The world was not really at war in the so-called World War. In reality, it was more of the Second European War but colonialism dragged Africa into the mix of things. The War was therefore a colonialist tug of war with the colonised doing a lot of the dirty work. Colonial powers conscripted many Africans into their ranks especially Britain which reinforced its Burma front with Africans. These Africans are now known as the Burma boys and not many people have been as short-changed by history as the Burma Boys. The West forgot them after the war and their contributions were pushed under the rag of selective amnesia. Barnaby Phillips wrote a book about these forgotten members of the 14th Army in his aptly titled book, Another Man’s War. The 14th Army as a whole has largely been ignored but the 81st and 82nd divisions of the army which were made up of Africans are the forgotten divisions of a forgotten army. Even when General William Slim, the leader of the 14th Army thanked his men, he left out the African soldiers. The African countries which were home to these brave soldiers have largely ignored the Burma Boys too.
Atane Ofiaja for This is Africa rightly calls the British Empire a conscripting juggernaut with an imperialist imprint stamped across all corners of the globe. In the Burma campaign, almost 100,000 West Africans were conscripted to reinforce the British army which had lost major territory in March 1942. Yasmin Khan in her book, The Raj at War makes another observation that cannot be faulted. She says, “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did.” However, Britain was not the only culprit. Other countries like Germany, Belgium Italy and France also took in African soldiers. In Senegal, one Yoro Ba, a veteran recounted, “If we men had stayed at home, we would have been taken to court and probably shot dead.” Another veteran from Burkina Faso told DW, “What we were to fight for, was not explained. People didn’t understand when they heard talk of fascism. We were just told that the Germans had attacked us and considered us Africans to be apes. As soldiers we could prove that we were human beings. That was it.”
More than half of the French army was made up of Africans but France only acknowledged the boost in 2010, 65 years after the war.
The Western Cold-Shoulder
The Zimbabwean Chronicle details the ordeal of one Josi Fransisco Mahoboyo who was conscripted into the British Army in 1942. He had been born in then Southern Rhodesia’s Fort Victoria Province in 1929 and conscripted in 1940. In his story, he ended up in Burma in the hostile hands of the Japanese after an ambush. He said, “Most of my colleagues were killed and I was captured and taken to a Prisoners of War Camp. I was a handsome young man and fell in love with a Japanese female medic who later facilitated for my escape from the camp.”
For all his efforts, he, like other blacks got tokens like watches, ties and bicycles while whites got land. African veterans who fought for France were getting £61 per month as compared to the French veterans’ 690 until 2007. France had 233,000 soldiers from North Africa and 92,000 from the Sub-Saharan region. One veteran interviewed by The Guardian in bitterness then argued, “It was beneficial for the world. It wasn’t beneficial to me.” Due to colonial relations of the day, the veterans could not follow up on the promises made by Western powers to them. Albert Kuniuku, who represented Belgian interests was getting the equivalent of $5.40 in 2015. The West will not readily praise Africans. Europe’ lust for a historical narrative stained by colonial and racial prejudice is still the reality of world affairs.
The African Snub
The veterans, though victims of imperialism themselves did not all receive a raucous welcome when they returned. Some were considered sell-outs for fighting for the white man. This made them sell-outs in the eyes of the simple minded! There has largely been a reluctance to accord them hero status and telling their stories in books and the media. Ignoring the contributions of the veterans to world politics is a slap in the face and a silent insult. These men should be given the respect they deserve by African media so they do not die with their stories. Some of them even came back and encouraged liberation movements after having epiphanies of equality due to the relations they had with whites on the battlefield. They were forced to fight a war not theirs, short-changed by the West and Africa cannot join that bandwagon of perpetuation of betrayal and under-appreciation. There is need for African countries to start narrating the World War in an African voice.