African military history is more than just the study of “tribal warfare,” imperial conquest, military coups, and child soldiers. Moving beyond conventional questions of strategy, tactics, battles, and technology, historians of precolonial Africa are interested in the role of armies in state formation, the military activities of stateless societies, and armed encounters between Africans and foreign visitors and invaders. Scholars working in the 19th and 20th centuries are similarly focused on the role and influence of African soldiers, military women, and veterans in society. In this sense, African military history is part of a larger effort to recover the lived experiences of ordinary people who were largely missing from colonial archives and documentary records. Similarly, Africanist historians focusing on the national era are engaging older journalistic and social science explanations for military coups, failed states, and wardlordism. The resulting body of literature productively offers new ways to study military institutions and collective violence in Africa.
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.
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.
Guns have loomed large in many African societies since early modern times. This has much to do with their military and economic potential, but also with the influential social life they often obtained. Being instruments of destruction in the first place, the history of guns is closely connected with various forms of violence, especially with warfare and hunting; however, the significance of the gun went far beyond this. Guns were, for instance, applied in every-day protection of crops and livestock and integrated into ceremonies and festivities; they became signifiers of royal and chiefly power, objects of gender identification, attributes of professional groups, and markers of social status and racial difference. Studying the social life of guns allows for new insights into the material foundations of cultural domains and the construction of social hierarchies; at the same time, it demonstrates that the social and cultural meanings of objects, including guns, are never stable and are subject to constant change. The history of guns in Africa is also one of appropriation and domestication of foreign technology, rising consumerism, and efforts to overcome dependency from importation. The presence of guns often had strong impacts on social and natural environments, both physically and mentally. Studying gun violence and arms regimes from an historical perspective helps us to better understand processes of political centralization and fragmentation, practices of resistance against colonial rule, and also the forming of authoritarian regimes and criminal organisations. The ambiguous history of the gun resonates in contemporary images and memories, connected with both order and violence and liberation and oppression.
South Africa’s Apartheid Wars had a profound effect on shaping the postcolonial landscape of the region, as well as the country itself. This much is evident from the difficulties encountered by the liberation movements in making the transition to government. The armed struggle and the experience of exile left a deep imprint on these movements and shaped them as political organizations. They have not been able to divest themselves of internal hierarchical structures, as well as intolerant and authoritarian tendencies. On the other hand, the counterrevolutionary war waged by the apartheid state’s security nexus delayed decolonization and shaped the political culture considerably. The militarization of South African society undermined civil-military relations, contributed to a legacy of corruption in the defense sector, and proved detrimental to the practices of governance. The integration of the armed formations of the state and the liberation movements into new national armies were fraught processes. Reconciliation became the byword in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa, but only the latter established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as an exercise in nation-building. However, cohesion and consensus remain elusive as the fault lines of colonial and apartheid society are still very much in evidence. Moreover, the governments of the region harbor resentment about South Africa’s dominance of the region and remain suspicious of its intentions. Therefore, relations between these states, and groups within them, are still prickly. The conflicts might be over but the countries of the region are still having to deal with contestations over their remembrance and commemoration.
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.
Sarah J. Zimmerman
African women are profoundly affected by warfare and its consequences in their societies. Militarization describes the violent processes that transform communities’ social, political, economic, and cultural spheres beyond the battlefield. These effects are gendered. Militarization transforms the social institutions that gender and define women’s personhood—marriage, motherhood, daughter, wife, widow, concubine, slave, domestic laborer, etc. Since these institutions are references for social continuity and discontinuity, conflict turns women into symbols of nationalistic significance and centers their procreative power and roles within regimes of morality. Militarization facilitates transformations in gendered roles and sexualities—women became soldiers and auxiliary wartime laborers, as well as the strategic targets of armed violence. Economic, social, and political status were key in determining women’s experiences of conflict and militarization. Elite women are often better-positioned to maintain their personal safety and access leadership roles in their communities during and after conflict. Low-status women were more vulnerable to enslavement, sexual/domestic violence, food insecurity, disease, displacement, and death. Women’s myriad experiences of militarization challenge false assumptions about the incontrovertible linkages between masculinity and belligerence or femininity and pacifism. Militarization alters how women realize optimal futures due to changes in gendered-access to authority, legal accountability, as well as perceptions of moral order and the division between public and domestic life. A handful of ancient and medieval noble women provide legendary exploits of warrior queens, who mobilized armies toward political unification or the defense of their societies. In several centralized African societies, noble women—as queen mothers or reign mates—constrained and bolstered the authority of male leaders. Dahomey fielded female regiments in battle. The warfare affiliated with long-distance slave trades and 19th-century state building created dichotomous experiences for elite and slave women. Elite African women depended on the resources generated from slave export, as well as benefited from the domestic and agricultural labor of captured and enslaved women. European colonization and the spread of monotheistic Abrahamic religions altered African women’s experiences of militarization. The gendered biases of written sources obscure the degree to which women participated in the militarization of their societies within political and/or religious conquest. Colonization normalized gender-restricted access to power and militancy, as well as entrenched patriarchy and gender dichotomies that equated masculinity with martiality and femininity with nonviolence. Anticolonial, revolutionary rhetoric championed African women’s participation in wars of decolonization—as freedom fighters and mothers within new nations. Women experienced great personal and communal violence in the postcolonial military dictatorships that prioritized patriarchal and violent power. During the 1990s, Western industries of humanitarianism and global media propagated stereotypical portrayals of African women as victims of male-perpetrated violence and as innate peacemakers. To the contrary, African women have played myriad roles in societies experiencing secessionist wars, military dictatorships, genocide, warlords, and Salafist militarization.