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Distinctive shifts in African modes, causes, and experiences of warfare can be traced to European colonialism and the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. Traditional African warfare was transformed by fighting against colonialism, and in fighting as European agents on behalf of colonialism. But contrary to popular myth, warfare is no more intrinsic to Africa and Africans than any other places or peoples.
As is true for human societies everywhere, almost all African societies have had many experiences of conflict that escalated into various forms of warfare. A few behavioral theorists have speculated that the earliest hominid and human communities, which arose in Africa, were initially formed in the crucible of violent conflict. While controversial, such theories have had a major impact on the public imagination since the late twentieth century; these ideas may well have shaped the stereotype that Africans have—from earliest times until the present century—been almost hopelessly trapped in cycles of intercommunal war and violence. The history of warfare in Africa, however, does not bear out this gloomy vision.
Many African societies have held a special place for martial specialists, or warriors. In and of itself, however, the role of such specialists is not necessarily evidence of widespread warfare on the continent before the arrival of Europeans. At the same time, it does suggest that Africans were prepared for various wars and other violent conflicts. The warrior classes often provided training and testing grounds for societally valued traits of masculinity, while at the same providing means of defending the populace from any external threats. In some cases these threats involved political challenges to established leadership or efforts to subsume additional people into either an established or a new sociopolitical orbit. But frequently the point of such traditional conflict was acquiring wealth, often cattle. In eastern Africa, for example, Jomo Kenyatta, the first prime minister and president of Kenya, recalled that for the Kikuyu, warfare was sometimes little more than “a form of stealing by force of arms” (Kenyatta 1938, 198).
For many Africans the mystique of warfare was bound with ritual and magic. Warriors frequently displayed their prowess both in ceremonies, including dance and musical performances, and in more private rituals, sometimes associated with limited-membership groups or secret societies. The exploits of traditional African military leaders were often extolled in public recitation of their deeds. Frequently these included magical explanations of their successes, calling upon the spirit sources of their strength and other abilities. Such were the stories told of the great warrior and national leader Sundiata (d. 1255), founder of the Mali Empire, by the Malian griot (storyteller) Mamadou Kouyate. Despite significant traditional support for warfare, there was little in the experiences of traditional warfare to prepare Africans for the challenges of warfare presented by expanding external demands for economic advantage or political power.
Impact of the Slave Trade
While some African wars traditionally resulted in the capture of human beings and the absorption of those individuals as productive members of their captors’ societies, external demands for slaves occasioned a transformation in these patterns of African warfare. Islamic sources make clear that African societies were willing from an early time to adjust their patterns of war to encourage the capture of people who could be sold as slaves. But it was the almost insatiable demand of European traders for slaves from the sixteenth century onward that transformed African warfare in material ways. In particular regions, such as the eastern frontiers of the kingdom of Kongo and the grasslands and scrub forests of West Africa south of the Sahara, the devastation caused by increased warfare was especially significant. Even after opposition to the Atlantic slave trade grew in Europe, in order to satisfy the demand for slaves in Arabia and on European-settled islands in the Indian Ocean, warfare in the search for slaves continued well into the nineteenth century in other regions.
The latter effects of warfare inspired by the demand for slaves was responsible for one of the great ironies of colonialism, the call for European intervention on the African continent to end persistent African warfare. This was the basis of appeals made by the missionary David Livingston (1813–1873) for British involvement to bring the benefits of Christianity, civilization, and legitimate (as opposed to slave) commerce in eastern and southern Africa. These calls were made at a crucial time, when both literacy and the availability of low-cost popular publications were shaping the awareness of many Europeans about the African continent. These ideas first set in place notions of widespread African warfare, which were exacerbated by later developments in colonial policies regarding Africa.
Colonial Warfare in Africa
Chief among the results of calls for ending African warfare were military expeditions to “pacify” African peoples and bring them under the “benevolent” control of European powers. In two divergent ways, these efforts also involved Africans in new experiences of warfare. One was a reorientation of African military efforts to oppose the expansion of European interests on the continent. For the most part, Africans were ill-equipped to counter the increasingly technological forms of warfare they confronted. Few African armies were able to successfully repulse European incursions, although some had occasional successes, as did the Zulu impis (regiments) in defeating British troops at the Battle of Isandalwana in 1879, an important early battle in the Anglo-Zulu war. But as the saying goes, while the Zulu won the battle, the British ultimately won the war. Nevertheless, the defeat of the betterarmed but poorly deployed British by the superior numbers and strategy of the Zulus marked the worst defeat for the British in battles against native forces. The success of the Zulu can be partially attributed to the innovative military reforms of the Zulu Kingdom under the leadership of Shaka (c. 1787–1828). Only the Ethiopians, under Emperor Menelik (1844–1913), were fully successful in warfare against European powers, turning away Italian invaders at the Battle of Adwa in 1896.
The second new military experience tied to colonial expansion was the effort to turn Africans—and especially those from what European colonialists presumed to be “martial races”—into soldiers of colonialism, transforming them into the very troops needed to first create and then enforce colonial domination in many areas of the continent. Among the earliest of these colonial military units was the British King’s African Rifles (KAR), soldiers recruited from east and central Africa. KAR (and other similar) units not only preserved the colonial peace within their own territories but often were sent to other parts of the continent to enforce colonial rule. This practice of co-opting colonial Africans as the military agents of colonial warfare represents a historical turning point in the impact of warfare for Africans.
Africans and the World Wars
In many ways, the culmination of this transformation came as colonial powers sought to utilize colonial troops in their own defense when facing the daunting military challenges of the twentieth century. The European warfare that began in August 1914 was in large part brought on by colonial rivalries and soon spilled over into those colonies, especially in Africa. Minor campaigns brought modern warfare to several areas of the continent for the first time, and the East African Campaign actually continued until several days beyond the armistice in Europe. Perhaps as many as 2 million Africans were drawn into military service during that war as both soldiers and military laborers. France also relied upon African troops for the defense of its home front, and Britain sent thousands of South Africans to Europe as laborers. These experiences—both directly for participants and observers as well as indirectly for those who later heard about them—brought the reality of modern warfare fully into the African consciousness.
With the advent of renewed warfare between the European powers in 1939, Africans were again recruited for military service. Their most significant deployment on the continent was during the North African campaigns, where large numbers were trained as truck drivers. Other Africans served overseas, many in campaigns to repel the recent Japanese conquest of Southeast Asian territories as well as with units sent to Europe in the effort to turn back Nazi occupation. On returning home, these men frequently felt dissatisfied with the rewards they were given for their service; not infrequently they were soon after involved in various protests against continued colonial domination in Africa.
Contemporary African Warfare
One of the responses to these protests by former soldiers was the expansion of colonial military units and the advance of some Africans to officer corps. Thus, when the protests led to independence for many African colonial territories—sometimes relatively peacefully, for others rather bloodily—the resultant new states came with ready-made national armies. On the one hand these armies served as agents of nation building, employing increasing numbers of citizens and frequently engaging in public-works activities. But on the other they were frequently agents for the settling of various disputes, both real and imagined, which came with the demands of European-induced concepts of sovereignty and nationality. In this context, any number of perceived slights or even ethnic differences could—and sometimes did—escalate into warfare.
The resulting pattern of conflict, well-known from earlier examples of developing European nationalism, was civil war, mostly notably in Congo, Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Rwanda. Other African countries, including Uganda, Sierra Leone, and the long-independent Liberia, faced internal rebellion. Significant international peacekeeping efforts—including important initiatives of the Organization of African Unity (and its successor, the African Union)—helped to reduce this new form of African warfare. Perhaps more significantly, other African countries, such as South Africa managed to avert postcolonial warfare, breaking the pattern of national violence that has plagued European nations since the sixteenth century. Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century the legacies of colonialism and the struggle for power are still to be fully played out. Established as a Belgian colony, the Congo (officially Democratic Republic of the Congo) in particular remains a violent and dangerous place where rape has become a weapon of war. The Darfur region of Sudan is plagued by claims of genocide. Somalia remains a state on the verge of failure and at the mercy of warlords. And in Zimbabwe a new generation of leaders is seeking to take over from a corrupt regime still clinging to the successes of the liberation movement of decades earlier.
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