Document created: 10 October 2003
Air University Review, July-August 1974

Trends in Soviet Support
 for African Liberation

William G. Thom

The Soviet Union today is one of the most important sources of aid for African nationalist guerrilla movements involved in “liberation struggles” against Africa’s white regimes. Since Western governments have refused significant support to these movements, the Soviets—by extending material aid—have maneuvered them into a position which appears to condone the white regimes of Africa and which thus opens them to attack from Third World countries. African guerrilla movements appear high on the list of candidates for substantially increased Soviet support.

The purpose of this article is to examine general Soviet policy toward the various African liberation groups that have emerged during the last decade. Two main ideas will be discussed: the historical basis for Soviet support of “national liberation,” in general; and examples of Soviet involvement with specific African movements. Contemporary African movements will be identified with regard to Soviet support. The bulk of the study will involve the Soviet decision to back these contemporary movements, the relative importance of this Soviet aid, Moscow’s policy toward individual groups, and finally Sino-Soviet competition for the allegiance of the various groups.

historical development

Communist support for national liberation movements is older than the Soviet state. Marx and Engels sympathized with most of the revolutionary and national emancipation movements of their day. Soviet responsibility to foreign liberation struggles was recognized early in the history of the state, but Africa tended to be viewed in terms of European colonialism or not at all. Black Africa did not become a serious concern of Soviet foreign policy until the late 1950s. For the first forty years of Soviet history—a period often marked by sweeping revolutionary expectations—Africa stood on the outermost edge of Soviet consciousness.1 Early party conventions paid lip service to the cause of the nonwhite world but primarily as a consequence of anti-colonialism.

A pronounced change from the previous Soviet policy of African noninvolvement occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the tide of nationalism swept most textbook colonialism out of Africa. The de-colonization process appeared to Russian observers as damaging to the West and therefore beneficial to World Communism—if it could be properly exploited. Both the Soviets and the Chinese stressed that wars of national liberation were in fact aspects of the world revolution against imperialism.2

Khrushchev more than any other figure shifted emphasis to the Third World and to Africa—what he called the underdeveloped third of mankind. He saw the retreat of colonialism as a decisive opportunity to weaken the West in the era of cold war tension and nuclear stalemate. It was in the Khrushchev period that the concept of wars of national liberation was popularized. It is not difficult to see a relationship between this phenomenon and changing Soviet policy toward involvement with African nationalist movements.

practicality of African liberation

After the wave of independence broke on the African continent in the early 1960s, Soviet policy-makers had to decide whether the remaining nationalist movements were worth supporting. This required a hard look at their chances for success and at the political value of merely giving them support. As these movements emerged in the early sixties, the Soviets seemed to have no definitive policy. In 1962, for example, Soviet writers praised various nationalist movements in Mozambique that later merged to form the Mozambique Liberation Front.3 Despite favorable commentary, it seems the Soviets were confused by the prospect of having to support multiple liberation groups, sometimes within one country. Having made little headway with newly independent states, somewhere in the mid or late sixties the Soviets resigned themselves to playing a supporting role in helping those territories yet to be “liberated,” particularly the Portuguese territories.

Whether the U.S.S.R. really believed in the ultimate success of the movements is open to speculation. It is probable, however, that the Soviets saw more in these movements than the prospects of independent pro-Soviet states. Because of their initial clumsiness in Africa, the Soviets were widely regarded with suspicion. Support for the liberation groups then became an opening that could gain them some respectability in African eyes and at the same time damage the West. At the very least the Soviets could not be called allies of the colonial/imperialist powers. Furthermore, the main Soviet goal in Africa may not have been to establish pro-Communist regimes but rather to exploit the rift between African elites and the West. This would have the effect of keeping Africa a source of division, conflict, and ultimate danger.4 This more modest goal may well underlie Soviet aid programs for the guerrilla forces.

African liberation movements have identity problems stemming from their lack of exposure and the general lack of importance attached to them outside Africa. In the Third World, there has been extensive acceptance of the African movements. The Soviet Union has supported many of these organizations in the last decade. All are relatively small, and they seek ultimately to wrest control of their respective homelands from white-controlled governments. All have turned to violence in some form, some founding active insurgencies. In most cases it is politically convenient for the Soviets to extend at least verbal support.

The fact that the Soviets assist African liberation movements is widely known. Writers during the sixties warned of Communist training for subversive cadres to be used in Africa. Despite these warnings, the success of the guerrilla movements themselves does not seem to have been a prime motivating factor. The Russians realized, however, that they could get a maximum political return on a minimal investment.5 By aiding the cause of African liberation against the “evils of racism” in southern Africa, they saw the opportunity to score a propaganda coup. One might even speculate as to whether Moscow has wanted the insurgents to triumph and terminate this advantageous situation for one of uncertainty. Or on the other hand, whether the movements themselves are really seeking self-perpetuation above all else.

significance of Soviet aid

The value of Soviet backing for the various movements is great, and thus the way is clear for Moscow to exert its influence on them and extract what it can in fringe benefits. This situation, advantageous to the Soviets, leaves the movements open to verbal attack from their enemies. Training is perhaps the most important form of aid for both the donor and recipient. For the movements, the learning of techniques is more pertinent to their situation than receiving equipment. For the Soviets, training offers their best opportunity to indoctrinate the potential cadre. Formal instruction in guerrilla strategy and tactics has been the most fruitful method for transmitting Communist ideas on guerrilla warfare. Virtually every major African guerrilla movement has sent selected recruits to the Soviet Union and other Communist states for intensive training.6

The type of training administered by the Soviets was recently outlined to a journalist by two ex-guerrillas in Mozambique. The first studied political warfare at the Central Komsomol School in Moscow during 1966-67. The principal subjects were political science and economics, the history of Communism, and laws of nature. Students at the school came from several African states. This guerrilla was selected for advanced study in political subversion, including how to carry out a coup d’état and how to subvert an army. The second former guerrilla was sent to Moscow in 1965 and was later sent to a ten-month course at the Guerrilla Warfare Training School in the Crimea. The training was in guerilla tactics and weapons, with periods of political teachings. All the students were African. These are just two of the many Africans (estimated in the hundreds) that undergo training in Moscow and the Crimea each year.7 Training and indoctrination continue to be a vital part of the overall Soviet policy toward the liberation movements.

Cuban training assistance may be in collaboration with Soviet efforts. The Cubans did much to popularize guerrilla warfare. Cuban policy has strongly supported revolutionary causes in Africa, and Cuban academies with Communist/revolutionary themes are reported to train over 700 students from black Africa at a time.8

the Africans, the Russians, and
the Organization of African Unity

Most guerrilla leaders view the aid they receive from the Soviets as Moscow’s duty in its role as leader of socialist nations. At the same time they remain sensitive to being identified with Communism. Amilcar Cabral, the late guerrilla leader from Portuguese Guinea has stated that the aid his group receives from the socialist countries is a historical obligation. Agostinho Neto, the Angolan revolutionary leader, maintains that his organization is not subordinate in its policy to any foreign power and that any statements to the contrary are propagandistic fantasy. He states that people fighting for their independence will take aid from wherever they can, even from the Devil himself.9

The Organization of African Unity (OAU), through its African Liberation Committee (ALC), has sought to be the chief vehicle for aiding and influencing the movements. Most of the funds for the movements is channeled through the ALC, which has tended to function more as a political organization. OAU/ALC recognition is important to the movements, but it is secondary in overall importance to Soviet support. According to Cabral, the OAU responded to his requests for weapons and supplies, but quantities were insufficient to meet his needs. Cabral’s strongest thanks were reserved for the U.S.S.R.10 The OAU/ALC, being weak in resources, cannot carry as much weight as the Soviets when it comes to material assistance, but it remains a respectable showcase for the voices of African liberation free from the tinge of Communism.

relations with individual movements

The more significant bilateral relations are those with the movements of Portuguese Africa. These groups are the most viable of the African liberation movements and are the beneficiaries of the most Soviet attention. Largely through Soviet efforts, these organizations were grouped into the Conference of Nationalist Parties of the Portuguese Colonies (CONCP). The members of CONCP are PAIGC (Portuguese Guinea), MPLA (Angola), and FRELIMO (Mozambique). It is the writer’s opinion that the CONCP may be seen as the Soviets’ attempt to centralize their control over these movements, to increase their propaganda impact.

In 1962 the Soviets described the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) as a progressive nationalist organization. They claimed that PAIGC guerrilla fighters obtained their weapons by taking them away from the Portuguese, indicating the Soviets were not supplying arms at this time or at least were not publicizing it. By the end of the year it was reported that the PAIGC had secured significant international support in Africa and, more important, from the Soviet Union. According to more recent reports, not only have the Soviets provided material assistance, training facilities, and diplomatic support but this contribution has constituted the largest single amount of aid given to the PAIGC.11

The PAIGC now depends on the Soviets for everything from rocket launchers to pencils. Consequently, the PAIGC duly supports the Soviet line. On the other hand, the Soviets have in the PAIGC their best investment among liberation movements in Africa. The PAIGC is generally regarded as the most effective movement, with the best chance of ultimate success. The PAIGC was the first African group to receive the Soviet-built SA-7, a portable heat-seeking surface-to-air missile. This weapon was introduced in Southeast Asia in 1972. The PAIGC is increasing its military efforts and in September 1973 declared its independence unilaterally.

The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) is Moscow’s choice in Portuguese East Africa. FRELIMO is unique in that it also receives substantial support from the People’s Republic of China. FRELIMO President Samora Machel acknowledges assistance from both Moscow and Peking, describing them as “the only ones who will really help us. . . . They have fought armed struggles, and whatever they have learned that is relevant to Mozambique we will use.” These blunt statements by Machel reveal a great deal of pragmatism by this military man. Soviet support of FRELIMO’s armed struggle was expressed in 1972 with the delivery of 122-mm artillery rockets.12

In Angola, Soviet aid was decisive in creating a viable movement, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Consequently, the MPLA follows the Soviet line more closely than the others.  This group, however, has not been as successful in the field. The MPLA, like many other movements of its type, experiences much internal turbulence and personnel turnover. Therefore, a shortage of trained military personnel does not necessarily mean that not enough have been trained. Aside from defections and desertions, combat losses must also be considered. The shortage of modem arms may not be of great significance. Often older weapons (small arms) provided by the Soviets are better suited for the conditions of guerrilla warfare in the tropics. They are more durable and are easier to maintain. Numerous weapons either are lost to the Portuguese in combat by poorly trained troops or are captured by security forces when guerrilla hideouts and arms caches are uncovered.

other Soviet-backed movements

In Rhodesia, where guerrilla activity has been sporadic, the Soviets back the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), one of three current movements seeking to liberate Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). Following Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence in November 1965, ZAPU was banned in Rhodesia and began operating in exile. ZAPU came under Soviet influence through its association with the strongly Soviet-oriented African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa, the two sharing their plight in exile. By the late 1960s dissident ZAPU students in Europe began contesting their movement’s Moscow orientation. They claimed ZAPU representatives abroad were puppets of “Soviet Revisionists” while their Chinese-backed rival, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), was making progress because of its “impartial, loyal, strong, and disinterested allies.”13 The charges of the ZAPU students may have been justified because nearly all the credit for current guerrilla campaign in Rhodesia has gone to ZANU. At least in Rhodesia, it pears the Soviets are not backing the leading contender.

In Namibia (South-West Africa) guerrillas the South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) carry on very sporadic activity in the Caprivi Strip from bases across the border. Some SWAPO members are known to have been trained in the U.S.S.R., and Moscow has been a principal source material aid. SWAPO, like ZAPU in Rhodesia, is much smaller in size and in the scope of its operations than any of the CONCP movements. Although neither SWAPO nor ZAPU seems remotely near achieving success, at least in SWAPO the Soviets enjoy the luxury of supporting the only effective movement to carry on the semblance of an armed struggle in the country it hopes to liberate. Therefore, Moscow is the sole beneficiary of any credit given for the support of Namibian liberation.

The South African ANC has been supported by the Soviets but is perhaps overshadowed by the South African Communist Party (SACP). The Soviet-oriented SACP has been around for many years (it sent representatives to Moscow in 1921), but it was forced underground by the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. It has the title and prestige of being the first African Communist party, and it maintains close contact with both Moscow and the ANC. Like the ANC, it is mainly in exile. The ANC, composed of black Africans while the SACP has many whites, is thought to have been responsible for the detonation of several propaganda pamphlet bombs in the Republic of South Africa over the past few years. Although the ANC has been unsuccessful in initiating insurgency in South Africa, that country’s racial policies make continued Soviet support for the movement necessary if the Soviets wish to exploit the situation.

dangers of world power involvement

The involvement of other world powers in the contemporary African liberation scene can only be a cause for concern in Moscow. Thus far it appears that competition with Communist China for the allegiance of the various movements is the chief threat to Soviet policy objectives. The West has not sought involvement in this arena. The Western powers have not taken any direct action to underwrite substantially the position of the white states fighting against the African nationalist movements, despite their self-professed importance to the West as bulwarks against the tide of Communism; and the West has done even less for the liberation forces. It might be argued that the West has not yet had to make a real decision on helping the staunchly anti-Communist white minority regimes because these regimes have not to date been seriously threatened by insurgency. Africa is probably also well down the list of priorities for all the major powers concerned.

The Soviets, as would any great power, face the danger of becoming too involved in these struggles. In certain circumstances, limited involvement has a spiraling effect: that is, the involvement of one great power in an East-West or Sino-Soviet rivalry has the effect of compelling its competitors to intervene. The danger would be greater if a power were propping up a government engulfed in insurgency. However, any situation where a great power’s prestige is on the line—even if backing the insurgents—has its inherent danger.

Sino-Soviet competition

As the 1950s gave birth to the popularity of guerilla warfare, Moscow and Peking became competitors for the leadership of world revolution. The Soviets believed they had to make up for the prestige China had gained as a result of the global recognition given to Mao Tse-tung’s revolutionary theories. They wanted to refocus attention on Moscow as the leader of world revolution. Both nations began using the means at their disposal in the search for influence in the Third World.

In general, the Soviet Union has supported the larger and more prestigious liberation groups, while China has backed the also-rans. This was mainly because the Soviets saw the inherent foreign policy advantages before the Chinese did and also because they were in a better economic position to do so. The various African movements currently receive Soviet and Chinese support as follows:






















*Larger movements with several thousand combatants.

The Sino-Soviet rivalry is perhaps most apparent in aid programs for FRELIMO. The Chinese attempt to undermine Soviet influence through grassroots programs at FRELIMO training camps in Tanzania. The Soviets counter by using their superior resources to provide better weapons, equipment, and training abroad. The challenge to Soviet influence in FRELIMO may be partially explained by the large Chinese presence in Tanzania, where FRELIMO has much of its infrastructure. Peking may also be using FRELIMO as a test case to determine the Soviet response.

Race is an obstacle the Soviets face in their efforts to combat Chinese influence. The Chinese claim that Moscow is not qualified to guide the African movements because Russia is traditionally a European power. The inference here is that, while Russia has been a white European power not far removed from the despised colonial powers, China herself has been a victim of European colonialism. The Soviets recognize the race factor as potentially dangerous to their position, and it may cause them to be more ready with aid when they think it necessary to counter Chinese efforts.

the outlook

The outlook for continuing Sino-Soviet rivalry will depend on Moscow’s desire to meet China’s challenge. Since the late sixties Chinese aid to the liberation movements has increased significantly. Some observers believe competition between the Communist powers is likely to expand the sources of aid available to the insurgent movements in the future.14 Chinese power in the coming decades will probably continue to grow, and this will allow Peking to become more actively involved with African guerrilla movements and to encourage African militancy at the expense of the U.S.S.R.’s professed leadership of the international Communist movement.

Soviet motivation is based on several factors, only one of which aims to help the African liberation movements achieve their goal of independence. In fact, this factor seems to be overshadowed by other considerations; namely, exerting influence over the movements for propaganda purposes, keeping Africa in turmoil to upset the West, and countering Chinese attempts to supplant the Soviets as patriarch of the revolutionaries.

The consequences of continued, and perhaps growing, Sino-Soviet involvement are serious aspects of the problem. At the United Nations Conference on African Liberation held at Oslo, Norway, in April 1973, both the Soviet Union and China strongly voiced their support for the struggle. Aside from the normal verbal praise, the Soviets, in particular, proudly cited their material assistance to the movements and their desire to increase this aid.

The discovery of new Soviet weapons in hands of African guerrillas, such as 122-mm rocket and SA- 7 missile of Vietnam fame, can only lead to speculation that we may be witnessing the beginning of a new era of increased Soviet aid these movements. If increased Soviet and/or Chinese assistance materializes in the coming decade, some of the movements will become more effective and progress to a point where their ultimate objectives will be within reach. Soviet policy will then take on new meaning for Africa and the West, as it will claim a place for Moscow at the independence celebrations as principal sponsor of several new African regimes.


1. Robert Legvold, Soviet Policy in West Africa (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 1.

2. J. B. Bell, The Myth of the Guerrilla (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), p. 43.

3. David Morison, The USSR and Africa 1945-1963 (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 102-3.

4. Adam B. Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-67 (New York: Praeger, 1971), pp. 641-42.

5. Bell, p. 100.

6. Kenneth W. Grundy, Guerilla Struggle in Africa: An Analysis and Preview (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1971), p. 51.

7. Brig. Michael Calvert, “Counter-Insurgency in Mozambique,” Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, no. 118, March 1973.

8. D. C. Hodges and R. E. Abu Shanab, editors, NLF National Liberation Fronts 1960/1970 (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1972), pp. 169-70.

9. Basil Davidson, In the Eye of the Storm: Angola’s People (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1972), pp. 296-97.

10. Hodges and Abu Shanab, p. 168.

11. Grundy, p. 102.

12. Calvert, p. 84.

13. Richard Gibson, African Liberation Movements: Contemporary Struggles against White Minority Rule (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 177.

14. Grundy, p. 137.


William G. Thom (B.S., State University of New York at New Paltz) is an African specialist and military analyst for the Department of Defense. As a civilian analyst with DOD since 1967, Mr. Thom has prepared many studies and presented high-level briefings on military trends and insurgency in sub-Saharan Africa. He has also served as a consultant to the Army War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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