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Militarizing Africa and African Studies and the U.S. Africanist Response

From: African Studies Review
Volume 55, Number 2, September 2012
pp. 147-161 | 10.1353/arw.2012.0041

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There was an ironic and troubling confluence in the 1958–64 years when simultaneously the majority of African nations won their independence, the Soviet Sputnik went up and shocked Americans that they were not technologically number one in space, the Cold War exploded to new levels of conflict, and African studies—with its centers, faculty, students, fellowships, and language programs—was founded. In the emerging competitions of the Cold War, the U.S., USSR, and other Eastern and Western bloc nations quickly began to intervene on multiple continents.

In this commentary, I seek to examine why, in the midst of U.S. Cold War interventions in Africa, the African studies scholarly community developed a policy to reject military and intelligence funding for two decades in spite of pressures from the government and senior university administrators to take the funds. I begin by describing briefly the Cold War policies that precipitated the Africanist position and how that African activism has changed in recent decades. Then I seek to explain the character and scale of the little understood explosion of U.S. military planning for Africa since 9/11. I then pose the question about what should be the response of Africanists now in light of the rapidly changing situation in Africa and African studies that has emerged after the 1998 East African bombings and the subsequent military, intelligence, and funding surges following September 11, 2001.

Scholars and U.S. Foreign Policy

We know little about the responses of foreign area scholars in the USSR, China, and other Eastern Bloc countries to their governments’ policies and interventions in what was termed the “Third World.” In the West, a number of scholars with expertise on particular countries and world regions were part of government policymaking and supported the new policies; however, a significant number of scholar experts took issue with the interventionist policies of the big powers. For instance, significant numbers of U.S. scholars opposed U.S. policy in Southeast Asia (especially wars in Vietnam and Cambodia) and, in 1968, formed the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars and issued several monographs and a Bulletin, today published as Critical Asian Issues.

For Latin America, some scholars mobilized against the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama as a hemisphere-wide military academy to “control internal subversion” and opposed the U.S.-backed interventions and coups d’état in Costa Rica (1948), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1950s–60s), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973), and the Contras in Nicaragua (1970s and ’80s). In 1967 a group of students formed the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) to work for freedom from “oppression and injustice” and for “a relationship with the United States based on mutual respect, free from economic and political subordination.” A group of activists, journalists, and scholars continues to publish the bimonthly NACLA Report on the Americas.

For the Middle East, a significant group of U.S. scholars opposed a number of U.S. policies to undercut Arab nationalism and to arm and protect Israel. In 1971 a group of scholar-activists formed the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) and they continue to publish Middle East Report.

For Africa, scholars organizing to oppose U.S. policies did not emerge actively until the 1970s. The issues of whether scholars supported U.S. Cold War policies in Africa and should collaborate with U.S. security agencies broke into the open at the 1969 annual meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA) in Montreal. The association was confronted with charges of excluding African American academics from leadership and of ASA leaders having close ties with the U.S. intelligence and military agencies when they supported minority regimes in southern Africa. In the ASA, these racial and political conflicts resulted in the formation of the separate African Heritage Studies Association (AHSA). This split, and the complex politics of race in this country that it exemplified, complicated creating a unified voice among Africanist scholars on U.S. Africa policy. The increasing flow of scholars in the U.S. from African diaspora communities has become a vital addition to scholarship and political attention to the continent, but it, too, has added complexity to developing a...

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