Why do former Portuguese colonies in Africa have so many landmines?

Guinea-Bissau recently became the tenth country in Africa to be able to declare itself free of anti-personnel landmines after completing its demining obligations under Article 5 of the Mine Ban Treaty (AP Mine Ban Convention, pdf). The other African countries who have declared themselves to be mine-free, and whose declarations are unchallenged, are Burundi, Gambia, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Swaziland, Tunisia and Zambia (The Monitor).   Namibia has declared itself to have completed demining of it territory, but that claim is disputed by Landmine Monitor researchers (The Monitor); Djibouti has also declared itself landmine-free according to the AP Mine Ban Convention Implementation support unit but that claim is also contested by the Landmine Monitor (The Monitor).  If you are keeping track, that’s nine countries with an uncontested claim to being mine-free, of which only one – Guinea-Bissau – is a former Portuguese colony.

Portugal had five colonies in Africa, two of which are island states (Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe) and the other three (Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique) had significant landmine contamination.  For most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, landmine contamination followed de-colonization.  Exceptions include Italian possessions in East Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) which resisted Italy’s invasion and where fighting took place between Italian and British forces during World War II.  In North Africa, landmine contamination dates back to World War II, but landmines were also used by the French in their attempts to contain Algerian independence in the 1960s.  For the former Portuguese colonies, independence did not come until 1974 when a revolution in Portugal, partly led by soldiers tired of fighting and dying to preserve Portugal’s overseas empire, brought a new government to power and independence was hurriedly granted to Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. In Guinea-Bissau, the new country’s leadership coalesced quickly and the fighting ceased with independence.  In Angola and Mozambique, Marxist governments were established under the MPLA and FRELIMO parties, respectively.  In 1975, in the heights of the Cold War, the emergence of Marxist governments was not going to be tolerated by the West and via South Africa, the Angolan rebel group UNITA emerged, and via Rhodesia, the Mozambican rebel group RENAMO emerged. 

The wars in Angola and Mozambique were some of the longest running conflicts of the Cold War.  Angola’s wars covered five decades, from the 1960s to the 2000s, ending only with the death of UNITA’s leader, Joseph Savimbi.  Mozambique’s wars lasted 30 years until 1992 and the end of the Cold War brought a halt to international support to the combatants.  I think the Cold War connection is the key to the extent of landmine contamination in these two countries.  The Cold War context provided participants in the wars with access to sources of arms and money, including landmines, and the sponsors of the participants had little to lose if their allies suffered from or caused massive casualties.  Neither the Soviets nor the Americans committed any troops to these conflicts and the arms buildup that began with the Vietnam War meant that the super powers had an awful lot of weapons that they could offer to allied forces.  Unlike post-Cold War conflicts, the participants in the wars in Angola and Mozambique did not have to finance their forces, the Soviets and Americans did that for them and the Soviets also provided front-line troops in the form of Cuban soldiers whilst South Africa provided US-funded forces. 

In many ways, the front line of the Cold War in the late 1970s was between the 15th and 18th parallels in southern Africa.  With the United States withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 and the forcibly re-unification of that country in 1975, the guns, soldiers and money had to go somewhere.  In the 1980s, the battlefield would move to Central America, but in 1975-1980 the Cold War belonged to southern Africa.  The United States and South Africa supported UNITA, FRELIMO and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia against the MPLA, RENAMO and the Zimbabwean independence movement.  For the United States, this was an ideological war; for Apartheid-era South Africa, it was about survival as FRELIMO provided support and sanctuary to the African National Congress.  The Soviet Union had supported FRELIMO and the MPLA when they were fighting for independence against Portugal as part of a broader tendency to support anti-colonial movements.  Once in power, MPLA and FRELIMO were trying to install communist regimes with support from the Soviets.  Oil and diamonds were not yet a factor.

The wars in Angola and Mozambique in the 1970s and 1980s, like the wars in Cambodia and Afghanistan at the same time, represent a different kind of conflict from those that we see in the post-Cold War period.  In the post-Cold War era, the rebel movements seemed to get smaller and more focused on sources of revenue.  You begin to see a nexus of conflict resources and child soldiers after the Cold War and after the end of state sponsorship of rebel factions.  When the Soviet Union or the United States supported a rebel faction, that group had access to conventional weapons, military training and financing.  After the Cold War, every gun had to be bought, every soldier had to be paid (hence the shift to child soldiers who don’t expect to be paid), and fighters needed to be trained (again, child soldiers using AK-47s require very little training).  The role of conflict diamonds or other lootable resources becomes important as a source of finance for rebels who can no longer rely on wealthy patrons.  The targets of rebels changed as well.  Instead of directing attacks against government forces and installations, civilians become the targets; mostly because civilians lack the ability and means to fight back and the rebels lack the strength in numbers or force to fight pitched battles.  Symmetric warfare gives way to asymmetric warfare. 

In Angola, UNITA made the shift from Cold War freedom fighters to post-Cold War rebels thanks to conflict diamonds.  In Mozambique, RENAMO lost the support of South Africa with the end of Apartheid and the Cold War and changed tactics, trading bullets for the ballot box as a political party in a democratic state. Portugal’s former colonies got caught in the Cold War trap as a quirk of timing.  They weren’t destined to be two of the most landmine-affected countries in the world, but as home to civil wars in which neither side cared about anything other than winning, the indiscriminate use of landmines was an acceptable tactic for wars’ sponsors.  Landmine use would not be as widespread in conflicts after these.  Instead, landmines and minefields became more targeted against roads and to protect the vital conflict resources. 

Guinea-Bissau escaped Mozambique and Angola’s fate and that’s why it is now free of anti-personnel landmines and why Portugal’s other former colonies face decades of continued threat from landmines.

Michael P. Moore, February 3, 2012


Author’s note: I’ve not sourced this post as well I’ve sourced others.  Most of my information comes from past readings of Martin Meredith’s “The Fate of Africa” and Christopher Cramer’s “Violence in Developing Countries” and many other sources too numerous to count or recall.  Please do feel free to correct me.

2 Comments on “Why do former Portuguese colonies in Africa have so many landmines?”

  1. […] Why do former Portuguese colonies in Africa have so many landmines?, published February 3, 2012 […]

  2. […] Why do former Portuguese colonies in Africa have so many landmines? […]

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