World War II: Sixty Years and the Untold African Story


Francis Kizito (

Few days from now the "world will gather to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War 2. Leaders will come from far and wide to give speeches dealing on the liberation of the world from tyranny. The Allied forces (including UK, US, France, Russia, Poland, Australia and some other countries in Europe) will pay homage to soldiers who died in that Great War as well as remember other services these liberators have rendered in setting free mankind. The Axis forces (Germany and her friends) on the other hand, will be left to lick the wounds of defeat. A leader or two will come on the world stage to tender apologies for atrocities committed against a people during that dark era of world history. There will be apologies for the Jews (Hitler gassed about 6millions of them during that period,) the "free women" (Korean women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese Army) and the "world" at large (since there was a disruption of world peace in those six terrible years.) What will definitely be lacking in this banquet of  victors will be a full presence of the actors in that circus of death. America will give her account, Europe will also give her account, same as Asia and Down Under but no  of Africa there will be silence. Again the "Dark continent" will be unsung on the pages of history and her contributions in a war that was not hers to fight in the first place will be ignored. It will be a thing of astonishment if any African leader is invited to grace any occasion directly or indirectly related to VE Day (Victory in Europe) which signaled the end of the Second World War.

When Hitler rolled his tanks into Prague on the 15th of March 1939, the African continent was under the control of the colonial overlords. Except for a few countries (Ethiopia and Liberia) most of the black man's world was under the control of some queen, king or government who ruled it like a personal property and was responsible for determining the fate of her people. The war was to affect Africa in ways both positive and negative. This will not be the first time the colonies will be called upon to get their masters out of their misadventures, there were Africans in the First World War but their roles were limited to being porters and serv ants (only white soldiers of South Africa were allowed to fulfill combat roles.) In WWII, African soldiers fought, killed, were killed and received decorations for bravery, valor and other honorable conducts on the field of battle. One might ask, "Where did these soldiers come from?" How was the white man able to mobilize troops from among a people whom centuries earlier he had called "apes" "savages" and even "pagans"? The answers can be found with our traditional rulers. The tribal chiefs gave permission for the recruitment and conscription of able-bodied young men in their domain for military service. This was also how the colonists mobilized the colonized in WWI. A Bugandan (Uganda) chieftain was quoted to have made this comment: "A war against Britain is a war against Buganda … I did all I could to recruit men for the armies …I tried my best to get in touch with the British armies for I did not want the enemy to get to our city London." The basic difference between recruitments in the 2 wars was that conditions were better for the African soldier in WW2 than in WW1. He received a salary, better training in weapons and survival, traveled to other continents and hence interacted with other cultures who shared the same hatred for the colonial master (hence the first growls for independence) and he learnt to assert himself and develop a sense of self worth. In a nutshell, World War 2 "opened" his eyes to the world around him. The experiences of the African soldiers will reflect in years to come as soldiers encouraged their people to send their children to school and receive the white man's education. Some of them went to school themselves and would later be in the forefront of the struggle for independence from the colonial masters.

With inaccessibility of the Asian market to Europe as a result of Japanese blockades, the colonials turned to Africa for production of vital raw materials. In his highly recommended textbook," Regional Geography of Nigeria," N.P Iloeje describes his memories of world war 2 as  planting of oil palm trees in order to contribute to the war effort. (An attempt was made to market coal which did not actually prove successful.) One wonders if there are any records of revenues and volumes of trade that must have been generated during this period in order to fully appreciate the contribution of Africa to the 2nd "World" war. There is a lot of trivia on WW2. Ranging from how many gallons of fuel used to the number of flowers given to Allied soldiers as tokens o f love and appreciation, it is difficult, however, to find information that deals with serious matters such as how many African soldiers died fighting in that war, how much of the continent's resources was used to feed the war machine and what was the justification? Africans were made to believe in unsubstantiated stories like the cannibalistic nature of Germans, the bid by the Axis forces to wipe out the entire black race and a promise of eternal gratitude of the colonial lords. All sorts of stories and myths were invented to give reasons why the ignorant African should go and fight for his king and country.  When one researches into the African involvement in the world wars, it seems as though there is a big conspiracy to sweep the African story under the rug. There are hardly any materials to refer to. The only evidence my generation has of any of such an adventure(or misadventure?) are oral traditions of aged great grandfathers who re galed us with stories of their exploits in the great "Burma" war( African soldiers saw most of their action in the Pacific theatre fighting against the Japanese in Burma, India, etc hence the name Burma war.) With an absence of materials to preserve this crucial moment in black history, subsequent generations will continue to wallow in absolute ignorance of the service our fathers have rendered to humanity thus losing an important part of ourselves on the ash heap of time. African historians should embrace and encourage this aspect of African history as well as direct their students towards the exploration of this vital field. They should follow the examples of their African-American counterparts who have archived and documented the services of the African Americans in the United States Armed forces. Through their works the world is introduced to famous legends like the Buffalo soldiers, the Tuskegee airmen and the Golden Thirteen. The African-American civil war museum as well as the Smithsonian museum for American history (both in Washington DC) abounds with stories of African-American warriors who gave their lives to ensure freedom for themselves and their country even at times when the country had no belief in them. It is of utmost importance that African history educators include in the education curriculum this chapter of African history so that upcoming generations can learn about it (we were taught of kingdoms and empires of long ago but no mention was made of recent happenings particularly in relation to the world wars.)

In a few days time the Allies will come together to commemorate the end of World War 2. A few veterans will gather to receive applause and recognition from a grateful world but their ranks will not be complete. Not until the efforts of the Africans who lost their youth in that theater of death and destruction is brought to light and appreciated, history will continue to remain incomplete.