Retired US diplomat Henry Kissinger died on Wednesday November 29. / Photo: Reuters

By Mazhun Idris

In April 1976, the erstwhile military government of Nigeria cancelled a planned visit by the then American Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger, as part of his famous "Africa Shuttle" in May of that year.

Barely two months earlier, on February 13, Nigeria's military head of state, Gen Murtala Ramat Muhammed, had been assassinated in what the Nigerian press and analysts suspected was a CIA-backed coup attempt.

Nigerian students staged demonstrations at the American Embassy and the British High Commission in Lagos on February 17, signalling a souring of the country's relations with the US that culminated in Kissinger's scheduled visit being cancelled.

So, how did Kissinger, who died aged 100 in Connecticut on November 29 this year, get on the wrong side of Africa?

"As Secretary of State in the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations, Kissinger played a significant role in shaping US policy on Africa," says Dr Tasiu Magaji of the political science department at Bayero University Kano, in Nigeria.

The world, including the West, seems to agree that Kissinger has left behind a contentious and often frightening legacy that towered over everything he achieved while serving as foreign secretary between 1973 and 1976, for both Presidents Nixon and Ford.

In the context of Africa, the former Secretary of State symbolised in many ways America's prejudice towards Africa – from the apartheid era to the wars of independence in southern African nations.

Supremacist outlook

"Kissinger's policies contributed to human rights abuse and political instability in Africa. His support for authoritarian regimes such as Idi Amin's Uganda and Jean-Bédel Bokassa's Central African Empire led to widespread human rights violations, including massacres and torture," Dr Magaji, who teaches international studies, recounts to TRT Afrika.

Relations between Africa and the US were strained as the two supported opposing factions in the Angolan Civil War. Kissinger once infamously warned pan-Africanist Cuba from sending its military to help black freedom fighters in Africa.

He was quoted in 1976 by the Associated Press dispatch as saying, "Most worrying to whites is the prospect that Soviet arms and Cuban troops in Angola might be used in Rhodesia to back militant black movements in a conflict that could spill over borders to engulf the entire region."

After the Soweto Massacre of 1976, Kissinger visited apartheid South Africa, becoming the first US Secretary of State to do so in three decades. He invariably gave a semblance of endorsement to the white minority regime there.

It was thus alluded that Kissinger's canny mission was preventing a potential "race war" in Southern Africa, especially Rhodesia, with the sole aim of protecting the white minorities from the threat of a racial "bloodbath".

Kissinger points to a map of the Sinai during a meeting with President Ford and congressional members at the White House Photo: AFP

Questionable legacy

To put it mildly, Kissinger was a controversial figure. As at least one New York Times report pointed out on April 7, 1976, Kissinger was "depicted as advocating an American policy favouring white minority regimes in southern Africa over black nationalist movements".

"His legacy in Africa is mixed, with both positive and negative impacts on the continent," says Dr Magaji. “While his policies helped strengthen US economic and strategic interests, they also contributed to human rights abuses and political instability."

Kissinger's machinations make for textbook proof that American interests in Africa are not more than unilateral, marginal, and temporary. The saving grace, if at all, was his role in negotiating peace agreements that, in some ways, contributed to stability in some African countries.

According to Dr Magaji, "Kissinger advocated the containment of Soviet influence in Africa, which led to increased military assistance to pro-Western regimes such as South Africa and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo)".

Analysts believe what saved Africa from the more significant negative potential of Kissinger's policies was that he emerged at a time of pan-Africanism, when African countries were led by radical leaders who could stand up to him.

Post-colonial leaders such as Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda, and Nigeria's Murtala Muhammed were outspoken mavericks of the Non-Aligned Movement, who prioritised solidarity towards self-determination and self-reliance over economic liberalization and foreign influence.

All this while, through his various African diplomatic shuttles, Kissinger adeptly stood for the US's dominant influence over the mineral-rich continent, notably against competing powers of the Soviet Union.

No wonder Kissinger authored the oft-quoted political logic that "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests".

He is also quoted as saying that "empires [read US] have no interest in operating within an international system; they aspire to be the international system" — a remark that encapsulates his persona as a Cold War architect.

Marginal impact

Kissinger was credited with coaxing the white-minority-led government of erstwhile Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and neighbouring South Africa, toward a black majority rule in the former, while condoning apartheid in the latter.

In the same breath, he was criticised for using Africa as a trade-off for black Africa's support to the US in the brewing Cold War and for crafting a way to give the white minority of the southern region a soft landing.

For much of his time as America's highest-ranking and most influential diplomat, Kissinger dismissively ignored Africa until the racial tensions in Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa forced the US to take a sudden interest in the continent.

Under the US's Cold War logic, Kissinger pursued America's diplomatic interventions on successive crises in other countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Zaire, and Zambia, all in search of a quick fix that would stave off a possible African alliance with the erstwhile USSR and Fidel Castro's Cuba.

He was featured for a long time in the dark spotlight for multiple US policies and failures that had dangerous consequences in Africa. This is despite his insistence and repeated assurances that the US mission in Africa was to further democracy and development.

In death as in life, Kissinger remains a divisive figure and it is doubtful that any pan-Africanist would applaud his legacy.

TRT Afrika