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Agostinho Neto  

David Birmingham

Agostinho Neto was an Angolan medical doctor who was born in the agricultural hinterland of Luanda City in 1922 and died in a Moscow hospital in 1979. He had been assimilated into Portuguese colonial society by gaining a school education at a Methodist mission station where his father was the minister, and he proceeded to university studies in Lisbon. There his radical politics fell foul of the dictatorial police, and after a spell in prison he escaped, via London, to become an itinerant political exile in Africa. There he became a guerrilla commander leading small bands of soldiers who fought a gainst both a Portuguese conscript army and rival political movements seeking independence for Angola. In 1974 the Portuguese colonial empire imploded, and Neto found himself leader of the largest nationalist movement in Luanda, the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola; MPLA). On November 11, 1975, he became Angola’s president as the last Portuguese governor-general sailed away on a gun-boat under cover of darkness. Neto’s four years in the presidential palace were not happy ones. Rival political movements not only challenged his legitimacy but also made unholy military alliances with South Africa, Congo, and the United States. He also alienated his domestic constituents, and when they attempted a coup d’état he rounded on them with all the ferocity that he had experienced himself when being persecuted by the Portuguese political police. His health rapidly deteriorated, and two years later he was flown to Moscow, albeit too late, to seek a cure.

Article

The History of Sierra Leone  

Gibril R. Cole

The geographical boundaries of contemporary Sierra Leone resulted from the intense quest for imperial domains by European powers, specifically by Britain and France, during the 19th-century scramble for colonies. However, the country’s history runs deep into the past. While the peoples of the present-day republic did not have a history of large polities, there were, nonetheless, organized states with social, political, and economic structures, some of them based on conventional understandings of relations between the rulers and their peoples. Agricultural production, local, regional, and long-distance commerce facilitated not just economic exchanges, but also cross-cultural encounters between peoples from near and far. This engendered an integrative process that allowed for population growth and state expansion prior to the arrival of Europeans in the region of West Africa in the 15th century and the subsequent rise of the Atlantic slave trade. While the transatlantic system disrupted the existing political, economic, and social systems, the remarkable resilience of the peoples enabled them to rebound, only to be later subjugated to British colonial rule from 1808 to 1961. British colonialism encountered resistance in one form or another from its initial establishment until 1896, when a civil uprising devolved into a war of attrition between the people of the interior of Sierra Leone and the British colonial state. British rule and control of the colonial economy continued until the post-World War II period, when educated Africans across the continent sought to attain their independence. Sierra Leone’s educated elite organized, albeit along ethno-regional lines, to demand independence, which was granted in 1961. The post-independence experiment in democracy was subverted by political megalomania, the entrenchment of ethno-regionalism, corruption, and frequent military interventions in the state. The use of subaltern youth in the politics of the country by the state ultimately had the effect of producing a group of youths who sought to transform themselves from foot soldiers of the political groups to a military junta through violence, which engulfed the country in a decade-long civil war from 1991 to 2002.

Article

African Military History and Historiography  

Timothy Parsons

African military history is more than just the study of “tribal warfare,” imperial conquest, military coups, and child soldiers. Moving beyond conventional questions of strategy, tactics, battles, and technology, historians of precolonial Africa are interested in the role of armies in state formation, the military activities of stateless societies, and armed encounters between Africans and foreign visitors and invaders. Scholars working in the 19th and 20th centuries are similarly focused on the role and influence of African soldiers, military women, and veterans in society. In this sense, African military history is part of a larger effort to recover the lived experiences of ordinary people who were largely missing from colonial archives and documentary records. Similarly, Africanist historians focusing on the national era are engaging older journalistic and social science explanations for military coups, failed states, and wardlordism. The resulting body of literature productively offers new ways to study military institutions and collective violence in Africa.

Article

The Biafran War  

Ogechukwu E. Williams

From the onset of Nigeria’s independence on October 1, 1960, the nation was an uneasy union of numerous ethnicities whose ethnic rather than national allegiance had become entrenched in Nigerian politics under British colonial rule. These ethnic divisions came to the fore following a military coup on January 15, 1966, that became increasingly interpreted in the Muslim Hausa-dominated northern region as an Igbo coup against northerners. The coup worsened anti-Igbo sentiments in the north and resulted in repeated massacres of Igbos in the region. The widespread killing in the north continued unchecked by a new northern-led federal government that had come into power during a countercoup on July 29, 1966. When the government reneged on agreements it had made in Ghana regarding a confederal system of governance that guaranteed regional autonomy, eastern Nigeria seceded to form Biafra on May 30, 1967. Two months later, Nigeria declared war on Biafra, resulting in a conflict that lasted for thirty months. Although the war was initially regarded as merely another conflict in the Third World, Biafra propaganda, promoted by a Swiss media establishment, Markpress, ensured that the war and its image of starving children became common knowledge across the world. Markpress’s successful media campaigns resulted in the mobilization of many international organizations in a massive humanitarian effort to save Biafra and Biafran children. The war remained in a stalemate between 1968 and 1969 until the federal government made one final push in June 1969 that reduced Biafran territory to about one hundred miles by the end of that year. The war ended shortly after on January 12, 1970, following Biafra’s surrender to Nigeria. Shortly after, Nigeria implemented a “no victor–no vanquished” policy to prevent summary punishment of participants in the war. The government’s postwar policy has been criticized for excluding Igbos from key political and economic roles and potentially stoking reemerging demands in the east for Biafra.

Article

Haile Selassie  

Eshete Tibebe

Emperor Haile Selassie I is a household name in Africa and across the globe. His name evokes a variety of feelings in people. To the radical elite of the 1970s he was seen as despot; for the older generation of the same period, he was a redeemer who restored the nation’s independence. For people of African descent Haile Selassie echoes an iconic significance of pride and black identity. The Emperor was a complex personality, preventing anyone from viewing him from a singular optic. No single conceptual category can encapsulate Haile Selassie; not facile Western constructs such as absolutist, reformer, or modernizer or autocrat. All constructs touch aspects of his many-ness, and none wholly reflect the complexity and multiplicity of his character and actions. His life and political career were shaped by various domestic and external circumstances. Changing local and global dynamics molded his thoughts, actions, persona, and policies. The Emperor presided for the most part of his reign over a nation whose state structure was, by and large, weak: hence the sense of incumbency he felt to guide the process of the nation’s progress under the care of a father figure. Managing the unity of a multiethnic and multireligious nation with a complex history was a political experiment entailing huge responsibilities and challenges. His story is not easy to tell since it is shrouded in paradoxes and ironies. In understanding the Emperor and his leadership style, it is vital to put him in the context of the many-layered history of the nation and the changing political dynamics of Africa. Haile Selassie led a nation rapidly encountering social and political changes in the 20th century while at the same time championing pan-Africanism. Thus, there is a great need to present a full picture and a nuanced contribution to understanding this influential Emperor.