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Article

African Military History and Historiography  

Timothy Parsons

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.

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Postcolonial States and Societies in West Africa  

Ebenezer Obadare

Postcolonial West African history can be understood in terms of transitions across three successive eras: a post-independence era of high nationalism; the military era, characterized by profound political and socio-economic instability; and, finally, since the early 1990s, a democratization era, marked by continued swings between fevered hopes and anguished realities. These temporalities arguably converge on a singular leitmotif, namely, the attempt by state power to preserve its privileges and the struggle by social forces to resist the state and draw effective boundaries between the private and public domains. Gloomy for most of the “lost decade” of the 1980s, the prospect for such a project appears brighter today, especially in the aftermath of pivotal shifts in the global and regional political landscapes.

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Islam and Politics in Postcolonial Mauritania  

Alexander Thurston

Mauritania is an almost universally Muslim society in northwest Africa, with a deep history of Islamic scholarship but also painful legacies of slavery and, more recently, shifting permutations of political authoritarianism. Three main forces have affected the intersection of Islam and politics in Mauritania since independence in 1960: the growing diversity of Islamic identities and affiliations available to Muslims, the role of Islamic discourses within tense negotiations over socio-racial identity in Mauritania, and the state’s efforts to manage Islam and shape the religious field. Some of the diverse Islamic affiliations, postures, and movements in postcolonial Mauritania include loyalism, Islamism, Salafism, the missionary movement Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh, jihadism, and quietism. In terms of socio-racial tensions, there has been growing self-assertion on the part of the ḥarāṭīn (singular ḥarṭānī), an Arabic-speaking population of slave descendants who are classified as “black” within Mauritanian society, in distinction to Arabic-speaking “whites”—bīḍān (singular bīḍānī). Meanwhile, there have been variable and at-times tense relationships between the state and Islamists, as well as key moments when authorities sought to elaborate or modify structures relating to “official Islam” in the country. Amid these changes, there has been an ongoing construction and reconstruction of Islamic scholarly culture in Mauritania. The country has also had consequential exchanges with the wider Islamic world, with influence from Saudi Arabia and other states affecting dynamics of Islamic identity in Mauritania, but with Mauritania also making profound contributions to the trajectory of Islamic authority in the Gulf region through the transnational careers and media prominence of key scholars.

Article

The Ethiopian Red Terror  

Jacob Wiebel

The Red Terror was a period of intense political and inter-communal violence in revolutionary Ethiopia during the late 1970s. This violence erupted two years after the revolution of 1974 and was concentrated in the cities and towns of Ethiopia, particularly in Addis Ababa, Gondar, Asmara, and Dessie. In the struggle over the direction and ownership of the revolution, opposition groups of the radical left violently opposed a military regime that itself came to embrace and promulgate Marxist-Leninist language and policies, and that relied heavily on the use of armed force to stifle dissent. While much of the violence was carried out by security personnel, the delegation of the state’s means and instruments of violence to newly formed militias and to armed citizens was a defining feature of the Red Terror. The number of casualties and victims of the Red Terror remains heavily contested and is subject to divergent counting criteria and to definitions of the Terror’s scope in relation to other concurrent conflicts in the region, such as the Eritrean and Tigrayan civil wars; plausible figures suggest more than 50,000 deaths, in addition to many more who were subjected to torture, exile, personal losses, and other forms of violence. To this day, the Red Terror constitutes a period that is remembered in Ethiopia as much for the forms of its violence as for the extent of its harm. Its ramifications, from the support it triggered for the ethno-nationalist insurgencies that overthrew the military regime in 1991, to its role in the emergence of a sizeable Ethiopian diaspora, make the Red Terror an episode of defining and lasting significance in the modern history of Ethiopia.

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Southern African Liberation Movements in Nkrumah’s Ghana  

Matteo Grilli

The first sub-Saharan colony to obtain independence in 1957, Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana offered shelter and aid to liberation movements from all over the continent. Between 1957 and 1966, hundreds of political activists, refugees, and leaders were hosted in the country. The Ghanaian government offered them financial and political assistance and also provided military training for those involved in armed struggles. As one of the key figures of pan-Africanism, Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972) actively campaigned for African unity while supporting the independence struggles of African liberation movements. A crucial goal for Nkrumah’s government was to influence African nationalist parties ideologically in order to create a coalition of pan-Africanist movements through which to give birth to the United States of Africa. This political work served to spread Nkrumaism, the ideology crafted by Nkrumah with the aid of the Trinidadian pan-Africanist George Padmore (1903–1959), from Ghana to the rest of the continent. Nkrumah considered the assistance to Southern African liberation movements crucial, especially when, after 1960, the front of African liberation shifted increasingly toward the south. Activists and political refugees from Angola, Mozambique, Nyasaland (Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Swaziland (eSwatini), Basutoland (Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana), South West Africa (Namibia), and South Africa visited and resided in Ghana between 1957 and 1966, using Accra as one of their headquarters for their independence struggles. There, many liberation movements could intermingle, create synergies, exchange ideas, and absorb the knowledge that Ghana could offer. The impact of Nkrumah’s influence was often profound and, even if no liberation movement defined itself as Nkrumaist, many adopted and adapted solutions taken from Nkrumah’s Ghana.

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Slavery in Egypt under the Mamluks  

Adam Ali

The Muslim polity commonly referred to as the Mamluk Sultanate ruled Egypt and Syria during the late medieval period (1250–1517). Slaves played a big role at every level of society in Mamluk Egypt. A slave’s race, origins, and network (if he had one) determined the prospects of his life and career. Most slaves formed the lowest stratum in society as domestic servants and laborers. Such slaves could be Africans, Caucasians, Turks, Europeans, Greeks, Armenians, or Mongols. However, some slaves occupied the highest positions. These military slaves, the mamluks, dominated the army and the government and formed a military-political elite caste in Egyptian society. In fact, so-called military slaves played an important role in the history of the Muslim world for a millennium, starting from the 9th century. Even after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, the mamluks continued to exist as an elite socio-military class in Egypt.

Article

Algerian Civil War  

Anissa Daoudi

While the literature on the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962) is extensive, studies on the armed conflict between the Algerian military and the armed Islamic groups, which cost the lives of more than 200,000 remain insignificant. The complex intersections between the political, social, and economic factors leading to the war in the 1990s show that the critical junctures began after independence in 1962. These junctures continued through the 1970s (Arabization movement) and 1980s (1988 Berber Spring), which together can help in contextualizing the Algerian Civil War. These different periods reveal the history of the National Liberation Front (FLN) as a one-party rule and contextualize its historical strong relationship with the Algerian National Army, revealing the power dynamics between the two and the roots of the struggle over the country’s sovereignty. Furthermore, the 1980s were marked by the youth riots in 1988 (Berber Spring) and their crucial role in what president Chadli Benjedid presented as a political reform program, including a new constitution, which ended the political monopoly of the FLN and saw the emergence of more than thirty new political parties. In January 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) overwhelmingly won the municipal elections, with a much larger number of votes than the ruling FLN in the first round. However, instead of accepting the Islamists’ victory, the military promptly stepped in and cancelled parliamentary elections, banned the FIS, and arrested its leaders. After President Mohamed Boudiaf’s assassination, the government imposed a national state of emergency and used a combination of strategies including economic reforms as well tough laws to repress the Islamic armed groups and control the situation. The idea that the armed Islamic groups started after the official ban of the FIS has been contested. Two parallel strategies were adopted by the successive governments of the 1990s: one was based on the repression of the FIS, who in turn retaliated with car bombs and assassinations of women, intellectuals, police, and military forces; and the other was based on the introduction of social and economic reforms. The country went into cycles of extreme violence for more than a decade, in which the negotiations between the Islamists and the military were not interrupted. President Liamine Zaroual’s amnesty initiative, Rahma, was unsuccessful, yet it was the basis upon which his successor, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, proposed his project of amnesty, known as the Civil Concord, in 1999, later replaced by the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation in 2005. Bouteflika resigned on April 2, 2019, after months of mass protest called the Revolution of Smiles, which started on February 22, 2019, against his candidacy to the presidency for a fifth mandate.

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History of Ghana  

David Owusu-Ansah

Taking its name from the medieval West African kingdom of Ghana when it gained political independence in 1957, the former British colony of the Gold Coast is known for its pan-African stance, gold and cocoa production, and national commitment to Western formal education. The Portuguese, the first European nation to arrive on the Costa da Mina (the Gold Coast) in 1471, reported of coastal communities organized under the leadership of chiefs. The position of the chief, with the support of local elders, illustrates the stratified political structures and chains of authority from the small village to the centralized states with whom the early Europeans and other foreign traders conducted commerce. Attracted by its gold deposits, merchants from several European nations followed the Portuguese to establish competing commercial ports on the 300-mile coastline. They invested in and defended the trading posts as forts and castles. Some of these establishments are now preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in remembrance of the transatlantic slave trade. To the northern fringes of the Akan forest and through the Volta Basin, Mande Muslim traders from the old Western Sudanese empires, as well as Hausa merchants from the northeast, arrived as early as the 15th century to exchange Sahelian products for gold, slaves, and kola nuts. The history of Muslim engagement in the commerce from the north is linked to the spread of Islam in the territories. The European missionary activities on the southern coast introduced Western formal education and Christianity. The contemporary boundaries of Ghana can be traced to the history of precolonial state formation resulting from local wars of expansion and consolidation of territories by the powerful ethnic kingdoms, especially of the Akan nations. The long Asante resistance to the British presence and the ultimate European territorial delineations led to the consolidation of British rule of the Gold Coast in 1902 to commence the colonial era. Ghana’s independence from British rule was historic, as it represented the first Black sub-Saharan African nation to become independent. But, for the first thirty-five years after independence, the rule of law was intermittent, as the military overthrew civil administrations deemed corrupt or incompetent to address ongoing national economic challenges. The return to civilian constitutional rule, a free press, and successive changes of government through the ballot box since 1992, despite economic and development challenges, gave room to grow the nation’s democracy.

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.

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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.

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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 History of Guinea  

Mohamed Saliou Camara

Like most of post-colonial African nation-states, Guinea is the product of Europe’s colonial partition of the continent at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. France followed up on the Berlin arrangements with military campaigns against West African rulers and treaties with other European colonial powers (Britain and Portugal) vying for territories in the region and the Republic of Liberia. However, the ancient communities whose descendants inhabit the Republic of Guinea were part and parcel of some of the greatest kingdoms and empires that marked West Africa’s history between the 6th and 19th centuries (Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Batè, Wassolon, and Futa-Jallon). Islam, which was introduced into the region through trans-Saharan trade, scholarship, and wars involving Muslim North Africa and Islamized elites of the Bilad as-Sudan, gained prominence and ultimately became the dominant religion in Guinea. The Atlantic Slave Trade spearheaded by the Portuguese, and the succeeding legitimate trade opened West Africa to colonial conquest and occupation in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Under French occupation, Guinea underwent major political, cultural, social, and economic mutations brought about by events and processes such as its integration into the French West Africa Federation and its multifaceted participation in the World Wars, as well as in France’s colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. In the process, a nationalist anti-colonial consciousness evolved and crystallized, leading to the country’s advent to independence in 1958. As the sole French colony to reject Charles de Gaulle’s Franco-African Community, its modern history is in many ways unique. Since independence, Guinea has gone through a pro-Soviet single-party regime, military rule, and a shaky transition to the current civilian leadership, whose record of democratic governance has been checkered at best. Economic development has also been largely elusive, despite the abundance of arable land and mineral resources. This notable uniqueness notwithstanding, the history of Guinea does epitomize in some respects that of the African continent.

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Haile Selassie  

Eshete Tibebe

Emperor Haile Selassie I is a household name in Africa and across the globe. His name evokes a variety of feelings in people. To the radical elite of the 1970s he was seen as despot; for the older generation of the same period, he was a redeemer who restored the nation’s independence. For people of African descent Haile Selassie echoes an iconic significance of pride and black identity. The Emperor was a complex personality, preventing anyone from viewing him from a singular optic. No single conceptual category can encapsulate Haile Selassie; not facile Western constructs such as absolutist, reformer, or modernizer or autocrat. All constructs touch aspects of his many-ness, and none wholly reflect the complexity and multiplicity of his character and actions. His life and political career were shaped by various domestic and external circumstances. Changing local and global dynamics molded his thoughts, actions, persona, and policies. The Emperor presided for the most part of his reign over a nation whose state structure was, by and large, weak: hence the sense of incumbency he felt to guide the process of the nation’s progress under the care of a father figure. Managing the unity of a multiethnic and multireligious nation with a complex history was a political experiment entailing huge responsibilities and challenges. His story is not easy to tell since it is shrouded in paradoxes and ironies. In understanding the Emperor and his leadership style, it is vital to put him in the context of the many-layered history of the nation and the changing political dynamics of Africa. Haile Selassie led a nation rapidly encountering social and political changes in the 20th century while at the same time championing pan-Africanism. Thus, there is a great need to present a full picture and a nuanced contribution to understanding this influential Emperor.