"Soviet expansion in Africa" has become something of a political battle cry for US conservatives. But on most of the continent, Moscow and its allies probably wish they were doing half as well as Sen. Jesse Helms and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. say they are.
Although the Soviet Union has retained its influence with traditional -- and well-publicized -- Marxist governments like those of Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Angola, "expansions" in recent years have been few and far between. In fact, over the last few years setbacks in black Africa have far outnumbered gains for the Russians and their friends.
Reasons for the Soviet loss of influence are many, including bad judgment in Zimbabwe, where support for the wrong black nationalist faction left Moscow out in the cold after independence, and short-sightedness in Equatorial Guinea, where close alliance with an unbalanced tyrant led to diplomatic reprisals and all but universal popular hatred for the Soviets after the overthrow of Macie Nguema Biyogo.
More than specific complaints against the Soviets, however, the marked political shifts in such former bastions of communism as Guinea, Mali, and even to some extent Congo (Brazzaville) and Angola appear to reflect a more fundamental disenchantment with a Soviet Africa policy that is long on hardware, but short on long-term economic development assistance.
"You see the difficulties we're in," said an Equatorial Guinean recently in Malabo, the badly run-down capital that is only now digging itself out from the 11 years of neglect under Macie. "We wouldn't eat but for the Spanish [food aid ], but the Soviets only want to give us arms. You can't eat guns," he concluded.
Western nations, especially the United States, have, of course, welcomed the diminishing Soviet role in former strongholds, and in a few instances have profited it -- as in the agreement to use Soviet-built naval facilities in Somalia. Nevertheless, while Western economic assistance and investment will increase, a wholesale transfer of allegiance is unlikely.
Even solidly pro-Western governments here are unwilling to line up politically with a US administration seen increasingly on the continent as the defender of the white regime in South Africa. And the Soviet Union, by sending a senior-level delegation to the just-ended United Nations conference on apartheid, probably scored points with black states by contrasting its commitment to sanctions against Pretoria, with the Reagan veto of such a proposal.
At the same time, a maturing African leadership is growing wary of involvement in an East-West power struggle that, while forming the foundation of the Reagan-Haig foreign policy, holds few visible advantages for the black states.
"They are realizing that nonalignment is their only hope," explained a Yugoslav diplomat, who was not at all unhappy with the Soviet setbacks.
Nevertheless, declining Soviet-bloc influence is likely to mean an increase in Western leverage, if only because of its economic muscle. After a brief flirtation with Libya, for example, the new government in Liberia swung back to traditional ties with Washington, at least partly because of the serious economic problems facing the country.
Two weeks ago, Liberia ordered Libya to close its "people's bureau" and asked the Soviet Union to reduce its diplomatic staff from 15 to six.
Thus Liberia became the seventh black country this year to close Libyan diplomatic missions. One of them, Nigeria, has also led diplomatic efforts against the Libyan troop presence in Chad.
In fact, Libya's one "victory" in black Africa -- its intervention on the winning side in the Chad civil war last December -- may also be souring. Despite heavy Libyan lobbying efforts, the black states remain adamantly opposed to Libya's presence in Chad, at the same time Chadian antipathy for its northern neighbor is increasing.
In Guinea, a dispute over the price Moscow was paying for bauxite exports prompted Ahmed Sekou Toure to turn to Western companies interested in that country's enormous mineral reserves. As a result, since 1977, the USSR has lost landing rights for its TU-95 reconnaissance planes, and the use of naval installations in Conakry.
In recent years, Soviet military advisers have been expelled from or asked to leave Guinea, Mali, Somalia, and Equatorial Guinea, and in each case US economic assistance -- both private and governmental --has increased as a result. Even in such Marxist states as Congo (Brazzaville) and Angola, where "treaties of friendship" with Moscow are regularly renewed, Western economic ties are surprisingly strong.
In both countries, it is Western companies --Angola and Congo so badly need for foreign exchange. In Angola, the national airline flies Boeing jets, not Ilushyins, and Luanda's largest correspondent bank is not the Bank of Narodny, which finances Moscow trade outside the Soviet bloc, but that citadel of capitalism, Chase Manhattan Bank.
Congo (Brazzaville) meanwhile, has adopted a liberal investment code to attract Western investment and has pledged not to nationalize foreign firms investing there. Western capital and technical assistance have recently been called in to restructure moribund state-owned companies modeled on the Soviet ideal.
In probably the most publicized loss, the Soviet Union's backing for Joshua Nkomo's nationalist group in Zimbabwe left Moscow without diplomatic representation for months, after Robert Mugabe won the postindependence election. Though Mugabe is an avowed Marxist, the Soviets still have little influence in Zimbabwe, and it was to Western donors that Mugabe turned to rebuild the war-torn economy.
Aside from the welcome slight to the Soviet Union, Mugabe's good relations with the West -- which almost universally opposed his accession to power -- throws into doubt strongly held views in the Reagan administration that Soviet-bloc material assistance to liberation groups like SWAPO (the South-West Africa People's Organization) and the Polisario Front will undoubtedly lead to radical governments in Namibia and Spanish Sahara if those two groups come to power.
While it was Zimbabwe that got publicity, the most serious fall from grace for the Soviet Union in black Africa was probably in Equatorial Guinea, a small West African nation comprising several islands off the coast of Gabon and Cameroon, and a mainland enclave between the two countries.
During the 11 years of the Macie reign, when the increasingly paranoid leader stepped up imprisonments, almost unspeakable tortures, and executions of an estimated one-sixth of the population of 250,000, the Soviet Union and Cuba remained Macie's closest -- and finally his only -- advisers.
When the current government overthrew Macie in August 1979, that friendship was not forgotten.
"They [the people] remember 11 years of prison, and they remember that it was the Soviets who were advising [Macie]," explained a guide from the Ministry of External Affairs during a recent tour of the capital.