White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa 
by Susan Williams.
Hurst, 651 pp., £25, September 2021, 978 1 78738 555 9
Show More
Cold War Liberation: The Soviet Union and the Collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961-75 
by Natalia Telepneva.
North Carolina, 302 pp., £37.95, June, 978 1 4696 6586 3
Show More
Show More

Textbook histories​ used to claim that independence in Africa was more or less complete by the mid-1960s. Decolonisation had lifted the white man’s burden and allowed African activists to strike out on their own – with a ceremonial nod to their European benefactors. But if this characterisation was absurd, so was the notion that colonial rule in Africa was an anomaly by the 1970s: millions of people, South Africans and Zimbabweans among them, were still battling white minority rule, and the struggle was becoming more intense as the Cold War drew on. The Soviet Union and the US both had a role in the making and unmaking of Africa’s independence movements, from the relative success of decolonisation in Ghana through the disaster of the Belgian Congo to the costly war that followed Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975. In almost every case, as Susan Williams explains in White Malice, the US, attended by the former colonial powers, fought hard to influence the turn of events; before long, as Natalia Telepneva shows in Cold War Liberation, her account of decolonisation in Portuguese Africa, Moscow and Beijing were staking their own claims to Africa’s postcolonial future.

Ghana achieved independence in March 1957. George Padmore, the Trinidadian Pan-Africanist, and his partner, Dorothy Pizer, travelled to Accra to celebrate the end of British rule. On 6 March, the prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, told an audience at the Old Polo Grounds that ‘the battle has ended and Ghana, our beloved country, is free.’ But Padmore wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. Much to their surprise, as Leslie James recounts in George Padmore and Decolonisation from Below (2014), Padmore and Pizer had found themselves flying to Ghana ‘on a VIP plane with former British governors, the British parliamentary delegation, the Norwegian ambassador and delegations from China, Burma and Malaya’. The presence of Ghana’s former colonisers was disturbing. As C.L.R. James recalled, Padmore had turned to him that evening and said: ‘The people who are dancing here are the ones who opposed … independence.’

He wanted to hold a different gathering, one that would bring together activists from Africa and its diaspora to discuss decolonisation. The first All-African People’s Conference took place at the Accra Community Centre in December 1958. More than three hundred African political and trade union leaders were in attendance, including Kenneth Kaunda, Hastings Banda and Frantz Fanon. The number of women delegates was small, but Eslanda Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Maida Springer and Marthe Ouandié made sure some of their concerns were addressed. The conference was chaired by Tom Mboya, a Kenyan trade union activist who, it later transpired, was in close contact with the CIA. As Williams writes, ‘the US had, in fact, been well represented throughout the conference – in covert and unforeseen ways.’ Washington funded a number of political and cultural organisations, with the aim of keeping African nations out of Moscow’s sphere of influence. The Africa-America Institute, for example, which sent Horace Mann Bond (president of Nkrumah’s alma mater, Lincoln University) to the conference, was a CIA front.

The USSR was entering a period of renewed enthusiasm for the Third World. The break with Stalinism that was marked by Khrushchev’s secret speech at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 provided an opportunity to renew the Comintern’s anti-imperialist and anti-racist mission. ‘The main thrust of Khrushchev’s policy in the Third World,’ Telepneva writes, ‘was to revive Soviet socialism based on an idealist notion of “Leninist principles”.’ Because the USSR had no military presence in Africa, it relied on the work of intelligence services – the GRU and the KGB – and institutions such as the International Department to conduct a Cold War on the cheap. (The CIA-funded American Society of African Culture, by contrast, was known as ‘Uncle Moneybags’.) In the process, mid-level Soviet bureaucrats, or mezhdunarodniki, became what Telepneva calls ‘mediators of liberation’: intermediaries between anti-colonial activists and a Soviet leadership that had yet to offer its full military and diplomatic support.

There were also opportunities for internationalists such as Boris Ponomarev, head of the International Department, or Ivan Potekhin, the first director of the Institute for African Studies. Potekhin and Ponomarev belonged to a small but influential group of party officials known as the ‘Cominternians’, who were, Telepneva writes, ‘the rare survivors of the Stalinist purges’ – Ponomarev had been denounced as a Trotskyist – ‘who remained committed to socialist internationalism and welcomed Khrushchev’s policy in the Third World’. Potekhin’s attendance at the All-African People’s Conference was a sign of things to come.

The Soviets took note of the Portuguese colonial students in Lisbon in the 1950s, among them Agostinho Neto, later the first president of Angola; Mário Pinto de Andrade, who founded the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA); the Portuguese Guinean anti-colonial activist Amílcar Cabral; and Marcelino dos Santos, who became a founding member of the Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo). They were all members of the mestiço-assimilado elite, a social class of colonial subjects considered to be sufficiently ‘civilised’ to qualify for full rights as Portuguese citizens. The scholarships they received were intended to shape colonial administrators. Instead, the students gathered at the Casa dos Estudantes do Império, a centre in Lisbon that was founded by white African-born students sympathetic to the regime of the Portuguese dictator, Salazar – to discuss the future of Portugal’s African colonies (or, more specifically, how to get rid of the Portuguese). As Andrade later recalled, the group became increasingly interested in Marxist ideas and established contacts with Portuguese communists, although relations were often strained – the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) thought the independence of African nations secondary to the class struggle in Portugal itself. In 1951, Andrade, dos Santos and Neto were arrested following a PCP-sponsored action in Lisbon. Fed up with constant harassment by the secret police, Andrade and dos Santos eventually left for Paris. Neto remained in Portugal, but spent much of the 1950s in prison.

In the autumn of 1958, the USSR invited dos Santos, Andrade and his friend Viriato Francisco Clemente da Cruz to the first Conference of African and Asian Writers in Soviet Uzbekistan. The event brought together 196 writers from 50 countries, including the 90-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois, who flew in from Moscow. Andrade remembered it as a ‘literary Bandung’: a historic meeting of non-aligned writers. (The Soviets had failed to send any delegates to the 1955 Bandung conference of non-aligned nations.) Other African writers were unconvinced. In the lead-up to the conference, Alioune Diop, the Senegalese founder of the influential Paris-based journal Présence africaine, had expressed concerns about Soviet involvement, which he believed would detract from the focus on Black writing and art. When the Soviets refused to pull out, Diop and his journal boycotted the conference. (In its internal report, the Writers’ Union branded him a ‘hostile bourgeois nationalist’.) Andrade, who had joined Présence africaine as an editor in Paris, was bitterly disappointed. During his time in Lisbon, he’d been enamoured with the Négritude poets Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, both close collaborators of the journal, and thought of the Casa dos Estudantes do Império as the ‘political home’ of Portuguese Négritude, even if, by the time of the Tashkent conference, he had shifted to the left and considered Négritude too bourgeois to be of any use to anti-colonial activists.

China too had stepped up its efforts to spread its ideology in Africa through military and cultural programmes. Dos Santos and Viriato da Cruz became infatuated with Maoism after their visits to China in 1954 and 1958. ‘The time spent in China,’ dos Santos later reported, ‘was a real school in Marxism-Leninism.’ Viriato da Cruz, the most committed Maoist of the Angolan anti-colonialists, regarded Khrushchev’s policy of peaceful co-existence as a betrayal of the principles of Marxism-Leninism. Neto disagreed: he remained much closer to the Portuguese Communist Party, which took its cue from Moscow. When Viriato da Cruz drafted the first manifesto of the MPLA – an organisation he and Andrade hoped would bring together the country’s disparate nationalist movements – neither Beijing nor Moscow had enough influence to determine its ideological position. In 1966, Viriato da Cruz opted for exile in China, where he remained until his death in 1973.

Cabral’s contacts with Soviet mezhdunarodniki were limited. He had returned to his country of birth, Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), after graduating in 1950, and worked as an agronomist for the colonial government. He made regular field trips not only to study Guinea’s social structure and soil – he conducted its first agricultural census – but to assess the readiness of the population for a war of liberation. Cabral’s anti-colonial activism angered the Portuguese secret police: he was forced into exile and in May 1960 settled in Conakry, capital of the neighbouring Republic of Guinea, which had become independent from France in 1958. Here, with the blessing of the Guinean president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Cabral set up the headquarters of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). Viriato da Cruz and Andrade had also made their way to Conakry in search of a base for the MPLA. But Touré had his own difficulties. Within months of independence, his Democratic Party of Guinea had been forced to go in search of foreign aid. After Guinea rejected an offer to remain in the French community and retain the colonial currency, France responded with Opération Persil, a covert plan to destabilise Touré’s government through economic and military sabotage. He could only hope to mitigate the damage with assistance from Warsaw Pact states.

Czechoslovakia set up a small intelligence station in Guinea in 1960. Miroslav Adámek (code-named ‘Alter’), an intelligence officer stationed in Conakry, was convinced that Cabral could be a valuable asset and persuaded his superiors to recruit him as a ‘confidential contact’. The Soviets shared Cabral’s critical view of the African socialism of Nkrumah and Touré, which broke with Soviet orthodoxy and claimed to offer a ‘third way’. Adámek was instrumental in arranging Cabral’s visits to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union between 1960 and 1961. Prague went on to supply the PAIGC with a monthly stipend and light weapons. With its engagement in Africa, Telepneva writes, the ČSSR wanted to ‘profit from arms sales, but also to gain prestige among members of the Warsaw Pact’.

There were factors other than ideology and Chinese competition driving the USSR’s entry into Africa. CIA activity in the former Belgian Congo (hereafter, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC) contributed to Khrushchev’s conviction that peaceful competition between the US and the Soviet Union in the Third World was impossible. Williams records the CIA’s collusion with mercenaries, business interests and the Belgian government in order to secure access to raw materials (copper, cobalt, diamonds and tin). CIA agents on the ground, hyper-alert to the small Soviet presence, fuelled fears of a communist takeover. In a cable from Léopoldville in 1960, the CIA chief of station, Larry Devlin, warned that ‘embassy and station believe Congo experiencing classic communist effort [to]take over government. Many forces at work here: Soviets, Czechs, Guineans, Ghanaians, Communist Party etc.’ There wasn’t much truth in these claims. ‘At its height,’ David Gibbs writes in The Political Economy of Third World Intervention (1991), ‘the communist intervention in the Congo comprised no more than 380 Soviets and Czechoslovaks – against 14,000 UN troops and many thousands of Belgian military officers, mercenaries and technical aides.’ The agents’ paranoia resulted from their own double-dealing rather than any real Soviet threat, though their suspicion that Moscow might hope to provide a bulwark against America’s neocolonial interests was accurate enough.

The DRC was on the brink of civil war. On 11 July 1960, less than a month after independence, Moïse Tshombe declared the secession of the resource-rich Katanga region; Albert Kalonji soon followed suit by announcing that his ethnic group, the Baluba, were creating their own semi-autonomous state in neighbouring South Kasai. While Tshombe and Kalonji maintained cordial relations with Joseph Kasavubu’s national government, they resented the leftist prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, an outspoken critic of Belgian neocolonialism. The Katanga and South Kasai secessions – referred to by Western media as ‘the Congo Crisis’ – were funded by Belgian and American business interests. As Thomas Kanza explained a decade later in Conflict in the Congo (1972), the separatists ‘were dependent, ideologically and financially, on the mining companies. Their political motives were dictated by the Europeans who made common cause with them.’ The mining companies themselves could count on the protection of Belgian officers, who still dominated the army, and (mostly white) private mercenaries. The Congolese soldiers, however, were fed up: a week before the Katanga secession a mutiny against white officers had broken out in the Léopoldville and Thysville garrisons of the army. Belgium quickly dispatched troops to suppress the rebellion under the guise of protecting its citizens.

As Williams explains, the Americans were confident that the Katanga secession would protect the Shinkolobwe uranium mine from nationalisation – and from a Soviet hand in any new arrangements. Congolese uranium had been essential to the Manhattan Project; during the Second World War, the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) had set up a station in the Belgian Congo to protect the ore from both the Soviets and the Nazis. As the Cold War came to a head in the 1950s, the US agreed to fund Belgium’s nuclear energy programme in order to maintain the supply. Two first-generation reactors were built as a consequence, one in Belgium and one in the Belgian Congo. In August 1960, the US Atomic Energy Commission asked Devlin to disable it in the event of a Soviet takeover by removing the fuel rods from the reactor – a reckless mission he declined.

Lumumba appealed to Eisenhower for help with the Katanga rebellion, but was told to ask the UN instead. Its secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld, resolved to help the Congolese government, and the Security Council passed a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Belgian troops. It also promised to provide strategic assistance. But Lumumba failed to persuade Hammarskjöld to send UN troops into Katanga. The secretary general’s reluctance to support a military invasion further undermined the authority of the central government. The relationship between Lumumba and Hammarskjöld deteriorated and Lumumba turned instead to the Soviets, who quickly sent military advisers, adding to the US’s alarm. Lumumba’s deputy, Antoine Gizenga, was even less taken with the UN, and approached Ghana.

Ghana’s remarkable diplomatic apparatus was central to Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist foreign policy. ‘Nkrumah’s Ghana,’ according to Leslie James, ‘allowed African nationalist movements to avoid metropolitan institutions and instead look to locales with similar historical experiences in order to think through “political alternatives” for their postcolonial futures.’ White Malice also discusses Nkrumah’s diplomatic failures – not least his decision to put Major General Henry Templer Alexander, a British officer appointed as Ghana’s interim chief of defence, in charge of overseeing Accra’s diplomatic mission to Léopoldville. Alexander didn’t speak French; he was close to the American ambassador, Clare Hayes Timberlake; and he made frequent overtures to the Belgian generals.

William Burden, the US ambassador in Brussels, wrote to the State Department that ‘Lumumba has now manoeuvred himself into a position of opposition to the West, resistance to United Nations and increasing dependence on Soviet Union.’ The best response ‘must therefore be to destroy Lumumba government as now constituted, but at same time we must find or develop another horse to back’. The odds-on candidate was Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, probably recruited by Devlin at the end of the 1950s. Mobutu was already in the service of Belgian intelligence and working as a journalist in Brussels. Devlin took a liking to him: he was intelligent, ambitious and charming. More important, Mobutu had met Lumumba in 1959 in Ibadan, at a conference sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom – a CIA front. Lumumba saw him as a friend and supporter. Others weren’t convinced and feared that Lumumba would ruin them: ‘He’s too easy,’ Gizenga complained. They were furious when Mobutu was appointed chief of staff to the Armée Nationale Congolaise.

Before long, Lumumba’s enemies closed in: on 5 September, Kasavubu illegally dismissed Lumumba as prime minister, citing his decision to involve the Soviets in Katanga. Gizenga, too, was dismissed. When Lumumba was later arrested, Andrew Djin, Nkrumah’s envoy to the DRC, intervened to secure his release but the damage was already done. On 14 September, Mobutu announced that the army had seized power and suspended civilian rule; Kasavubu hurriedly signed a decree to legalise Mobutu’s military dictatorship. The Soviet and Czech embassies were closed and their diplomats expelled.

The differences between the Soviet and American approaches to Cold War intervention in the Third World are striking. Both used ‘intimate’ relationships between intelligence agents and anti-colonial activists to shape the outcome of decolonisation. But while many of Telepneva’s mezhdunarodniki considered their work a ‘sacred duty’, Williams’s CIA agents were largely indifferent to the effects of their actions. A CIA staff manual from 1954 recommended ‘a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface’ as the simplest way to cover up a murder. Poison was better still. Sidney Gottlieb, a biochemist who had overseen the CIA’s drug experiments, developed a kit to poison Lumumba and planned to travel to Léopoldville to hand it over to Devlin. But Devlin realised he wasn’t likely to get close enough and cabled his minders requesting a rifle instead. ‘HUNTING GOOD HERE,’ he wrote, ‘WHEN LIGHTS RIGHT.’

After talks with Kasavubu broke down, Lumumba’s residence was surrounded by UN and Congolese army troops. Mobutu’s forces hoped to separate Lumumba from his supporters by keeping him under unofficial house arrest; Hammarskjöld’s were there to ensure his safety. On the night of 27 November 1960, Lumumba left the residence. No one learned of his departure until the next morning. Gizenga was in Stanleyville (now Kisangani) and urged Lumumba to join him. But by now the CIA was ahead of the game. Devlin was alerted by a cable from a fellow agent: ‘Political followers in Stanleyville desire that [Lumumba] break out of his confinement and proceed to that city by car to engage in political activity.’ Another agent, Justin O’Donnell, who had drawn up plans to lure Lumumba away from his guards, refused orders to kill him, hoping instead to deliver him to his enemies. O’Donnell’s plan came good: Lumumba was captured on the road by Mobutu’s officers and flown to Katanga, where he was murdered within hours. The CIA’s broad agenda for the DRC was supported, Williams writes, ‘by the highest level of the government’. The so-called Special Group, a subcommittee of the National Security Council responsible for covert operations, had given the CIA station in Léopoldville the green light and wired Devlin $100,000 to finish the job.

Kennedy’sarrival in the White House signalled a shift in American foreign policy. As a senator he had been critical of France’s undeclared war in Algeria. Now he shocked the Washington establishment by siding with the Soviets at the UN Security Council on the question of Portuguese colonialism. Kennedy was keen to see Portugal withdraw from Angola, but was constrained by the need for access to Nato’s military base in the Azores, a Portuguese possession. The base was essential for US surveillance of Soviet submarine activity in the Atlantic and played an important role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The new direction promised by Kennedy was shortlived. Lyndon Johnson showed little interest in Africa and normalised relations with Portugal.

Portugal had valuable colonies in Africa besides Angola. One of them was Mozambique. In 1963, Eduardo Mondlane, the leader of Frelimo, approached Robert Kennedy in the hope of securing funding. Kennedy was impressed with Mondlane and offered him $60,000 through the Ford Foundation, which, as Williams points out, was closely linked to the CIA. This didn’t sit well with the Soviets, who were supporting Frelimo financially and logistically and who were already suspicious of Mondlane and his American wife. Mondlane had met Marcelino dos Santos when he was in Lisbon in the 1950s with Cabral and Neto; harassed by Portuguese security, he had eventually left for the US (an unusual move for Africans from Portuguese colonies) to study at Oberlin and Northwestern. By the time he arrived in Dar es Salaam, he had an international network of contacts, including former colleagues from the UN. But these relationships came at a cost. Shortly after Mondlane assumed the presidency of Frelimo, an American CIA agent called Leo Clinton Aldridge (alias Leo Milas) infiltrated the organisation. Moscow’s confidence in him diminished further.

‘The Soviet interest in Frelimo,’ Telepneva writes, ‘picked up in 1964 after what the Soviets perceived to be revolutionary changes in East Africa, following a left-wing revolution in Zanzibar.’ But the Zanzibari revolution, which deposed the sultan and ended British indirect rule, wasn’t the clear-cut affair that Moscow had hoped for. Marxist intellectuals such as A.M. Babu had tried to guide the uprising towards an independent and socialist Zanzibar, but the revolution resulted in the unification of Zanzibar and Tanganyika (as Tanzania) under the ‘African socialist’ leadership of Julius Nyerere. Nyerere had called on London and Washington to help put down a mutiny at the Colito barracks in Dar es Salaam where, much like the Force Publique in Congo, the soldiers demanded the removal of white officers. The response was swift: as the New York Times reported, British troops ‘subdued eight hundred mutineers in a forty-minute assault’ with ‘one bazooka anti-tank rocket launcher and a lot of sharp fireworks’. Then the State Department took over and appointed Frank Carlucci, who had worked at the American embassy in Léopoldville, as its consul in Zanzibar (Carlucci became deputy director of the CIA in the late 1970s). Moscow had little contact with Nyerere, a close ally of Maoist China, but Tanzania became a home for exiled anti-colonial activists with whom the Soviets hoped to work. Despite their lingering doubts about Mondlane and Nyerere’s affiliations, they began providing weapons to Frelimo guerrillas via Dar es Salaam.

Like the MPLA, the Frelimo leadership was dominated by mestiço-assimilado elites, who enjoyed opportunities unavailable to most Mozambicans. This was a cause of conflict in the organisation, which, Telepneva observes, ‘was highly fractured from the start’. The party cadres and students who objected to Mondlane’s leadership, and to dos Santos’s role in drafting the party’s Marxist-Leninist constitution, were mostly ethnic Makonde ‘northerners’ who had taken Maoism as their model for revolutionary action. In March 1968, students at the Mozambique Institute in Dar es Salaam – set up by Mondlane and his wife to train Frelimo cadres – revolted and demanded the removal of white professors and the movement’s leadership. Mondlane eventually subdued the rebellion, but Moscow was concerned about his ability to rally mass support in northern Mozambique. The diplomatic situation was increasingly difficult: Moscow decided to withdraw funding to the party on account of Mondlane’s suspected CIA connections, and Beijing only dealt with Frelimo through Nyerere. Nkrumah, who might have offered help, had been deposed in a CIA-backed coup in 1966. Washington had cut off all assistance.

Cabral​ also faced a revolt in his party, the PAIGC. As Telepneva explains, many African students had become disillusioned with communism after experiencing racist attacks while studying in the Eastern Bloc. Several students on PAIGC scholarships joined a wave of anti-racist protests in 1963 that took Moscow (and Cabral) by surprise. But their criticism wasn’t directed at the Soviets so much as – again – at the mestiço-assimilado leadership. Both Frelimo and the PAIGC responded by suspending the students’ scholarships and launching a campaign against them. Meanwhile, China’s anti-Soviet tactics appeared to be working. In Tanzania, the TANU Youth League, modelled on the Red Guards, was spreading anti-Soviet propaganda. Even Nkrumah had shifted towards a pro-China position. But Cabral refused to sideline the Soviets, leading to a breakdown in relations between China and the PAIGC. Maoist intervention had failed to achieve the outcome Beijing envisaged: power was now concentrated around Cabral and Neto, who both favoured Soviet Marxism-Leninism as the means and end of independence from Portugal.

The situation in Guinea was increasingly precarious for the PAIGC. After the country became independent, Touré had approached Cabral with the idea of an eventual union with an independent Guinea-Bissau, but Cabral insisted that the PAIGC represented both the people of Guinea-Bissau and the islands of Cape Verde, also Portuguese holdings. Touré took offence and became less willing to provide bases and facilities to the PAIGC. He had also broken with the Soviets over their alleged involvement in the ‘teachers’ plot’, a movement by the teachers’ union whose intention, he believed, was to drive him from power. He dispatched his security forces to crush them.

Moscow hesitated to ship arms to the PAIGC, despite Cabral’s close relationship with Petr Evsiukov, a second generation mezhdunarodnik who had fought in the Red Army and was fluent in Portuguese. This changed when the PAIGC launched its guerrilla war in 1963. In 1965, Moscow opened a facility at Perevalnoe in Crimea for PAIGC, MPLA and Frelimo guerrillas. Cabral’s network of contacts, as Telepneva points out, ‘included supporters in Ghana, Algeria, Morocco, Czechoslovakia, Cuba and the Nordic countries’, but his relationship with Cuba was fraught. When Che Guevara passed through Conakry in 1963, he urged Cabral to send a detachment of PAIGC guerrillas to fight alongside Gizenga loyalists, who had launched a rebellion against Mobutu from the Republic of the Congo. Cabral refused; Guevara nonetheless offered to train a unit of Cape Verdean troops in Cuba. In 1966, Cabral attended the first Tricontinental Conference in Havana, at which Castro resolved to send personnel and supplies to the PAIGC. (Cape Verdean fighters were welcomed for combat training.) But Cabral clashed with his Cuban advisers: he favoured a long war of attrition, for which they had little appetite.

In due course, the PAIGC took control of vast parts of Guinea-Bissau, even as anti-colonial activists elsewhere in Portuguese Africa faced devastating setbacks. On 3 February 1969, Mondlane was killed by a bomb hidden in a book which had been sent to his office in Dar es Salaam. The parcel was franked in Moscow, but this turned out to be a forgery: ‘the assassination,’ Telepneva writes, ‘bore clear signs of Portuguese involvement.’ The Soviets suspected that Mondlane’s idiosyncratic approach to foreign policy was a factor: he had alienated the US, China, Cuba, Algeria and even his hosts in Tanzania. Cabral met a similar fate: he was shot in Conakry in 1973 – shortly before Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde gained formal independence – in a last-ditch attempt by Portuguese fascists to hold on to their ‘overseas territories’. Portugal relied on local collaborators (inside the PAIGC) to execute its orders: the assassinations drew on internal divisions along ethnic, class and ideological lines that had been underplayed in the name of the struggle. Tensions between the mestiço-assimilado leadership and cadres from poorer areas, who distrusted their cosmopolitan nationalism, had never been resolved.

On​ 24 April 1974, the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) – an organisation of low-ranking officers in the Portuguese Armed Forces – staged a coup in Lisbon. The fascist regime fell and anti-colonial activists in Portugal’s African colonies rejoiced, although many who had participated in the liberation war, including Viriato da Cruz, Cabral and Mondlane, didn’t live to see its end. The new Portuguese government led by Vasco Gonçalves pushed for a rapid transfer of power to the liberation movements in the colonies. In the case of Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde, Frelimo and the PAIGC were obvious contenders. Angola was another matter. The rapid withdrawal of Portuguese troops created a power vacuum that none of the competing forces – the MPLA, the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) and Unita (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) – had the popular support or territory to fill.

The MPLA was in disarray. Viriato da Cruz had left the party and moved to China in 1966; Andrade had fallen out with Neto and set up the Active Revolt faction in the Republic of the Congo. Eastern Revolt, a splinter group of the MPLA that had formed around Daniel Chipenda, was mobilising its forces in Zambia, alongside Jonas Savimbi’s Unita. The International Department in Moscow worried that Neto had too little support among the Bakongo in northern Angola, and that his base didn’t extend beyond mestiço-assimilado intellectuals in Luanda: Holden Roberto, an ethnic Bakongo and leader of the FNLA, had strong support among the rural population in the north and the Soviets initially hoped he would form a ‘common front’ with the MPLA. They made contact with Roberto through Oleg Nazhestkin, a young Soviet agent who had been stationed in Léopoldville since 1961 (he had been briefly expelled after the coup). But Nazhestkin’s suspicions that Roberto was pro-Western proved correct. It transpired that he had been receiving funds from the CIA throughout the 1950s and 1960s; Washington had even hoped to involve him in one of its plots to kill Lumumba.

Neto’s close ties to Portuguese communists, along with positive reports from Pravda journalists such as Oleg Ignatyev – a close friend of Cabral’s – had eventually helped to consolidate his reputation in Moscow. The Soviets provided financial support to the MPLA throughout the 1960s, but, as Telepneva points out, ‘Neto never really established a close relationship with his Soviet liaisons.’ With its non-aligned status and Tito’s reputation as a ‘godfather’ of African liberation, Yugoslavia seemed a more useful ally than Moscow or Beijing. In the summer of 1968, Tito openly criticised Moscow’s decision to invade Czechoslovakia and put an end to the Prague Spring; Neto took the same position and when he refused to back down, the Soviets briefly withdrew their funding. Belgrade duly stepped up deliveries of medicine, cash, aid and arms to Neto’s movement. Yugoslav help was ‘constant, firm and generous’, Neto later wrote.

Jonas Savimbi had formed his own party, Unita, in 1966. His ideological commitments were vague. He was an anti-communist who had tried to get funding from the GDR, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union; he claimed to see Che Guevara as a model. Even Beijing, which had no military or intelligence presence in Angola, took a shine to him. Its association with Savimbi – and therefore with the US and apartheid South Africa – damaged China’s reputation as a leader of national liberation in the Third World. The decision not to support the MPLA was perhaps Maoist China’s greatest failure in Africa. Otherwise, it was a generous funder of Nyerere’s ujamaa socialism in Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambian ‘humanism’. It also played a decisive role in minority-rule Rhodesia by supporting Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union against Joshua Nkomo’s rival liberation movement, which was funded and equipped by Moscow.

A photograph from January 1975, reprinted in Telepneva’s book, shows Neto, Roberto and Savimbi at the signing of the Alvor Agreement, which set the terms for a transitional government in Angola: an arrangement that split power equally between the three liberation movements. Any hope of peace was shortlived. In a closed session of the Soviet Solidarity Committee in June 1975, Petr Manchkha, another second generation mezhdunarodnik and head of the Africa section of the International Department, argued (correctly) that the MPLA was caught up in a ‘serious international imperialist conspiracy’ involving the US, South Africa and Zaire. On 14 October, South Africa launched a full-scale armoured invasion from South-West Africa (now Namibia).

On 5 November, Castro dispatched Cuban troops to Angola, without alerting Moscow or the Warsaw Pact states. The Soviets were stunned. They had been slow to act because of disagreements between the KGB and the GRU, which had urged the Kremlin to hold back on its support for the MPLA. Moscow eventually extended official recognition to the MPLA, but it was the Cuban intervention that proved decisive. At the height of the civil war, Cuba had more than 50,000 troops stationed in Angola. John Stockwell, a CIA agent-turned-whistleblower, explained in 1978:

We said it was the Soviets and the Cubans that were doing it. It was the US that was escalating the fighting … We put advisers in, they answered with advisers. We put in Zairian para-commando battalions, they put in Cuban army troops. We brought in the South African army, they brought in the Cuban army. And they pushed us away.

When Pretoria renewed its assault on Angola a decade later, Cuba and East Germany stepped in to support the Angolan armed forces. In December 1988, Cuba, South Africa and Angola agreed to the retreat of Cuban and South African forces. In 1992, Unita rejected the MPLA’s success in an UN-supervised election and tore the country apart for another decade. Savimbi’s disastrous vendetta ended when he was killed in an ambush in 2002.

Telepneva and Williams both trace with regret the arc of movements that started off calling for freedom and self-determination but ended up running neocolonial or authoritarian regimes. Williams’s portrayal of Lumumba and Nkrumah is hagiographic at times, but she also offers an alternative story of national liberation, told from the perspective of ‘minor’ characters, including Thomas Kanza (Lumumba’s ambassador to the UN) and Nkrumah’s secretary, Erica Powell. What emerges from these testimonies is not a picture of tragedy, romance or against-the-odds heroism, but a sober assessment of the tough and sometimes impossible choices facing left-wing anti-colonial activists who were under pressure from foreign enemies and foreign allies alike. ‘For better or worse,’ Telepneva concludes, ‘the Africans in this story were agents of their own liberation,’ however brief it turned out to be.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 45 No. 14 · 13 July 2023

In his survey of the Cold War proxy battles in Africa, Kevin Okoth writes that ‘anti-colonial activists in Portugal’s African colonies rejoiced’ after the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and that the new government in Lisbon ‘pushed for a rapid transfer of power to the liberation movement in the colonies’ (LRB, 15 June). This gets the causality the wrong way round. It was the never-ending wars in Africa and the injunction by Salazar’s successor, Caetano, that the army was to fight until defeat that provoked the Movimento das Forçes Armadas to overthrow Portugal’s fascist regime. And the MFA was more than ‘an organisation of low-ranking officers’. The armed forces reached deep into civil society in Portugal – a quarter of the military-age population was in uniform – so a structure for change was already in place, which isn’t usually the case in a military coup.

Bruce J. Watson

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences