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Africans in World Wars I and II  

Joe Lunn

World Wars I and II were very probably the most destructive conflicts in African history. In terms of the human costs—the numbers of people mobilized, the scale of violence and destruction experienced--as well as their enduring political and social impact, no other previous conflicts are comparable, particularly over such short periods as four and ten years, respectively. All told, about 4,500,000 African soldiers and military laborers were mobilized during these wars and about 2,000,000 likely died. Mobilization on this scale among African peasant societies was only sustainable because they were linked to the industrial economies of a handful of West Central European nation states at the core of the global commercial infrastructure, which invariably subordinated African interests to European imperial imperatives. Militarily, these were expressed in two ways: by the use of African soldiers and supporting military laborers to conquer or defend colonies on the continent, or by the export of African combat troops and laborers overseas—in numbers far exceeding comparable decades during the 18th-century peak of the transatlantic slave trade—to Europe and Asia to augment Allied armies there. The destructive consequences of these wars were distributed unevenly across the continent. In some areas of Africa, human losses and physical devastation frequently approximated or surpassed the worst suffering experienced in Europe itself; yet, in other areas of the continent, Africans remained virtually untouched by these wars. These conflicts contributed to an ever-growing assertiveness of African human rights in the face of European claims to racial supremacy that led after 1945 to the restoration of African sovereignty throughout most of the continent. On a personal level, however, most Africans received very little for their wartime sacrifices. Far more often, surviving veterans returned to their homes with an enhanced knowledge of the wider world, perhaps a modicum of newly acquired personal prestige within their respective societies, but little else.

Article

The Anlu Rebellion  

Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué

From 1958 to 1961, Kom women in western Cameroon cast aside their regular domestic and agricultural duties to engage in a revolt against British administrative interference in agriculture—normally their domain—and the alleged plan by the ruling political party, the Kamerun National Congress (KNC), to sell Kom land to Nigerian Igbos. In keeping with the practices of anlu, a centuries-old women’s organization generally deployed against people who violated the Kom moral code, women interfered with burial rituals; hurled insults at men in public; demanded the closing of schools, courts, and markets; set up roadblocks; destroyed and burned property; and defied both traditional and British authorities in the Bamenda Grassfields of western Cameroon. Their tactics included stripping naked in front of men. While local men considered the sight of the vagina in public to be a bad portent and thus understood the seriousness of the revolt, flabbergasted British officials had no idea what was to come. By seizing control of resources and demonstrating in public, Kom women disturbed local political power, and protested against British rule in the Southern Cameroons. They were a crucial force in the victory of the Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) in 1961, which brought a restoration of political order at the time of independence.

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

Obafemi Awolowo  

Insa Nolte

Obafemi Awolowo (full Yoruba name: Ọbafẹ́mi Jeremiah Oyèníyì Awólọ́wọ̀, b. 1909–d. 1987) was one of the most important statesmen and political thinkers of Nigeria in the 20th century. After losing his father at the age of ten, Awolowo worked as a teacher and journalist to complete his secondary education before moving into business. Following his marriage to Hannah Awolowo in 1937, he was able to mobilize the resources to travel to the United Kingdom, where he obtained a law degree in 1946. Confronted with ethnic rivalry during his early activism in the Nigerian Youth Movement, Awolowo developed a federalist vision for Nigeria. Building on his understanding of grassroots Yoruba politics, he mobilized Yoruba ethnicity and solidarity through the cultural organization Ẹgbẹ́ Ọmọ Odùduwà. Awolowo’s party, the Action Group, became the dominant Yoruba party in the 1950s, and Awolowo served as the first premier of the Western Region in 1954–1960, when he presided over an ambitious modernizing program. Reduced to the leadership of the opposition in 1960, Awolowo was subjected to a politically motivated trial in 1962 and imprisoned. The loss of his eldest son while in prison encouraged a turn toward the spiritual but also gained him widespread sympathy: after his release from prison in 1966, Awolowo was recognized as the leader of the pan-Yoruba politics, to the emergence of which he had contributed. As he also embraced a more distinctly socialist politics, many of his supporters also saw him as a potential reformer for Nigeria. However, as the vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council (1967–1970) and as federal commissioner for finance (1967–1971) during the Nigeria–Biafra War (Nigerian Civil War), Awolowo also attracted bitter criticism by eastern Nigerians, who held him responsible for the loss of human lives caused by the war. In 1979, Awolowo returned to party politics with more explicitly socialist policies but, having failed to win the presidency, resumed his role as the leader of the opposition. When another military coup ended the Second Republic in 1983, Awolowo retired from active politics. Following his death in 1987, Awolowo became a focal point of struggles within the Yoruba elite both over his succession and over the nature of Yoruba politics. In the process, he was posthumously ascribed virtues, agency, and powers beyond the historical record. However, in the context of a broader Nigerian politics, he was also seen as having larger-than-life negative qualities. His legacy continues to divide Nigerian public debate in the 21st century.

Article

The Amazons of Dahomey  

Agbenyega Adedze

The Amazons in general come from Greek legend and myth without any palpable historical evidence. However, there is no doubt about the historical female fighters of the erstwhile Kingdom of Dahomey (Danhome or Danxome) in West Africa, which survived until their defeat by the French colonial forces in 1893. The history of the historical Amazons of the Kingdom of Dahomey stems from vast amounts of oral tradition collected and analyzed over the years, as well as written accounts by Europeans who happened to have visited the kingdom or lived on the West African coast since Dahomey’s foundation in the 17th century to its demise in the late 19th century. These sources have been reviewed and debated by several scholars (including Amélie Degbelo, Stanley B. Alpern, Melville J. Herskovits, Hélène d’Almeida-Topor, Boniface Obichere, Edna G. Bay, Robin Law, Susan Preston Blier, Auguste Le Herisse, etc.), who may or may not agree on the narrative of the founding of the kingdom or the genesis of female fighters in the Dahomean army. Nonetheless, all scholars agree that the female forces traditionally called Ahosi/Mino did exist and fought valiantly in many of Dahomey’s battles against their neighbors (Oyo, Ouemenou, Ouidah, etc.) and France. The history of the Ahosi/Mino is intricately linked to the origins and political and social development of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Ahosi/Mino are still celebrated in the oral traditions of the Fon.