World War II: Africa’s War of Independence

Article by Tom Hartley. Edited by Liz Goodwin. Additional Research by Tom Hartley.

From the mid-1950s to the 1970s, a wave of decolonisation swept across Africa, as approximately 50 new states and nations came into existence in a short space of time. What is remarkable about the sweeping change is not how quickly it happened, but how peacefully the transformation came about. Only in very few territories, for example Algeria, Kenya and Angola, did independence come through warfare and revolutionary struggle, usually because the colonial power was unwilling to let go. African states generally achieved independence with the consent, if not always the full support, of their former colonisers. The fighting would usually come later, between the Africans themselves, over who should lead the new state. The reasoning why European states voluntarily allowed the last of their colonies to leave is therefore an interesting question. The answer lies about 20 years prior to decolonisation, in Africa’s very own War of Independence. It was a war not fought against their colonial masters, but alongside them.

Angolian Soliders

As is already well known, the Second World War changed the international order and ideological priorities dramatically. Although it was not clear at the time, these changes had as big an effect in Africa as in Europe and America. In a sense, the old colonial powers Britain and France had won the war but lost the battle – their status as the biggest names on the world stage was now over. They had been replaced by the USA and the USSR, two nations that, for different reasons, objected to colonialism. Furthermore, the Allies had won a war that was fought to preserve freedom across Europe. It became very difficult for proponents of colonialism to continue to support the oppression of Africans in the new political climate. These moral issues, along with the financial cost of propping up an empire with Europe so devastated, led to a movement away from colonialism. After an initial slow period, an African map that was once peppered with just four African states in a sea of imperial powers became fully independent.

However the connection between the Second World War and African rights wasn’t made purely by the colonial and global powers. Africans themselves had a considerable impact in driving the continent towards independence, with much of the support for self-determination driven by the war. 375,000 Africans participated in the war on the side of the Allies, not only in Africa itself (the main battlegrounds being fought in Egypt and Ethiopia) but also further afield. Africans went to Europe and saw prosperity. They also saw whites fighting whites, challenging the idea of black inferiority that Europeans had enforced on their society. Africans also went to India, and there they saw people living under a colonial regime who were getting a considerably better deal.

The composition of colonial armies was forced to change with the outbreak of the Second World War, as recruitment intensified. David Killingray explains:

‘In the pre-1939 colonial armies the highest rank to which any African could aspire was that of warrant officer. Practice at that time was for African troops always to be led by a white man. The war years, and the recruitment of educated Africans, challenged colonial policy and practice and brought change in the Sudan and West Africa’.

In addition, African soldiers found that conditions in the camps were better than at home. The food was better, they could stay healthier, and had easier access to hospitals and health care. They also played sports and games and gambled, and spread ideas while they were not at the front.

Kwame Nkrumah

This all posed a problem for Africans, and therefore for their European masters, when they returned home at the end of the war. Due to the recruitment policy of the Europeans, which had turned to conscription when volunteers stopped coming forward, African soldiers often came from the most rural backgrounds. Having had experience of getting regular, albeit minimal, pay, the soldiers returned to find themselves without regular work. Some also found themselves without homes, as wives occasionally left them for new men while they were abroad. The war had served to politicise the rural classes of Africa.

One story of a rural African radicalized by the war is Kaggia, from Kenya:

‘His main political interest was in his own country. ‘I kept on asking myself, why did I serve in the British army when I knew well that the same government in Kenya was against Africans? Why was I helping a government to maintain its strength when that strength kept Kenya a colony?’

When Kaggia returned to Kenya in 1946, he was immediately subjected to ridicule and humiliation by white settlers.’ It was clear that now the war was over, the British did not care what happened to African soldiers.’ He quickly joined the nationalist struggle, and became prominent in Kenyatta’s new Kenya African Union and as an Independent Church leader. Kaggia typifies to a large degree the village boy who went to the war in ignorance and returned a deeply committed nationalist’.

For the first time, educated African elites and parts of the rest of the population were on the same level. In 1945 the fifth Pan-African Congress was held, in which black intellectuals from both Africa and America came together to discuss ideas for the future of the continent. African nationalism had existed before 1939, but its position as a realm solely for elites had meant little progress was made. Now, African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana could speak of an African national consciousness ready for independence. The war had left many Africans disillusioned with the colonial state and demanding political reform. As a by-product it had improved literacy and bridged the gap between the educated and the uneducated. Although work was still to be done, and it would take at least fifteen years, independence was just around the corner.

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