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.
African Military History and Historiography
Africans in World Wars I and II
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.
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.
Guns in Africa
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.
Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army
Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) emerged in northern Uganda when Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement was also active (see entry for Lakwena, Alice). The groups had much in common, including spirit possession by their leaders. They were a response to the upheavals in the Acholi region following the seizing of political power in Uganda by Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army in 1986. However, while Lakwena’s forces were defeated in 1987, the LRA proved to be extraordinarily resilient. It has been more orientated to guerrilla tactics and acts of terror, including child abduction. LRA activities, combined with oppressive anti-insurgency operations by Museveni’s government, resulted in forced displacement of over a million people. In 2003, the situation was recognized as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world by the United Nations Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, and, in 2005, arrest warrants were issued for Joseph Kony and four other LRA commanders by the International Criminal Court. Peace negotiations began in 2006 but failed in 2008. The LRA then became active outside Uganda, in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic (CAR). Hundreds of local people were massacred, and thousands forced to flee their homes in 2008 and 2009. From 2008, the United States supported Ugandan military operations against the LRA, and US support was significantly increased from 2011. The scale of LRA violence declined from 2010, and in 2015, Dominic Ongwen, the only surviving LRA commander wanted by the International Criminal Court apart from Kony, was handed over for trial in The Hague, after being taken into custody by US forces. US and Ugandan forces were withdrawn in 2017, but Kony’s subsequent efforts to reinvigorate the LRA were unsuccessful. While Kony remained at large, Dominic Ongwen’s trial proceeded at the International Criminal Court. In February 2021, Ongwen was found guilty of sixty-one crimes (comprising crimes against humanity and war crimes). The judgment was a landmark ruling in terms of the successful prosecution of forced marriage and forced pregnancy. By 2020, Kony was living with a small band of followers, in a disputed territory between South Sudan and Sudan, bordering the Central African Republic, surviving by farming, and trading in local markets. He has reportedly abandoned his aim to overthrow the Ugandan government.
Legacies of South Africa’s Apartheid Wars
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.
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.
The Amazons of Dahomey
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.
The Uganda–Tanzania War was a military conflict between Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda and Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania. The roots of the conflict can be traced back to Amin’s seizure of power in Uganda in a coup against Nyerere’s ally Milton Obote in 1971. Their mutual animosity was then cemented by Nyerere’s approval of an invasion of Uganda by armed exiles the following year. The two countries continued to have strained relationships, leading to border disputes and faltering regional relations. Finally, in October 1978, Amin’s military invaded Tanzania and declared the annexation of all territory north of the Kagera River. This invasion convinced President Nyerere that Amin must be dealt with once and for all. Following a period of mobilization, the Tanzanian military forced the retreat of the Ugandan forces and prepared an invasion of Uganda. The Tanzanians then won a series of battles in southern Uganda, routing Amin’s military forces and their Libyan allies. Nyerere and the Ugandan exiles then focused on taking Kampala and installing representative government. These goals were accomplished in April of 1979 and the Tanzanians completed the removal of Amin loyalist forces in June, marking an end to the war. The Kagera War shaped much of the future for both countries. For Tanzania the war was seen as a unifying patriotic struggle. However, the economic strain of the war combined with the challenges of demobilization undermined President Nyerere’s struggling ujamaa villagization efforts. For Uganda the removal of the Amin regime was a welcome change, but not one that brought peace. The elected government of Godfrey Binaisa was removed in a coup and the return of Milton Obote to power led to a series of rebellions. The chaos released in the postwar period would only end with Museveni’s seizure of power in 1986.
Women and Militarization
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.