Africans Return Home After World War II

Thousands of Africans returned home after serving on various fronts during World War II. Skilled and educated, many joined the ranks of the independence movements in Africa, strengthening the postwar pressure on European colonial powers to grant independence.

Summary of Event

To evaluate the impact of Africans’ homecoming after World War II, it is necessary to determine the basic principles under which European authorities recruited and used Africans for the war. A clear assessment of the factors that impinged on the attitudes and actions of the colonial authorities reveals some insights into how Africans were recruited into the colonial fighting force, which in turn exposes the extent to which African fighting men had access to the knowledge and skills that eventually helped them assume leadership roles in the postwar colonial struggles.

French possessions in Africa can be grouped into two federations and two mandated territories. French West Africa included Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), the Ivory Coast, Dahomey (now Benin), Niger, and Mauritania; their federal capital was Dakar. French Equatorial Africa, with its capital in Brazzaville, included the colonies of the Middle Congo (now Republic of Congo), Chad, Ubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic), and Gabon. The two mandated territories were Cameroon and Togo; these possessions were taken from Germany at the end of World War I under the mandate of the League of Nations.

France had a long tradition of using African troops as part of its policy of assimilation. Beginning in 1905, France sent troops recruited from its African colonies to every part of its empire; these troops were called the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, a name use to describe all black soldiers in the French possessions. During World War I, more than 200,000 African soldiers fought alongside French citizens on every front. During World War II, as many as 80,000 were sent to France between 1939 and 1940, and as many as 100,000 were engaged to fight in Italy and beyond.

Great Britain controlled sixteen territories during the period 1935-1945. Britain devised a variety of administrative systems for the government of its African dependencies, with the result that generalization became quite problematic. These ranged from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where the white-settler population had controlled its internal affairs since 1923, to the neighboring Beuchuanaland Protectorate (Botswana), where dikgosi, or chiefs in colonial parlance, had considerable control over the day-to-day government of their people. As the British Empire suffered loses during World War II, it became more dependent on troops and carriers for its army and agricultural products and minerals for its factories. The situation became even more serious as large areas of the colonial empires in Southeast Asia fell to the Japanese. By World War II, all British territories were tapped for both troops and laborers as the pressures of the war increased. In Bechuanaland Protectorate, for example, as many as 10,000 men were recruited for the African Pioneer Corps out of a total population estimated at less than 250,000.

Through its policy of “indirect rule,” the British sought and secured the assistance of local chiefs, or local administrators, to encourage theoretically voluntary enlistment. Africans were encouraged by the media—from posters to radio to mobile cinema shows and information bureaus—to become partners with their colonial masters in the fight for democracy and a brave new postwar world. In London, within the Colonial Office and in the British cabinet itself, debate had begun about the political future of the colonies, though it was not until after the war that a definite program of “decolonization” was determined. During the war, there was uncertainty concerning who should be the eventual inheritors of power: the native authorities, the educated elite, or a mixture of both.

Generally, the war is believed to have heightened the expectations of the educated elite, many of whom were incorporated into the colonial administrative and business structure, as British officials and mangers left for the front. They were particularly inspired by the Atlantic Charter, signed in 1941 by U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill, with its affirmation of “the right of all people to choose the form of government in which they live” and the expressed desire to see “sovereign rights of self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”

As Belgium was overrun by Germany in May of 1940, the Congo colony became the locus of Belgium’s independent existence. Belgian Congo operated as an effectively independent colony-state with the Belgian government-in-exile in London able to exert relatively little control over its administration or economic policies. Some analysts believe the Belgian government-in-exile depended on the Congo for as much as 85 percent of its funding.

The loss of its major source of tin, rubber, and palm products redirected Belgian trade strategies into greater collaboration with other Allies. The reorientation of trade of the Congo resulted in 85 percent of its exports going to Britain, the United States, Rhodesia, and South Africa in 1941—up from 5 percent in 1939. Given the importance of the Allied cause, the wartime administration of Belgian Congo managed to safeguard its autonomy and preserve its economic independence by insisting on keeping open commercial relations with those clients who paid best. Consequently, the demands of Allies on the Belgian Congo for commodities previously obtained from Southeast Asia was dramatic: Tin production rose from 2,750 metric tons in 1939 to 17,300 in 1945; rubber, from 1,142 metric tons in 1939 to 11,337 in 1944; palm oil, from 89,947 metric tons to 144,271. There were corresponding increases in exports of other essential products, such as zinc, cassiterite, coal, copper, and timber. African mineral exports were indispensable for the ultimate Allied victory. Notably, the manufacture of the atom bomb, which brought the war against Japan to an abrupt end, was dependent on uranium supplies from the Belgian Congo.

The Belgian Congo contributed relatively few men to Allied armies; a Congolese unit joined the expeditionary force that liberated Ethiopia from the Italians, and some Congolese men were incorporated in South Africa and Rhodesian units. The civilian population, however, was mobilized in an almost military fashion to increase production. Peasants were pressed into forced labor on the roads or detailed to collect wild rubber. Crops were requisitioned. Long before the war, it had been a cardinal point of Belgian policy in the Congo that male Africans living in “customary society” should perform 60 days of obligatory labor, paid or unpaid, for their local communities. This included the construction and maintenance of roads and the production of subsistence and cash crops. This policy—which had been formalized in the decree of December, 1933, and used to combat the effects of the Great Depression—was now employed even more vigorously to prosecute the war. If Belgium could not fight, at least it could provide the wherewithal for the Allies to do so. By 1944 the maximum number of days devoted to obligatory labor had increased to 120. Those who failed to perform this work were brought before tribunals de police (police tribunals); in other words, the judicial arm of the state was employed to assist the administration to enforce its policy of increased production. The main agents of this policy were the chiefs, whose unpopularity was thereby increased.


The homecoming of Africans after World War II is considered significant for a number of reasons. First, it had a tremendous impact on the individuals who were engaged in the war; it also influenced the perspective of a generation of future leaders, shaping their sense of their place in Africa and the global community. Furthermore, it set in motion a series of events that culminated in the achievement of independence of several African nations and the end of colonial rule on the continent, which reached its peak in the early 1960’s.

At the personal level, Africans who participated directly in the war learned about the strengths and weaknesses of Western European and North American societies. Many observers have argued that the European colonial authorities’ sense of invincibility was destroyed during the war, making possible the rise of a bolder and more spirited opposition to colonial rule in many parts of the African continent. Consequently, the African elite who emerged were able to articulate a vision of freedom and self-governance that would spur the entire continent for decades to come.

At the societal level, the homecoming created the opportunity—although unintended by the colonial authorities—for the establishment for the first time of an elite drawn from across tribal and ethnic lines. This new group could identify with a common objective as fellow citizens with common interests and a common shared destiny, further fueling their collaboration in opposing the European powers. Many scholars argue that African homecoming after the war reminded Africans of their pan-African identity. For the first time they began to refer to themselves as Ivorians, Nigerians, Kenyans, and so forth.

Along with these shared experiences and sensibilities were some differences: Returning to Africa had different meanings and impacts according to the varying experiences of the individuals, their societies, and their duties and location of service during the war. Most important, the policies of various colonial authorities tended to influence greatly the extent to which the African soldier could gain the necessary skills for future leadership.

Furthermore, the sheer number of those who served from a given African country, their level of interaction among themselves during their service, and the degree of resistance to independence mounted by the resident European population also became critical factors in various nations’ struggle for independence. In general, a majority of African countries in the southern continent experienced a greater degree of resistance to independence from their sizable European populations than in the western and eastern regions of the continent. African independence movements
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];African impact
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African independence movements
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];African impact
Anticolonial movements;Africa
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[c]Independence movements;1945: Africans Return Home After World War II[01350]
French West Africa
French Equatorial Africa
Tirailleurs Sénégalais
British Empire;dissolution
Atlantic Charter (1941)
Belgian colonies
Congo, Belgian;World War II[World War 02]
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Further Reading

  • Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair. New York: Public Affairs, 2005. The author presents a historical review of modern Africa. The book spans the entire continent and covers the major upheavals, from the promising era of independence to the spate of infamies that plagued Rwanda, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
  • Mwakikagile, Godfrey. Africa After Independence: Realities of Nationhood with Photos. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Continental Press, Pan-African Books, 2006. The author focuses on the early years of independence and the problems African countries faced soon after the end of colonial rule.
  • Nugent, Paul. Africa Since Independence: A Comparative History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. This comparative study of the different trajectories and experiences of independent African states addresses the legacies of British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, and Spanish colonialism as well as the unique qualities of imperial Ethiopia and Liberia.
  • Reader, John. Africa. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2001. The author uses the power of photographs to chronicle the African landscape and the challenges posed by a history of slavery, colonialism, and tribal warfare.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel. Africa: The Politics of Independence and Unity. 2d rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Combines into one edition for the first time Africa: The Politics of Independence and Africa: The Politics of Unity. This edition provides some of the earliest and most valuable analysis of African politics during the period when the colonial system began to disintegrate.

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