African military systems after 1900

African military systems after 1900

As the 20th century started, most of Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia was under colonial rule. By the 1980s, most nations were independent. Military systems reflect this evolution in several ways:
*Growth of indigenous knowledge and skill in handling modern arms
*Established colonial armies of mainly indigenous troops officered by Europeans
*Rebellions, resistance and "mop up" operations
*Weakening of European colonial power due to World War I and World War II
*Decolonization and the transition to the militaries of the new African states
*Wars of national liberation across the continent particularly the northern and southern regions
*Frequent tribal or civil wars across the continent
*Frequent military coups against the post colonial regimes
*Continued strength of regional powers like Egypt and South Africa
*The rise of asymmetric forces and failed states
*The rise of international forces and bureaucracies
*Continued challenges and evolution into the 21st century

For events prior to 1800, see African military systems to 1800. For events after 1800, see African military systems after 1800. For an overall view of the military history of Africa by region, see Military History of Africa. Below are the major activities and events that shaped African military systems into the 21st century.

Rebellions, resistance and "mop up" operations

By 1900, the imperial powers had won most of the initial major battles against indigenous powers, or had occupied strategic areas such as coastlines, to secure their dominance. Colonies were established or expanded across the landscape- sometimes eagerly, as in the case of najor mineral finds- or sometimes forced on the imperial center by the outlying actions of grasping or ambitious settlers, merchants, military officers, and bureaucrats. The complexity of African responses to the new order defies a simple narrative of good versus evil. [Bruce Vandervort, Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa: 1830-1914, Indiana University Press: 1998, pp. 6-37] In some cases the intruders were welcomed as useful allies, saviours or counterweights in local disputes. In other cases, they were bitterly resisted. In some areas, the colonial regimes brought massive land confiscations, violence and what some see as genocide. [Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold's Ghost: A story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa, Pan Macmillan: London, 1998] In others they brought education, better security, new products and skills, and improved standards of infrastructure and living. [GANN, L. H. AND DUIGNAN, PETER, Burden of Empire - an Appraisal of Western Colonialism in Africa South of the Sahara, Pall Mall Press. London 1968 - review by Harold G. Marcus, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Dec., 1968), pp. 677-679 ]

The historical record shows destructive operations by both indigenous hegemons and foreign intruders. Some of the methods used by the colonial powers are also reflected in armed European conflicts. Murdered peasants, livestock and grain seizures, arbitrary quartering of troops, and massive theft and looting by roaming armies for example, are common occurrences in various eras of European military history. Napoleon's brutal occupation of Spain is but one example. [Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, op. cit] Nor did the colonial era see a complete cessation of purely internal disputes and wars. These were much reduced from the 19th century due to the colonial conquests, but still occurred in some areas with varying levels of intensity. Some limited areas of North Africa, such as Libya, were still under the sway of non-European powers like the Ottomans, adding to the complexity of the colonial situation. [Marcus (review- Gann and Dunnigan) The Burden of Empire... op. cit]

Whatever the balance sheet in different areas, it is clear that consolidation and exploitation of the new territories involved a large measure of coercion, and this often provoked a military reply. The exact form of such coercion varied- it could be land seizures, forced labor, hut taxes, interference in local quarrels, monopolism of trade, small-scale punitive expeditions, or outright warfare of genocidal intensity as that waged by the Germans against the Herrero and Nama in southern Africa.. [Marcus (review- Gann and Dunnigan) The Burden of Empire... op. cit] African military responses in this "mop up" or "pacification" period of the century's first decades were diverse- ranging from minor rebellions and revolts, sustained guerrilla warfare, and full scale clashes. Only a few of these varying responses are considered here in terms of African military systems.
*Cavalry: the demise of the Sokoto Caliphate, one of the major powers in the savannah regions of West Africa
*Guerrilla warfare- the Herrero and Nama versus the Germans
*Major warfare- the massive Rif War in Spanish Morocco
*Other- whatever someone else comes up with. Obviously every minor skrimish or revolt cannot be covered. There should be some significant illustration of a war event, tactical system, weapons system or general trend or pattern.

Twilight of the mounted man

West Africa's largest single state during the 19th century, the Sokoto Caliphate of northern Nigeria moved into the 20th with its military system intact- the traditional mix of infantry and cavalry. New powers and technologies however were appearing on the scene. Some cavalry-strong states like the Tukolor, made sporadic attempts to incorporate weapons like artillery but integration was poor. [Vandervort, op. cit. ] Sokoto largely stuck to the old ways, and met its end in 1903 at the hands of imperial Britain. Sokoto's soldiers, whether horse or foot, had very few guns. The Caliphate's tactics were to attack in a series of set-piece battles, with thundering cavalry charges leading the way, followed by infantry armed with bow, sword and spear. As the fighting men surged forward into combat, their movements were accompanied by loud music and drums. [Risto Marjomaa, "The Military Collapse of the Sokoto Caliphate under the Invasion of the British Empire, 1897-1903" - Reviewed by Anthony Clayton, The Journal of African History, Vol. 41, No. 2, (2000), pp. 318-320] These however were not enough, and assaults were quickly routed by the modern weaponry of virtually invulnerable British squares. Traditional fortified cities and forts also made a poor showing and were usually rapidly breached by British artillery. [Marjomaa, op. cit] Thus ended the heyday of the centuries-old West African cavalry-infantry combination. In Southern Africa the mounted men of the Boer forces also saw defeat in 1902, as imperial troops implemented a blockade and scorched earth policy against their mobile tactics. This outcome paralled general developments on the battlefield, as mounted forces gradually lost their relevance under modern firepower. [Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, University of Illinois Press: 1987, pp. 387-463]

Guerilla warfare in Southwest Africa

Guerilla warfare was a common military response in many areas of Africa during the early colonial era. The bitter 1904-1907 war between imperial Germany and the Herero tribe in today's Namibia is an illustration of this pattern, with tragic consequences for the indigenous resistance, including concentration camps, forced labor and a scorched earth extermination policy that even some contemporary Germans found repugnant. [“Germany regrets Namibia ‘genocide’”, URL [|BBC News, January 12, 2004] ]

In the early 1900s, text can be gleaned from Herero and Namaqua Genocide

The Rif Wars

See Rif War for details and text.

The RIf wars are relatively obscure compared to the well known Ethiopian victory at Adowa or that of the Zulu at Isandhlwana. Nevertheless it was a significant demonstration of large scale warfare by indigenous troops, and fighters of the Moroccan Rif and J'bala tribes dealt several defeats to Spanish forces in Morocco over their course. It took a massive collaboration by French and Spanish forces to finally liquidate resistance in 1925.

Under their leader Abd el-Krim the Rif fighters...

maller actions

Impact of World War I and World War II

The massive conflicts of WWI and WWII were to have important effects on African military development. Hundreds of thousands of African troops served in Europe and the Pacific and gained new military skills via their exposure to new forms of organization, handling of advanced weaponry, and intense modern combat. The exposure to a wider world during the two conflicts opened up a sense of new possibilities, and opportunities. These were eventually to be reflected in demands for greater freedom in homeland colonies. The success of peoples like the Japanese also demonstrated that European forces were not invincible, and post-war weakening of many former imperial powers provided new scope in challenging the colonial order.

World War I

Unlike the African troops of Britain, who saw very little action on European battfields during WwI or WwII, France deployed hundreds of thousands of African fighting men to aid its cause, including some 300,000 North Africans, some 250,000 West Africans and thjousands more from other regions. Over 140,000 African soldiers for example, fought on the Western Front during WwI and thousands of others fought at Galliopi and in the Balkans. French West African troops fought and died in all the major battles of the Western Front, from Verdun (where they were instrumental in recapturing a fort) to the Armistice. [Bruce Vandervort, "Review: The Thin Black Line of Heroes," The Journal of Military History, Vol. 65, No. 4, (Oct., 2001), pp. 1067-1073] Some writers (Lunn 1999) even make the controversial argument that towards the end of WWI, the black soldiers were increasingly been used as shock troops, and were absorbing three times as many casualties as white French troops. [See Joe Lunn, Memoirs of the Maelstrom: A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War, Heinemann: 1999; Vandervort, "The Thin Black Line.." op. cit]

Whatever the exact percentages involved, it is clear that African soldiers were not simply local enforcers of colonial hegemony, but also served as a major combat reserve for use in European conflicts. The case of the British Indian Army, including its elite Ghurka regiments is well known in this role, but the Senegalese and other African regiments of France demonstrate a similar pattern from Africa. Based on a variety of contemporary accounts, the performance of many African units was excellent, and both their German enemies and American allies accord them respect in a wide range of commentary, particularly fighting units from Morocco and regiments of "Tirailleurs Senegalais" from France's "Armee coloniale." [Lou Potter, Wimmiam Miles and Nina Rosenblum, Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1992, pp. 22-29]

The impact of the European war was substantial in Senegal and other French African colonies. Many of the soldiers had volunteered, but the French also resorted to extensive conscription in its territories. Many of the African soldiers found army life in Europe comparatively more egalitarian than civilian life under the colonial regimes of their homelands. UNlike the British for example, the French employed a number of high ranking black soldiers, such as Sosthene Mortenol, Commander of the Air Defenses of Paris. The exigencies and shared dangers of war also seemed to have created, in measure, more mutual understanding and freer communication between Africans and Europeans, although this did not translate immediately into a more just order in their homeland territories. Ironically, the last troops to surrender in World War I were the black soldiers fighting for Germany in East Africa. [Vandervort, op. cit.]

World War II

Decolonization: the winds of change

Northern Africa

The Algerian War

Other Northern Africa

Eastern Africa

Western Africa

Guinea Bissau

Warfare in Southern Africa


Coups and counter-coups

Rebellions, civil wars, genocide

The post-Cold War era

Rise of asymetric warfare and the "technicals" generation

With the exception of a handful of nations such as Egypt, South Africa, and Ethiopia, etc. most African militaries are comparatively small and lightly armed, although many have a limited number of heavy weapons such as tanks. The post-colonial era however has also seen the emergence of numerous non-state military forces, such as terrorists, rebel guerrilla organizations, ethnic gangs, and local warlords with various political platforms. Such non-state actors add to the instability of the African situation, and the growth of "asymmetric" warfare and terrorism makes the military challenges in Africa more acute. ["The African Military in the 21st Century, Tswalu Dialogue", op. cit]

The military landscape that these asymmetric forces operate in has been shaped by political instability and the massive introduction of inexpensive arms, such as the Chinese and Russian variants of the AK-47, RPG (antitank grenade launchers), light mortars, and rocket-type weapons. The traditional mobility of the horse and camel is diminished from earlier times, but the rise of the technical, a pickup truck fitted with a machine gun, RPG, or light mortar has brought a comparative degree of mobility and firepower to African fighting organizations, both state and non-state. While unable to match the major armies openly in intensity of firepower and armor, the technicals and the weapons described above can cause significant harm when local light infantrymen fight on interior lines, and can deter the sustained intervention of foreign forces.

One illustration of the continued relevance of lightly armed Third-World forces operating on their own ground is the 1993 American intervention in Somalia. Local fighters shot down two US Black Hawk helicopters with RPGs, and killed 18 elite Army Rangers. Although Somali losses in the encounter were huge (some 1,000 men), and the Rangers accomplished their assigned mission to snatch prisoners, the affair caused the American government to pull out of Somalia, leaving the field to the local militiamen. [Bowden, Mark (2000). "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War." New York: Penguin Group.] Guerrilla organizations, paramilitaries and other asymmetric elements also continue to make an important impact in local areas—threatening to overthrow local regimes as well as generating widespread misery and economic dislocation in various areas. Such patterns are not unique to Africa and are also seen in places such as the Balkans. ["The African Military in the 21st Century, Tswalu Dialogue" op. cit.]

Major modern forces in Africa

Contrasting with the small scale, more fragmented pattern in many parts of the continent are the modern forces of such major powers as Egypt and South Africa. Well equipped for air and ground fighting, such regional powers represent a significant illustration of the growing capacities of Africa-based armies. The well-organized Canal Crossing of the Egyptians in the 1973 Yom Kippur War for example, is spoken of with respect by some Western military analysts [Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars, Knopf Publishing: p. 212-267] and demonstrates the degree to which some continental forces have mastered modern technology.

However, detailed open-source evaluations of Egyptian military effectiveness, remain skeptical of any great capability leaps, arguing at length that the same problems that held the Egyptians back in 1956, 1967, and 1973 remain. The initial success at Suez for example, was comprehensively beaten back by the Israelis, first in the Sinai and then in the Battle of the Chinese Farm, leading to the cutting off of the Egyptian Third Army. [Kenneth M. Pollack, "Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness 1948-91", University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2002, Chapter 2 on Egypt] Compared to previous Egyptian performances however, the Suez crossing represented a step forward, and showed an increasing sophistication on the battlefield. [Herzog, op. cit]

South Africa's forces likewise are the most powerful in sub-Saharan Africa, and represent another demonstration of how modern systems continue to evolve. Intermediate nations like Ethiopia increasingly grow more sophisticated, adding to dynamic patterns of change and transformation illustrated from the earliest times on the continent, to the present.

21st century military challenges

The military challenge in Africa is huge in the post-Cold War era. It is a continent covering some 22% of the world's land area, has an estimated population of some 800 million, is governed by 53 different states, and is made up of hundreds of different ethnicities and languages. According to a 2007 Whitehall Report, ("The African Military in the 21st Century, Tswalu Dialogue"), some issues affecting African militaries in the 21st century include: [The African Military in the 21st Century: Report of the 2007 Tswalu Dialogue: May 3 - 6, 2007, Whitehall Report Series, 2007, url: [] ]
*The continued need to build military proficiency and effectiveness
*The threat of rebellions, coups and the need for stability
*Unrealistic expectations by the West about that Africa should be doing about continental defence and security issues
*The relevance of West Point or Sandhurst style training and thinking to the African context
*The weak and fragmented nature of many collective security type arrangements - such as the AU (Africn Union) - weak clones of the NATO concept
*The challenge of terrorism asymmetric warfare and how African forces shape themselves to meet them
*The danger of giving militaries a bigger role in nation building and development. In Africa such activity touches on political power.
*The appropriateness of international peacekeeping forces and bureaucracies in parts of Africa, with the mixed record of UN peacekeeping in the Congo or Rwanda raising doubts about their efficacy

Some writers argue that military activities in Africa after 1950 resemble somewhat the concept of a "frontiersman" - that is, warriors from numerous small tribes, clans, polities, and ethnicities seeking to expand their "lebensraum" - "living space" or control of economic resources, at the expense of some "other." Even the most powerful military below the Sahara, South Africa, it is argued, had its genesis in the notions of "lebensraum", and the struggle of warriors from tribes and ethnicities seeking land, resources and dominance against some defined outsider. [Anthony Clayton, Frontiersmen: Warfare in Africa Since 1950, Taylor & Francis: 1999, pp. 1-9, 115-157] The plethora of ethnic and tribal military conflicts in Africa after the colonial period- from Rwanda, to Somalia, to the Congo, to the apartheid state, is held to reflect this basic pattern. [Clayton, op. cit] Other writers argue that ethnic and tribal struggles, and wars over economic resources are common in European history, and military conflicts and development that these struggles aid or hinder can be seen as a reflection of the process of modernization. [Richard E. Bissell, Michael Radu, Africa in the Post-decolonization Era, Transaction Publishers: 1984, pp. 15-67]

Africa in topic|Military of
Africa in topic|Military history of

ee also

*African military systems to 1800
*African military systems after 1800
*Military history of Africa
*Mali Empire
*Military history of the Mali Empire
*Kingdom of Ndongo
*Kingdom of Matamba
*Kingdom of Kongo
*Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba
*Battle of Mbwila
*Battle of Zama



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