Africa WWI

Askari soldiers at shooting practice in German East Africa.

Africa was affected by the war in many spheres: military, political, economic, and social. The results were not the same everywhere. In areas where there had been actual fighting, notably in the German colonies, the people suffered greatly. In the French colonies, where the burden of conscription had been heavy, there were anti-colonial protests and widespread resentment. Indeed, in many areas the colonial authorities’ hold on power was weakened: their military were redirected to the war effort; markets and trade routes were disrupted; and the economic recession and growing unemployment that followed the war generated their own tensions.

Military recruitment had temporarily strengthened existing colonial armies, but many of the newly recruited troops perished. The actual number of casualties will never be known exactly, but it was undoubtedly large: of those recruited by the French almost 200,000 lost their lives, while nearly 100,000 lost their lives in the British campaign in East Africa. For the soldiers who survived the war, the experience broadened their view of both African affairs and world politics. They understood the causes of the war and the nature of imperialism, and could begin to consider the impact of colonialism on their own countries. Many acquired practical skills and a degree of technical education that they were able to put to good use after the war. For many the experience of Europeans in combat that they acquired during the war comprehensively undermined notions of white superiority.

African economies were affected in several ways. There was increased production of agricultural and mineral commodities for the war effort, but taxes were also increased and development expenditure cut. For example, Nigeria’s expenditure increased by about £1,400,000; in 1915, despite reduced revenues, FF5,860,000 were sent to France from French West Africa. In addition, various colonies raised relief funds and local war subscriptions. The economic losses took other forms too, associated with political disturbances, wildcat revolts, the scarcity of essential commodities, abandonment of development projects, the conscription of able-bodied men, and general discontent and growing unemployment in a number of cities. The dislocation of populations, shortage of shipping, and high costs for freight led to panic and an aggressive search for alternative markets. In the early months of the war, the withdrawal of German traders from regions where they had been the primary buyers of export crops, led to a loss of income for many local traders and producers. Where army recruitment had been intense many villages and rural areas were devastated by the loss of productive labor, with the number of male farmers declining considerably. The war and immediate post-war years also witnessed widespread food shortages and epidemics, including the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918–19.

A major shift occurred in the organization of foreign trade, which created new tensions between Europe and Africa. During the war, many African export traders were displaced by foreign firms that manipulated war conditions to their advantage. French and British companies dominated the important export business, backed by their colonial governments. In addition, these firms took control of businesses deserted by the Germans, thereby controlling the import trade as well. Furthermore, foreign firms established combines that forced down producer prices, emerging after the war as large firms with enormous power over the market and prices in general – all at the expense of African producers.

Germany lost its African colonies, which were shared out as ‘‘mandated territories’’ by the newly created League of Nations. The Belgians took over Ruanda-Urundi, South Africa received Namibia, the British obtained Tanganyika and northern Cameroon (added to their Nigerian colony), the French took the rest of Cameroon, and the British and French divided Togo. The expectation was that the European powers would serve only as guardians; in practice, this meant little or nothing to the African population, who were still treated as colonial subjects. When the League of Nations was dissolved in 1940, the status of these mandated territories was left unclear. The expectation that these ‘‘guardians’’ would prepare the countries for self-government was largely ignored.

There were other notable changes to the pattern of colonial rule. In January 1914, for example, the British Protectorates of Southern and Northern Nigeria were amalgamated. In 1917 a large part of western Egypt was transferred to Italian Libya, and was then administered as three units (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzān). The triangle of land to the northwest of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was transferred to Italy, also in 1917. In 1920 the French created the colony of Upper Volta from parts of the Niger, Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire. Upper Volta was subsequently divided in 1932. Thus the modern map of Africa began to acquire its current shape.

Many of the economic and social changes affected politics, contributing to the emergence of African nationalism. Colonial conquests and the war had taken from Africans many of their businesses and administrative jobs. They began to realize that they would have to insist on – perhaps even fight for – reforms if they were ever to regain what they had lost. War propaganda had condemned Germany for wanting to dominate the world, and by 1919 the principle of self-determination had become widely known. Soon the right of all people to determine their own affairs had developed from being an anti-German slogan to one that the African elite could capitalize on – what was right for Europe was equally right for Africa. Even though independence was still distant, a spirit of national consciousness had begun to develop among Africans.

The colonial authorities by and large ignored this pressure from the African elites, and the expectation that the end of the war would bring power and prestige to Africans was not realized. Early leaders of the nationalist movements in Africa were anxious to see constitutional reforms that would give educated Africans a greater role in determining their own affairs, and political parties began to emerge: the National Congress of British West Africa, for example, was founded in 1920 to demand far-reaching political reform. Small concessions were granted in the 1920s, allowing a few people from the educated elite to sit on legislative councils in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. More significantly, in North Africa revolts in Egypt had led to its independence by 1922.

Another political outcome of the war was that it enabled the colonial governments to consolidate themselves. Even as African participants in the First World War began to expect remarkable changes in their lives, colonial governments were planning ways to make their control of Africa and its resources more permanent. The contribution of Africans to the war effort were simply ignored. Having won the war, the European powers in Africa felt even more confident of their ability to rule there: some officers expressed the opinion that they would remain in charge of the continent for ever. In some areas, such as the Belgian colonies and South Africa, colonial repression became more entrenched. Whether repressive or not, the victorious colonial powers shared one goal: the economic exploitation of Africa. In view of the devastation caused to their economies by the war, they saw the control of Africa as the best way of recouping their losses and rebuilding their economies.

Further reading: Boahen, A.A. (1985) UNESCO General History of Africa. Africa Under Colonial Domination 1880–1935, London: Heinemann. Digre, B.K. (1987) The Repartition of Tropical Africa: British, French and Belgian Colonial Objectives During the First World War and the Paris Peace Conference, Ph.D. thesis, George Washington University. Lunn, J. (1999) Memoirs of the Maelstrom: A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War, Oxford: James Currey. Page, M.E. (1987) Africa and the First World War, New York: St. Martin’s Press. Reigel, C.W. (1989) The First World War in East Africa: A Reinterpretation, Ed.D. thesis, Temple University.

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