Last Marxists in Africa

March 29, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. Namibia, Africa's last colony, attained its independence on March 21, 1990. It nearly happened, but not quite, that the last bastion of communism in Africa was toppled one year later.

Expect the fall of Col. Haile Mengistu Mariam any day now. The rebel Eritreans and Tigrayans are approaching the gates of Addis Ababa, and Ethiopia's wantonly barbaric dictator finds himself bereft of all support, both domestic and foreign. The Cubans have gone, and Moscow doesn't want to know. Imperialism is at an end in Africa and so, it appears, is communism.

Imperialism didn't last long. The European powers -- Belgium, Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and Germany -- ran things in most of Africa for barely a hundred years. Communist influence lasted just 30, and ironically survived longest in the one country that was never fully colonized, Ethiopia.

Marxism's emphasis on the collective rather than the individual might have appealed to traditional communal societies, but it proved even more alien to the African mind than the strange, often contradictory, cocktail of Christianity, education, forced labor and nation-state government served up by the European imperialists.

Even at the height of the anti-colonial struggle in the 1960s, the continent failed to produce a single full-blooded Marxist regime. The nearest thing was Sekou Toure's Guinea, which, by the early 1980s, had decided enough was enough.

Ethiopia aside, Marxism fared best in the countries that were last to free themselves from colonialism -- the Portuguese territories of Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, and in Zimbabwe, the last holdout of British settlers. Marxism offered a useful philosophical and disciplinary tool for the exigencies of guerrilla war.

Last year Mozambique renounced the description ''People's'' which it had hung before the ''Republic of Mozambique'' and negotiated with its opponents an end to the brutal civil war, promising elections this year. The same appears to be happening in Angola. In Zimbabwe, the government still boasts of its Marxist-Leninism, and pours scorn on those in Eastern Europe who've lost their nerve. But it is, aside from South Africa, the most successful practitioner of capitalist economics on the continent. Presumably reasons of nostalgia and sentimentality account for its maintenance of this peculiar dichotomy between official pronouncement and day-to-day practice. South Africa's African National Congress, too, still waves the hammers and sickles at mass rallies but is publicly committed to a mixed economy if it should come to power.

It seems only yesterday that we were being warned of Soviet ambitions in Africa. Leo Tindemans, the Belgian prime minister, spoke of Africa as ''the prime target in a planetary conflict, a grand design'' to take over Europe's main source of raw materials. The conservative Africanists, Peter Vanneman and Martin James, wrote in Policy Review of a strategy ''to destabilize Saudi Arabia by acquiring naval and air facilities in the Ethiopian ports on the Red Sea; to neutralize Kenya, thus restricting access to the port of Mombasa, the only major port open to Western navies on the east coast of Africa; to threaten interruption of oil and shipping lanes vital to Europe and Japan; to enhance its global prestige by engineering another military victory for one of its allies [Ethiopia] . . .'' etc., etc., etc.

Well, you have two choices -- either to believe that most of this didn't come to pass because the West cleverly outwitted the Soviets, or that the Soviets had limited goals and, even more important, very constricted means of reaching the modest goals they set themselves.

Indeed, it can be argued that Russian policy in Africa in the post-colonial age was much less ambitious than in tsarist times. In the 19th century Alexander III (1881- 1894) tried to outwit the British in the so-called ''Scramble for Africa.'' It sought a protectorate in the Eritrean region of Ethiopia, a Russian presence on the Red Sea that would frustrate the British design to control a swath of territory from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo. Russia also tried but failed to establish a colony in Madagascar and secure a protectorate over Ethiopia.

Alexander and his son, Nicholas II, were almost obsessively preoccupied with Africa. When the records of the Brezhnev era are published, I suspect we will find by contrast that Africa was considered a rather remote and uninteresting place that only came into policy focus as the military establishment felt bound to supply arms to factions or countries that appeared ''revolutionary.'' Most of the time, the lethargic wheels of the Soviet bureaucracy had to be given a sharp shove by Fidel Castro, who would rush into Angola or Ethiopia or wherever, banging the table until Moscow consented to back him up.

The second Russian chapter in Africa now comes to its sorry close. In all likelihood the rebels will be in control of Addis Ababa within weeks. The most brutal regime in a continent that's had more than its fair share of them is about to fall, demolishing the last vestiges of Brezhnevian-Fidelist influence.

Africa is now left to itself, to make what it will of the future. This time there can be no bogeymen under the bed to blame. In fact, no excuses at all.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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