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‘Foreign Intervention in Africa After the Cold War’ looks at new players and old powers in Africa’s conflicts

Author Elizabeth Schmidt tackles important questions on foreign intervention in one accessible text.

- July 11, 2019

In February, the French army launched airstrikes against rebels at the request of the Chadian government, which then expressed its gratitude. Russia reportedly is expanding its three-step military intervention plan in Africa. Niger’s leader is calling for greater U.S. involvement in its war against insurgencies.

These are but a few recent examples of ongoing interventions in Africa.

Elizabeth Schmidt’s “Foreign Intervention in Africa After the Cold War,” a companion to her 2013 book, helps make sense of these developments. Schmidt provides a detailed and sobering introduction on the nature of foreign intervention in Africa since 1991.

In this volume, published in 2018, Schmidt explores why and how foreign powers intervene in Africa and the effects of intervention — which she defines as a dominant country using “force or pressure over a weaker sovereign entity or when a weaker entity requests external assistance to restore order, monitor a peace accord, or end a humanitarian crisis.” She offers four propositions: free market austerity policies led to “deadly struggles over power and resources in the post-Cold War period”; the war on terrorism led to increased foreign military presence on the continent and new external support for repressive governments; and though U.S. counterterrorism initiatives may have dominated the process, they were not the only foreign interveners in this process. Her fourth point echoes her earlier book, arguing that “foreign political and military intervention in Africa often did more harm than good.”

Intervention in Africa has become more complex

Schmidt argues that two paradigms have dictated the nature of foreign intervention since the end of the Cold War: 1) response to instability/responsibility to protect; and 2) the war on terrorism. Using case studies as diverse as the Congo, Mali, Rwanda and Ivory Coast, she explores how the mixed motives of interveners can have varied results — and lead to unforeseen outcomes.

Yes, former imperial powers such as Britain and France, along with new Cold War powers such as Russia and China, continue to play important roles on the continent. Schmidt highlights the changing nature of intervention, and the “new” groups involved in conflict: warlords, criminal gangs, rebel groups, renegade soldiers, foreign mercenaries, private military companies, nonstate actors associated with international terrorist networks, neighboring states, the United Nations, the African Union and international humanitarian organizations. These new players in “war-making and peace-building processes” further complicate the political and economic challenges African governments face today, Schmidt argues. Interventions constantly overlap, with one crisis influencing another, marking the never-ending nature of foreign intervention.

Yet Schmidt challenges the reader to rethink intervention. Her findings do not support the idea that Africans are hopelessly on the receiving end of foreign intervention in their countries. Rather, Schmidt emphasizes that African leaders have agency as they actively engage interveners.

For example, she points out the subregional and continental influence (economic and political) Nigeria and South Africa wield. While she does not play down the importance of foreign powers’ geopolitical interests, Schmidt compels us to understand that domestic interests also play a key role. African governments, even if reliant on outside governments or institutions, navigate difficult political situations in ways that might be to their advantage. She challenges us to rethink how foreign and neighboring African countries and intergovernmental organizations use paradigms to rationalize foreign intervention — and the implications of when and how external forces choose to intervene.

U.S. policy toward Africa has — and has not — changed

Schmidt also highlights how inherent contradictions within foreign powers themselves influence policy decisions. Her focus on the United States and its Africa policy following the Cold War clarifies that what happens within and between powerful countries matters, too. By examining the Africa policies of the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, she demonstrates that while U.S. policies have undergone several transformations since Africa’s colonial period, the U.S. government rationalizes intervention by the responsibility-to-protect mandate — even if national interest plays a role. This was true especially in the war on terrorism, which saw an upsurge in U.S. military involvement in Africa due to what Schmidt terms “Western misconceptions about Islam.”

However, she notes a marked silence toward Africa when President Trump took office in early 2017. Relying on an assessment of Trump’s attitudes and actions toward “Islam and terrorism; Muslim immigration; climate change; military intervention versus development, diplomacy, and human rights; and foreign aid,” Schmidt argues that while the number of military personnel may increase, it’s likely that U.S. involvement in post-conflict reconstruction and development in Africa may decrease.

Many conflicts continue. Schmidt shows how deep-seated histories make solutions hard to reach. She raises important questions: At what point is intervention justifiable, and does the nature of this intervention matter? And whose interests are at stake? Largely missing from Schmidt’s analysis, however, is the role of communities and community organizations in these conflicts. While admittedly this is a history of international relations, it perhaps would be useful to move beyond a discussion on government behavior and discuss how local groups and institutions respond to international pressures in ways other than creating rebel groups. Also, though she notes that a discussion on the growing presence of China in Africa is beyond the purview of this work, Beijing’s role in Africa’s changing economic and political environment is another factor to consider.

“Foreign Intervention in Africa After the Cold War” is an excellent contribution to African studies, history and political science because of the many insights into the extent and complexities of foreign intervention in one accessible text. This is a book that reminds us that it is not always just a question of whether to intervene or not.

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Previous posts in this year’s series:

How does a woman run for office in Nigeria? The answer’s in ‘Love Does Not Win Elections.’

This gripping memoir tells the story of a girl — and South Africa — coming of age

Amílcar Cabral’s life as a Pan-Africanist, anti-colonial revolutionary still inspires

There’s a new way to understand vigilantism in South Africa

Anna Kapambwe Mwaba (@annakapambwe) is a McPherson/Eveillard Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer in government at Smith College. Her research focuses on the role of African international and regional organizations in election observation and democracy promotion in Southern Africa.