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African renaissance and the First World War

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BerichtGeplaatst: 10 Jul 2013 12:47    Onderwerp: African renaissance and the First World War Reageer met quote


By Melaku Mulualem

The First World War started in 1914 in Europe. The war took place between two contending blocs namely the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance.

Britain, France and Russia were in the Triple Entente, however, Germany, Italy and Austro-Hungary were in the Triple Alliance bloc. After the beginning of the war more than thirty countries joined the war. As a result of this war more than 10 million peoples were killed and double of that number were wounded.

By the year 2014, the First World War will be a century old war. Based on the above mentioned historical event I would like to draw the attention of the African Union on the issue of commemoration of the First World War, the return of historical heritage of Africa from the former colonial powers and veto power to Africa.

As it is well known, the impact of the First World War was not confined to the European continent. Colonial powers had also used the human and natural resources of colonized countries. In order to pay for the heavy expenses of the war, European colonial powers put more taxation on the colonized peoples of Africa. Moreover, they took grain and livestock from their colonies to the combatants in Europe.

The peoples from Africa and Asia were forced to join the war as recruits or laborers in European armies. Even if there were some resistance from the African side, it was followed by harsh reprisals from their colonial masters. According to various sources, for instance, France had recruited 70,000 Algerians and 170,000 West Africans to serve in their European armies. Similarly other colonial powers had also used the young and the working force of Africa in the bloody war. Colonial powers also gave financial incentives to some African chiefs who can recruit soldiers and laborers forcefully or “voluntarily”. Some men tried to escape from the recruit by hiding in a bush, or fleeing across borders.

Under the topic of The Story of Africa Between World Wars, for instance, BBC says that there was forceful recruitment “under the British in northern Rhodesia [The present day Zambia]. In the Congo, the Belgians forced 260,000 men to be porters carrying soldiers [wounded soldiers], equipment and provisions…In 1912, the French set about creating a permanent black army. There was compulsory military service for all African males…In East Africa, the British instituted a compulsory service order in 1915 covering all males aged 18-45”.

Be that as it may, most of the Africans who were recruited for the war had little knowledge what the war was about, and with whom they would fight. As a result of the First World War, many Africans had lost their life in the absence of their own cause. Moreover, the demand of so many men to the war had threatened agricultural production in Africa with a consequence of famine and drought.

According to the above mentioned source “The First World War gave rise to a crucial change in the relationship between Europe and Africa. Over two million people in Africa made huge sacrifices for the European Allies. 100,000 men died in East Africa and 65,000 men from French North Africa and French West Africa lost their lives”. Since France and Britain had many colonies in Africa, most of the African soldiers and laborers were on the side of the Triple Entente. African soldiers had also suffered from poisons gas and chemical weapons from opposing forces.

As mentioned above, colonial powers draw the peoples of Africa into the battle field. Moreover these powers used other means to weaken their enemies. One of the strategies was to encourage unrest, rebellion, and nationalism among their enemies’ colonial subjects. The main objective of this strategy was to weaken opponents by forcing them to allocate human and military resources to suppress unrests and disturbances. This strategy of European colonial powers was also a burden to African people who had been involved in the proxy war and conflict.

After the end of the First World War the former German colonies of Africa were given to the victorious European powers as mandates of the League of Nations. As a result of this decision some African countries were forced to experience another “colonial power” under the cover of mandate system. Thus Britain and France, which were on the side of the winner of the war, could get more colonies than before the beginning of the war.

Even if African peoples lived far from the warring nations of European countries, they were significantly affected by the war. That is to say, the war deeply affected the economic, social and cultural life of the African peoples. In addition to the direct impact of the war peoples of Africa died in millions as a result of influenza pandemic (1918-1919) which was brought back to Africa by returnees from European countries. According to the above source “two percent of the population in Africa fell victim to the spread of this dangerous type of influenza and died”.

Parallel to the above stated problem of African peoples, European colonial powers had taken cultural heritage, historical records and documents from Africa. One study disclosed that ”During the colonial period, many such artifacts were removed to museums and universities often outside the country, usually to the colonial metropole”. From this study one can draw the fact that the former colonial powers are still making money through tourism on African heritages.

Of course we should not deny that some African cultural heritages have been returned to their origin-African countries. However there are still a lot of them in the hands of European countries. Now it is time to say that one century is enough for former colonial powers to keep historical and cultural heritage of Africa forcefully. This historical injustice should be renewed by returning the material heritage to the former colonized countries.

The heads of State and Government of the African Union have adopted a ‘‘Charter for African Cultural Renaissance’’ on 24th January 2006. According to Article 27 of this charter ‘‘African States should take the necessary measures to ensure that archives and other historical records which have been illicitly removed from Africa are returned to African Governments in order that they may have complete archives concerning the history of their country’’. Based on this Article the Africa Union is requesting the African countries to strive for getting back their historical heritage and to complete their own history.

Of course individual countries are trying to bring back what they lost through colonial period and other illicit activities. In some cases they are successful. For instance Ethiopia could get back the obelisk of Axum from Italy. However it would be good if the African Union shoulder the task of the return of the material heritage of Africa. The union should have the list of cultural heritage which have been taken out of Africa. Individual countries can provide the data to the Union. Then the Union would ask the European colonial powers to return African heritage. For me this is one of the major tasks of “African Renaissance”. Thus it is through the collaboration of individual African countries and the African Union that Africa can get her historical heritages. Africa should speak in one voice about the heritage of the continent.

Similar to the First World War, about half a million Africans fought for the French and the British forces in the Second World War. Thus, it is possible to say that African soldiers were on the side of victorious countries in both world wars in which millions of Africans were killed. Of course, the winner countries later got veto power in the Security Council of the United Nations. Taking this crude fact in to consideration, one can also argue that Africa should also get seat in the veto power structure as part of the victory. Even if African countries were not belligerent countries in the two world wars, they had paid big sacrifices in one way or another. As to me, I prefer the distribution of veto power to be based on continent than victory in the Second World War, which has only historical significance.

In concluding this article, the African Union should commemorate the First World War as a negative historical episode of the last century. Commemoration of the hundred years of the First World War would help the African Union and the peoples of Africa to remember the suffering of African peoples and to draw lesson from such ill side of world history as well as to take the valuable experience from it and to criticize the injustice and wicked acts.

I hope the African Union Commission will give attention to the above facts and will help to commemorate the forceful involvement of African peoples in the First World War. The continental organization can also use this opportunity to denounce war and appreciate peace in Africa and the world at large. In 2014, hopefully, the African Union would ask the former colonial powers to return the cultural heritage of the African peoples and will strive for getting a seat in the veto power structure of the United Nations.

Ed’s Note: Melaku Mulualem is training department head at the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at
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