden attack of bashfulness in Zaire?

Furthermore, the sources of Carter’s information on the alleged role of the Cubans are highly tainted. The information comes, proximately, from the CIA, which has lied through its teeth to everyone, especially the American public and Congress, for many years, not the least on its role in the civil war in Angola. Senator McGovern has challenged the CIA to prove its contentions about the Cubans, so far without success. Reports are that the CIA got its information from the French, who in turn got the charge from Dr. Jonas Savimbi, the colorful “pro-American” guerrilla leader in Angola, who is hardly the most sober of reporters.

From Carter’s whining about Congress tying his hands on interfering with Angola, it is clear that the real purpose of his getting tough in Zaire was as a prelude to resuming U.S. intervention in the civil war in Angola. Carter is displaying unmitigated gall in trying to revive our Angolan adventure, for the whistle has just been blown on the hidden and nefarious CIA role in the Angolan conflict of 1975-76 in a new book by John Stockwell, In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story. Stockwell, it should be noted, was no less than the head of the CIA operation in Angola. In his book, Stockwell confirms what a few “paranoid” antiwar Americans charged at the time: that at each step escalating the Angolan conflict, the Soviets intervened with aid only after the United States did, through the CIA; the Soviet role was never initiatory but only reactive. Furthermore, the Cuban troop shipment came only after South Africa sent its troops into Angola on behalf of the “pro-Western” side, an intervention that was hailed by and coordinated with the CIA. Moreover, Stockwell reveals that “after the war we learned that Cuba had not been ordered into action by the Soviet Union. To the contrary, the Cuban leaders felt compelled to intervene for their own ideological reasons.”

Not only was Holden Roberto, the “pro-Western” Angolan leader, on the CIA payroll for years, but dozens of CIA officers were dispatched to manage all the branches, military and propaganda, of the Roberto side during the civil war. Furthermore, Stockwell reveals that Ford, Kissinger, the Pentagon, and the CIA were pondering about escalating the Angolan intervention into a full-scale, Vietnam-type conflict—this, astoundingly, only months after the debacle in Vietnam itself! The administration working group in charge of the covert operations in Angola contemplated sending in American army units, a show of American naval strength, and even weighed “the feasibility of making an overt military feint at Cuba itself to force Castro to recall his troops and defend the home island.”

Only one thing stopped these nefarious plans of the Ford-Kissinger administration: the solidly antiwar sentiment in Congress and in the American population. Alert to some of the CIA shenanigans in Angola, the Congress barred any use of 1976 defense budget funds for intervention in Angola. It is these restrictions that Carter now yearns to reverse. He must not be allowed to get away with it.

There is irony piled upon irony in the Zaire-Shaba story. If they are not “outside Cuban agitators,” who are the nasty disturbers of the peace in Shaba province? Are they Commies? Does anyone remember the “heroic Katanga freedom fighters” of the early 1960s? They were beloved by the American right wing, because they were the only black liberationists and independence fighters who seemed to be right wing and procapitalist. In fact, they fought hard, from 1960 to 1963, for the independence of Katanga from the central government of the Congo, now renamed Zaire. Katanga has almost all the copper and cobalt, the major export commodities of Zaire, and the Katangans were backed in those days by Belgian copper-mining interests .

The American right wing, however, never really understood the Katangans. In fact, neither the right nor the left comprehend the real problem in Africa: the central fact that there is not a single African “nation” that is truly a nation, that has any coherent or unified language, nationality, or culture. The frontiers of the African nations were all inherited from the frontiers established by Western imperialism in the late 19th century, when Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain rushed in to grab as many areas of Africa as they could. The frontiers established by the imperialists were artificial administrative boundaries, with no relation to the true nationalities in Africa—the tribes. The boundaries incorporated dozens of totally separate and even warring tribes into one “nation,” while cutting through and artificially dividing areas held by specific tribes. There are no genuine African nations; they are geographical expressions only.

Vitally important to modern African history was the fact that the imperial powers trained a small minority of African natives as a cooperating, or “comprador,” elite to administer the country under the aegis of the imperial masters. Generally, this native elite was trained in universities of the home country. Western universities being what they are, the elite imbibed Marxist and Fabian socialist ideology. Superficially, one might think that this socialism ran counter to the interests of the imperial power, but this was only true “externally,” that is, in struggling over who would rule this centralized nation-state. For internally, the socialist ideology coexisted very cozily with the imperialists’ desire to centralize the country, to “modernize” it under statist direction, and to exploit the native population for the benefit of the administrative state authorities.

Generally, this meant the coercion and exploitation of the native rural peasantry on behalf of the ruling urban elite in the capital city. The only real difference between the Western imperialists and the native socialists was over who would constitute the state.

As a result, when the weakened Western empires began to withdraw from Africa after World War II, the artificial, central governmental structure was simply turned over to the existing, educated, native socialist elite. Thus, imperialism’s parting legacy to Africa was to ensure generations of exploitation of the native rural tribes by the new power elite in charge of the parasitic urban centers.

In the former Belgian Congo, the United States and the Communists opted for competing central governments. The United States favors strong central governments everywhere, the better to influence and dominate the country, so as not to have to worry about revolution or “destabilization” of the status quo anywhere on the globe. The United States’ man in the Congo was General (now President) Mobutu, for many years on the CIA payroll, and the brother-in-law of “Angola’s” Holden Roberto. The reason for this seeming anomaly is that the western Congo and adjoining northern Angola are both the home of the same Bakongo tribe, of which Mobutu and Roberto are leading members. The Communists, also in favor of centralized government, put their hopes on Patrice Lumumba, whose strength was centered on the tribes in the northeastern Congo. In the meanwhile, the Lunda tribe in southern Katanga province, 1500 miles away from the capital city, Kinshasa, tried to break away from central governmental rule. After five years of fighting and maneuvering, with the help of U.N. troops and the murder of Lumumba by CIA-hired thugs, the United States’ man Mobutu took over power in the Congo.

Several thousand of the Katangan freedom fighters refused to give up, and instead fled westward to Angola, where they took up arms for the Portuguese to try to crush Roberto, relative of the hated Mobutu. When the Portuguese left Angola in 1975, the Katangans naturally joined forces with the next great enemy of Roberto, the pro-Communist MPLA, which finally crushed Roberto the following year. The Katangans, their province renamed Shaba, were now aided by the new regime to get back to their homeland. If we persist in looking at the Katangans in Cold War categories, we could say that, once ultra-capitalists, they have unaccountably shifted in the past 15 years to become “pro-Communitss.” But that would be absurd. These men are simply Katangans, fighting again for their old cause. Outside of that, they are no better and no worse than the other fighting groups and tribes in the area.

Since Roberto has been smashed, the United States now looks longingly at the guerrilla forces of UNITA, headed by Dr. Jonas Savimbi. Savimbi’s “anti-Communist” forces have indeed seized control of virtually all of southern Angola. The reason is that Savimbi is solidly based on the Ovimbundu tribe, which populates southern Angola, whereas both the MPLA and the old Roberto group are strong only among the northern tribes.

If the United States would only keep its mitts off, there would probably be continuing Savimbi rule in southern Angola, and the swollen monstrosity that is the “nation” of Zaire would crumble into more workable constituent parts that are based in tribal realities. There would be one less reason for the United States to get into a war or to step up its military spending. Would that be such a dire fate for central Africa or for ourselves?