Friday, 29 August 2014

The concatenation of African role in the war of 1914-1918 or World War I

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

THERE COULDN’T be a more appropriate text from which to embark on an on-the-spot reminder to the world of the role of Africa and Africans in the intra-European World war of 1914-1918 or the Great War or the First World War than Unbowed: One Woman’s Story, the inimitable memoirs of Wangari Maathai, the award-winning celebrated environmental activist and biologist (, accessed 28 August 2014). In those poignant passages memoralising on uncle Thumbi, conscripted by the British occupation regime in Kenya in 1914 to fight the Germans in neighbouring Italian-occupied Somalia and German-occupied Tanganyika (contemporary Tanzania), Maathai notes (Unbowed, 2008, 27-28):
In my family there was a missing member, someone I did not find out about until I was well into adulthood. During the First World War, Africans in the colonies were conscripted to fight or serve as porters. In Kenya, if parents had an able-bodied son old enough to go to war, they were … expected to surrender him to the authorities. My grandparents had such a son, Thumbi. My grandmother did not want her son, who was more than twenty at the time, to join the war. She was in despair. So she advised him to hide in the dense vegetation near a high waterfall in the Tucha River … [but Thumbi was eventually caught … and the British] went and seized him … “He will never come back,”  my grandmother … cr[ied]. And he never did. He became one of the more than one hundred thousand Kikuyus who died on the battlefield or from starvation or influenza during the First World War … My grandmother cried for her son for the rest of her life…
(John Coltrane Quartet, “Tunji” [personnel: Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums; recorded: Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US, 11 April 1962])
All of Africa lost one million of its peoples fighting in this intra-European World war in battle fronts in East Africa, Cameroon (west Africa) and in Europe itself – for Britain, France, Belgium, Czarist Russia and their allies against Germany, Italy, Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans and their allies and for Germany, Italy, Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans and their allies against Britain, France, Belgium, Czarist Russia and their allies.

ESSENTIALLY, this was a war, in addition to the follow-up 1939-1945 confrontation, that Africa and African peoples had no business, whatsoever, fighting in. The two principal protagonists in each conflict, Britain and Germany, were lead powers in the pan-European World conqueror-states that had formally occupied Africa since 1885. Britain was indeed the foremost conqueror of Africa from the group, having occupied the continent’s prized lands – lands with major population centres and vast and multiple natural resource emplacements in south, central, east and west regions: South Africa, Namibia (proxy control, post-1918 – after the defeat of Germany in 1914-1918 war), Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania (post-1918, after the defeat of Germany in 1914-1918 war), the Sudan, Nigeria, south Cameroons (post-1918, after the defeat of Germany in 1914-1918 war), Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia. Britain is also the lead beneficiary of this same pan-European World states’ 400 years of enslavement of African peoples, mostly in the Americas, since the 15th century CE (Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Readings from Reading: Essays on African Politics, Genocide, Literature, 2011, especially chap. 1). As for Germany, beginning in 1904 and ending in 1911, i.e., prior to the 1914-1918 war, it had carried out the genocide of the Herero, Nama and Berg Damara peoples in its occupied Namibia in southwest Africa with the following catastrophic outcome during the period: wiped out 8o per cent of Herero, 51 per cent of Nama, 30 per cent of Berg Damara (Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, African Literature in Defence of History, 2001: 37-38). For Belgium, an Anglo-French ally in the 1914-1918 war, indeed the state whose initial attack by Germany triggered this conflict, it, too, entered the intra-European war in 1914 in the wake of committing a 30-year trail (1878-1908) of genocide against Africans in the Congo basin in which it annihilated 13 million constituent peoples (see multiple research by historian and linguist Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem, especially Histoire générale du Congo: De l'héritage ancien à la République Démocratique, Paris: Duculot, 1998: 344).
 (Wayne Shorter Octet, “Mephistopheles” [personnel: Shorter, tenor saxophone,  Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Alan Shorter, flugelhorn; Grachan Moncur III, trombone;  James Spaulding, alto saxophone; Herbie Hancock, piano;  Ron Carter, bass; Joe Chambers, drums; recorded: Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US, 15 October 1965])
IT is against this cataclysmic background of history that Africans found themselves conscripted by both sides of the confrontation line in 1914-1918: clearly, the double- jeopardy of conquered and occupied peoples at once fighting wars for and against ruthless aggressors. In commemorations of a century of this war that have been underway across Europe recently, a recurring theme in the media (and academia) that has been used to articulate African role in the war is “hidden” or “silent”, even “unknown”. There was indeed an academic who appeared in one of the BBC frontline current affairs newsmagazine programmes who used the bizarre phrase “not really well known” in describing “African involvement”. “Hidden”, “silent”, “unknown”, “not really well known” – by whom?!

OF COURSE nothing about the role of Africa and Africans in this conflict is “hidden” or “unknown”. On the contrary. What has duly been the difficulty that the presumed “gatekeepers” of this history (who have all along been tireless “rationalisers” of the European conquest and occupation of Africa) have had is how to explain the very perverse role of desperately occupied peoples fighting a war of/for their occupiers. I have argued severally (see, for instance, African Literature in Defence of History, chap. 1 and Ekwe-Ekwe, Africa 2001: The State, Human Rights and the People, 1993, especially parts I-II) that two critical developments of the 20th century – the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 – shatter the cardinal features of the position of these “rationalisers” irrevocably:

(a) The 1919 treaty of Versailles that ends the 1914-1918 war frees all subjugated European peoples in Russia, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman whilst African peoples in German-occupied  Africa [Namibia, Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo, Rwanda, Burundi] do not  have the restoration of their freedom but are, instead, occupied by Britain, France and Belgium [ironically, latter two countries hardly withstood the 1914 German juggernaut!]

(b) Africans in mostly British-occupied, French-occupied and Belgian-occupied Africa are again conscripted, beginning in the autumn of 1939, to fight against Germany, as the new war erupts, even though Germany had, since 1918, ceased to be a conqueror/occupying-state in Africa  

(c) Africans in mostly British-occupied and French-occupied Africa are conscripted, beginning in the autumn of 1939, to fight against Japan, in the forests of Myanmar, even though the Japanese were not and have never been conquerors or occupiers of Africa

(d) Belgian king and state which barely resisted the German assault on their territory beyond three weeks in May 1940 had the entire financing of the Belgian war effort [including the entire expenses of the country’s exiled royal family and government in London], totalling £40 million, paid for by Belgian-occupied Congo; this is the same Belgian-occupied Congo where the Belgian monarch and state had murdered 13 million Africans in the 30-year old genocide cited earlier

(e) Thousands of Africans perish in the battle fronts of east Africa, Europe and south Asia fighting for Anglo-Franco-Belgian conquerors/occupiers of Africa

(f) Restoration of African independence in the post-war epoch is distinctly rejected by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a November 1942 speech in London [I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”, he stresses, “From our archive: Mr Churchill on our one aim”, The Guardian {London}, 11 November 2009] in his own interpretation of the August 1941 “Atlantic Charter”, formulated by him and US President Franklin Roosevelt, which declares unambiguously: “all people had a right to self-determination”

(g) In similar vein, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the “Free French Forces” who had been on exile in England since Germany overran France in 1940, rejects African independence in the post-war era during a 1944 conference of global French occupation-governors in Brazzaville, Congo

(h) Writing recently in The Mail on Sunday [London, 23 August 2014], George Carey, a former archbishop of Canterbury, recalls: “This year we are reminded by the commemoration of two world wars that the values of our democratic traditions are precious. Our fathers and grandfathers … fought against totalitarianism for the survival of democratic virtues”. Pointedly, Carey’s hearty summation does not incorporate the African experience as we have highlighted here. Such has been the asymmetrical character of this history that besides Japan, Czarist Russia/Soviet Union and Austro-Hungary, Africa has been largely under an unparalleled totalitarian straitjacket enforced, since 1885, by each and every dominant state across those two strategic battle lines that map the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 wars.

FOLLOWING from (f) and (g) [above], it is in fact no coincidence that Britain would wage two devastating wars against  two African nations at the forefront of terminating its occupation  of Africa  in the immediate post-1939-1945 war era: against the Gĩkũyũ in the east in the 1950s, with the death of tens of thousands of Gĩkũyũ and others and in co-perpetrating the Igbo genocide in west Africa with the state in Nigeria, 1966-1970, with the murder of 3.1 million Igbo or one-quarter of this nation’s population. Both the Gĩkũyũ and Igbo had spearheaded the liberation of Kenya and Nigeria respectively from the British occupation.

It should now be evident that on a broader stretch of examination, there can’t be any such thing as “hidden” history. Instead, what some practitioners wish to do is obfuscate or, worse, deny. Writing on the “Concept of History”, Walter Benjamin has argued that the “past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection” (, accessed 19 August 2014). He poses two pressing questions: “Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? [I]s there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today?” He is uncompromisingly forthright in response:
…The Angel of History must look just so. [Its] face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, [itsees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before [its] feet … nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history. Indeed, the past would fully befall only a resurrected humanity. Said another way: only for a resurrected humanity would its past, in each of its moments, be citable. Each of its lived moments becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour [order of the day] – whose day is precisely that of the Last Judgement. 
AT THE CRUX of trying to manufacture this phantom of  “lost to history”, as far as Africa and Africans are concerned, Chinua Achebe’s invaluable insight follows and we will quote him at length:
[The European conquest of Africa] may indeed be a complex affair, but one thing is certain: You do not walk in, seize the land, the person, the history of another, and then sit back and compose hymns of praise in his honour. To do that would amount to calling yourself a bandit; and you won’t to do that. So what do you do? You construct very elaborate excuses for your action. You say, for instance, that the man in question is worthless and quite unfit to manage himself or his affairs. If there are valuable things like gold and diamonds which you are carting away from his territory, you proceed to prove that he doesn’t own them in the right sense of the word – that he and they had just happened to be lying around the same place when you arrived. Finally if the worse comes to the worse, you may even be prepared to question whether such as he can be, like you, fully human. From denying the presence of a man standing there before you, you end up questioning his very humanity …[I]n the [European conquest] situation presence was the critical question, the crucial word. Its denial was the keynote of [this conquest’s] ideology. (Chinua Achebe, “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration”, Kunapipi, 12, 2, 1990: 4; emphasis added.)
In her closing testimony on uncle Thumbi, Wangari Maathai writes (28): “My grandparents … never received any official word about what had happened to their [son], or any compensation. This is still an open wound. I want to say to the British government ‘My uncle went to war and never came back, and nobody ever bothered to come and tell my grandparents what had happened to their son’”.

APPROPRIATELY, one would wish to modify Wangari Maathai’s note to the British government and then re-address it, on behalf of African peoples, to all the governments and parliaments of all states involved in confrontation in the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, bar Japan, Austro-Hungary and Czarist Russia/Soviet Union: “Our conscripted daughters and sons went to war to fight for you and never came back, and nobody ever bothered to come and tell us what had happened to them”.

Works cited

Achebe, Chinua. “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration”. Kunapipi, 12, 2, 1990: 4.

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History”. 1940,, accessed 19 August 2014.

Carey, George. “Why I, as a Christian, believe we have to banish evil British jihadists from these shores”. The Mail on Sunday, London, 23 August 2014.
Ekwe-Ekwe, Herbert. Africa 2001: The State, Human Rights and the People. Reading: International Institute for African Research, 1993.

Ekwe-Ekwe, Herbert. African Literature in Defence of History: An Essay on Chinua Achebe. Reading and Dakar: African Renaissance, 2001.

Ekwe-Ekwe, Herbert. Readings from Reading : Essays on African Politics, Genocide, Literature. Reading and Dakar: African Renaissance, 2011.

Ekwe-Ekwe, Herbert. Daughter-of-the-soil”. Rethinking Africa, accessed 28 August 2014.

Guardian, The From our archive:  Mr Churchill on our one aim”. London, 11 November 2009.

Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem. Histoire générale du Congo: De l'héritage ancien à la République Démocratique. Paris: Duculot, 1998.

John Coltrane Quartet. “Tunji”. Recorded: Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US, 11 April 1962, accessed 29 August 2014.

Maathai, Wangari, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story. London: Arrow Book, 2008.

Wayne Shorter Octet. “Mephistopheles”. Recorded: Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US, 15 October 1965, accessed 29 August 2014.


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