The KGB in Africa

Africa has long been a geopolitical battleground among the great powers, with the Cold War representing an especially intense round of this struggle. From the archives of Russia’s SVR comes an overview of the KGB First Chief Directorate’s intelligence, covert action, and political influence operations in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s.  

In the postwar period, Soviet foreign intelligence had to work on an African continent almost unknown to it up to that time. In the 1950s, Soviet intelligence’s interest in Africa was conditioned mainly by the acquisition of information on the plans and intentions of Western countries. At that time many air and naval bases of NATO member nations were situated in Africa. Their interest in the continent was rooted not only in strategic reasoning: Africa was rich in food and mineral resources, and her depths preserved deposits of materials necessary for modern industry, such as uranium, cobalt, wolfram, copper, nickel, oil, and many others.

To what measure did the NATO countries seek to use the African continent in their confrontation with the Soviet Union? Our intelligence service was looking for answers to that question. To meet these objectives it had earlier mainly utilized its possibilities in Western nations. In Africa itself, Soviet foreign intelligence’s positions were more than modest. There were small residencies only in Egypt and Ethiopia, and by the end of the 1950s, residencies had also opened in Sudan, Ghana, and Guinea.

Soviet intelligence began its real work in Africa starting in the year 1960, when the process of African countries’ decolonization began to gain strength. 17 independent states immediately appeared on the map of the African continent. The UN declared 1960 the Year of Africa.

Within Soviet intelligence there was established an African department. Its tasks could be summarized as the following:

  • Facilitate the quickest liquidation of remnants of the colonial system.
  • Help national liberation movements in remaining colonies.
  • Track the policies of former and current colonizers: Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal;
  • Make sense of US policy in relation to Africa;
  • Analyze the situation in each African country – will it remain in the orbit of the old system or take a new path?
  • Acquire friends and allies among Africans.

To that were added security issues for Soviet diplomatic colonies, embassies, and other Soviet institutions.

The 1960s proved themselves to be a “hot” decade both for young African nations and Soviet foreign intelligence. African countries that had just been liberated immediately encountered harsh confrontation with their former metropoles, who sought to maintain political and economic positions in their former colonies. In a number of cases this led to the emergence of crisis situations, such as in the former Belgian Congo, for instance.

Coups d’etat that occurred with the interference of Western powers and their intelligence services, accompanied by internecine conflicts, tribal feuds, and civil wars, became a habitual phenomenon. In every concrete situation, information from Soviet intelligence was required on who came to power, what forces carried out the coup, and along which path they were intending to lead the country. To answer all these questions was not easy. At times the participants in the events themselves didn’t know. African residencies, just formed and usually composed of young officers, couldn’t give exhaustive answers to all these questions. But in good faith they sent information directly from the scene of events, information that was useful to Moscow since it allowed the leadership to see and evaluate events more clearly.

From our very first steps working in African countries, our officers met with serious problems. Everyday disorganization, a lack of elementary sanitary and living conditions, and interruptions in the supply of food were understandable. It was difficult to expect comfortable work and living conditions in backward nations that had just yesterday been under the colonizers’ yoke.

Good Morning, Africa!
Good Morning, Africa!

But then complications in reaching mutual understanding with Africans turned out to be a complete surprise to the majority of our intelligence officers. Africans had a totally different mentality, habits, and mores. Naiveté and the hope for quick assistance combined with irritability and distrust. Colonial times had accustomed them to not trust the white man, and deceiving him was considered merited. All these particularities of the post-colonial African character had to be overcome by our officers, and not without hard work.

It wouldn’t be completely correct to claim that the very fact of African countries obtaining independent status caused the Soviet leadership to automatically make a decision on organizing intelligence work in the young African states.

The process of decolonization was a natural and historically inevitable phenomenon that depended little upon the will of the Soviet Union and Western colonial powers. However, in the conditions of the Cold War and confrontation between the two world blocs, this process itself became an object of the confrontation.

The loss of colonies weakened the bloc of Western powers. That answered to the interests of the Soviet Union and strengthened its foreign policy positions. The Soviet Union, therefore, supported African nations’ struggle for their own political and economic independence.

The United States and colonial countries, in their turn, sought to hinder this process by any means, including the use of their intelligence services. In such a manner, the African continent turned into an arena of ideological and political confrontation for the two blocs.

And so the African peoples’ struggle for their liberation became an object of great-power rivalry. Such was the logic of the Cold War era.

Soviet intelligence conducted work in government and political circles of young African countries with a progressive orientation with great caution, limiting matters, as a rule, to confidential relationships. Therein was one of the most important particularities of its work in Africa: it wasn’t directed against African countries, but rather, was objectively answering to the interests of fighting to strengthen their own political and economic independence and their sovereignty. The interests of African nations liberated from colonial dependence and those of the Soviet Union coincided on these questions.

Therefore, from the very beginning of organizing work in Africa, the leadership of Soviet foreign intelligence did not recommend conducting recruitment work in the political and government circles of progressive African countries. This hardly made the acquisition of information – necessary for completing the tasks set before foreign intelligence – any easier. We were made to search out new techniques and methods of work. Processing open-source information such as various publications, directories, the press, radio and television, for example, acquired great significance. Of course the main weapon, however, remained confidential ties in political and social circles.

Such work demanded good political training, a knowledge of the problems, and great professional mastery. Political and social figures, government servants of various ranks, right up to the highest, all enthusiastically came to establish contacts. Usually these relationships were built and developed on a commonality of political or ideological interests. However, the intelligence officer’s art was to lend these relationships a certain direction, gradually, and in a natural way make them less noticeable to the surrounding public, bringing them to such a degree of privacy that one could count on receiving the confidential information required.

For many years confidential ties remained the dominant form of work in African countries. In such a way our intelligence officers were able to acquire no small number of friends and secure the acquisition of needed intelligence information.

In a number of African countries viewed by the Soviet leadership as progressive in orientation, such as Algeria, Guinea, Ghana, Congo (Brazzaville), Somalia, Ethiopia and an whole set of others, our residencies were tasked with a mission quite unique for intelligence – with its specific assets, it was to facilitate the development and strengthening of these countries’ relations with the Soviet Union. The balance of power among our African partners was not simple. There were supporters of developing relations, and there were opponents, both open and hidden. Sometimes such a position was the result of being insufficiently informed and misunderstanding Soviet policy in African nations. Often a negative attitude toward the Soviet Union was the consequence of failures in our foreign policy, as well as the narrow institutional approach of our diplomatic and foreign trade organizations that enacted the partnership, red tape, and bureaucracy.

On the other hand, Western diplomacy and intelligence conducted work to undermine relations between the Soviet Union and African countries, cultivated and bought off African leaders, used their agent networks, and disseminated disinformation that represented in distorted form the policy and intentions of the USSR in Africa. Alongside that, of course, they used our mistakes and miscalculations.

Soviet foreign intelligence subjected all circumstances connected to the problems of relations with African countries to thorough analysis, and then reported their proposals to the leadership in Moscow.

The Soviet leadership often used intelligence possibilities to convey intelligence of a delicate character to the leaders of African nations. And so, for example, the Soviet leadership informed Algerian president Boumediene through intelligence channels on the activity of Western agent networks in the highest echelons of the Algerian leadership.

Leonid Brezhnev meets Muammar Gaddhafi in the Kremlin.
Leonid Brezhnev meets Muammar Gaddhafi in the Kremlin, 1981.

KGB cooperation with the security services of a number of young African countries played an important role in the development of friendly relations between them and the Soviet Union and strengthening their sovereignty, with this partnership enacted mainly through foreign intelligence. This cooperation basically amounted to the exchange of information that presented a mutual interest, the short-term training of personnel in Moscow and locally, and assistance through operational hardware. Certain Soviet aid was also rendered in the structuring and organization of work for African countries’ security services. Advice and recommendations were given, but the Africans took decisions, which far from always corresponded with what was recommended by our advisors. Overall, cooperation between the security services of young African countries with the USSR’s special services helped them to build their state apparatus.

A very crucial function carried out by Soviet intelligence in Africa was to maintain ties with the liberation movements of countries not yet free from colonialism. Help and support was provided not only by the Soviet Union. These movements were oriented toward various countries – the US, USSR, China, etc., and sometimes toward several countries at a time. They were extended different types of assistance – political, financial, and political, as well as through training cadres and providing advisors and specialists. This help was directed along various channels: both through the state and social, humanitarian, and international organizations. Assistance along intelligence lines was usually carried out clandestinely. And so the United States long managed to conceal their support for the Union of Peoples of Angola (UPA), headed by Holden Roberto, support that was realized through the CIA.

The Soviet Union also extended assistance to these movements through various channels. The Party Central Committee’s International Department entrusted a significant volume of the work for maintaining contacts with liberation movements and according them help to foreign intelligence.

There was a logic to this arrangement. The majority of liberation movements were underground, and the intelligence services of the metropolitan countries worked actively against them. They tracked liberation organizations not only in their colonies, but also in third countries where they had their bases and representative offices, hunting down their leaders; executing terrorist acts; infiltrating their agents; intercepting communications channels; and detecting the contacts of these organizations with the outside world and their sources of obtaining support. The CIA was also engaged in similar work on these organizations. The Americans sought to infiltrate the liberation movements and take them under their control in order to assert their positions in these young states after their liberation.

In such a way the operational environment inside liberation movements was complex. Aside from good political preparation, working with them demanded professional knowledge and skills from an intelligence officer.

Carrying out these tasks, our intelligence officers established and maintained contacts with the leaders of the majority of liberation movements, such as the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN), the National Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the African Party of Independence for Guinea and the Cabo Verde Islands (PAIG), the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), the People’s Organization for Southwest Africa (SWAPO), and others that came to power after achieving the liberation of their countries.

In general the leaders and representatives of the liberation movements were full of an earnest desire to wage the most decisive struggle for the liberation of their countries. Others were cautious and chose allies from the outside world while hedging their bets. The third group, oriented toward Western assistance, made contact with us to find out the Soviet position and tease out to whom, how, and through what channels the USSR was extending aid. There were also those who played at politics; speculated on the liberation struggle; lived on the assistance provided to the liberation movements; acquired luxurious villas and automobiles; jetted around to international conferences and congresses; vacationed and went to hospitals on the invitation of foreign states; and gave an endless number of promises, thinking least of all about their country’s liberation struggle. All of that we had to carefully sift through. There were also errors, especially when our partners stubbornly set out to prove that their position was one of “scientific communism.” For the Party’s highest echelons, by whose orders Soviet foreign intelligence worked with the liberation movements, it was sometimes difficult to refrain from dogmatic temptations.

Soviet military advisors in Angola.
Soviet military advisors in Angola.

Soviet intelligence didn’t make a hard ideological choice among movements. It sought to encompass as wide a circle of liberation organizations as possible and analyze their real possibilities in the struggle for national liberation. And so in the Angolan liberation movement, along with Aghostino Neto’s MPLA, our intelligence service attempted to arrange relations both with Holden Roberto’s Union of Peoples of Angola (UPA) and Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). In Zimbabwe Soviet intelligence maintained contacts with of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). It was another matter that not all these parties decided on partnership with the Soviet Union; some of them preferred to rely on the United States and other Western countries.

Today, when much is published and analyzed, having entered the circulation of academic and popular literature, we can assert that the CIA’s work with liberation movements (we are not touching upon other Western intelligence services) was no less large-scale than that of Soviet intelligence. Into these activities were involved not only state, but also academic, social, international, and private commercial organizations. With this objective the CIA created an entire network of research centers, foundations, and associations; it brought in major Africa scholars and prominent political scientists, and it mobilizes enormous financial assets.

Contacts with the representatives of liberation movements at times turned into a genuine university on politics. Exchanging information was underway, problems of world and African policy were analyzed, as well as experiences on the path of struggle and liberation – their achievements and mistakes – from countries that had already broken free from manacles of colonialism. At that time our intelligence officers, with their African friends, had to analyze the theories popular among the African intelligentsia, such as Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism, negritude, and the African socialism of Leopold Senghor. These leaders preached the uniqueness of the African people’s historical path of development and how common laws of historical development were inapplicable to Africa. Our liaisons wanted to know how correct these theories were and what we thought of them; we had to learn while improvising.

Enrichment was mutual, and nevertheless, our officers gave more than they received, a rare case for intelligence. A natural process of formation of political positions and worldview was occurring among the leaders of Africa’s liberation movements. The Africans themselves found their orientation in the information they received in the course of our communications, and they themselves chose and defined their positions.

Work with representatives of liberation movements diverted intelligence officers from purely intelligence missions – the acquisition of sources of information and penetrating objects of the main adversary. Not all officers, therefore, liked it, and the Center also didn’t especially reward those who devoted much time to it. It wasn’t always that every intelligence officer would be able to find a “golden mean” in this contradiction.

The anti-colonial liberation process in Africa was a historically inevitable phenomenon. The colonial powers didn’t want to lose their positions and defended them at first by force – through military or terrorist methods, and then, under the influence of events, in a growing measure through political means. They viewed Soviet policy in Africa as a threat to their interests, the USSR’s attempt to spread influence in Africa and a communist threat to the African continent. And on the African continent there were both objective and subjective underpinnings for a confrontation between intelligence services.

One way or another, in these conditions – sometimes in a most difficult environment of political instability, crises, and wars characteristic of Africa in the 1960s and 70s, Soviet foreign intelligence performed its duty. To the best of its abilities, it resolved the tasks set before it by our country’s leadership and facilitated the process of asserting independence by colonized and subject peoples.

Work Translated: Очерки истории российской внешней разведки: В 6 т.
Т. 5 : 1945 — 1965 годы. М.: Международные отношения, 2003, 768 с., ил.

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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