Military resistance against colonialism in Africa

VICTOR Simukonda.

IN PREVIOUS articles, I have presented the warrior tradition in pre-colonial Africa as one of the most enduring themes in African history. Without a doubt, in pre-colonial times, militarism permeated the very fabric of African society, and prior to the European invasion, most African communities were conquest states with warrior kings and proud military traditions.
Yet, by the 20th century, most of Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia, Somalia and Liberia, was under colonial rule. With the coming of the European imperialists, the African way of life, which had endured for generations, was decimated in just 30 years (1870s-1900). The question is, why? Was there substantial military resistance against colonialism, and if so, why did it fail?
Of course, Africa has always been a vast continent of multiple regions with diverse peoples speaking hundreds of different languages and practising an array of cultures and traditions. Therefore, the tale of colonialisation by different imperial powers and the complexity of the African response defies a simple homogeneous narrative. Suffice to say, European imperialist invasions of the late 19th century provoked African political and diplomatic responses and eventually military resistance. However, as aforesaid, out of the entire continent, only Ethiopia managed to successfully repel European invaders using military force.
Primarily, the military success of Ethiopia is attributed largely to Emperor Menelik II, who ruled the territory at the time. He himself an imperialist, Menelik II had gained control over great portions of land and large groups of people. Initially, upon assuming power in 1889, Menelik had signed the Treaty of Wichale in which he was promised, among other things, financial assistance and military supplies.
Conversely, in 1893 Menelik renounced the treaty due to the famous ‘mistranslation’ where the Italian treaty indicated Ethiopia would be a protectorate of Italy, while Menelik argued no such wording existed in his copy.
By late 1895, Italian forces had advanced deep into Ethiopian territory. Menelik assembled a national army from Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups and distributed weapons obtained from France and Russia. On March 1, 1896, the Ethiopian army confronted the Italians at the Battle of Adwa and scored a decisive victory.
While the Italian army comprised four brigades totalling 17,978 troops, with 56 artillery pieces, Menelik mobilised between 73,000 and 120,000 troops divided into at least eight forces with one force led by his third wife, Empress Taytu Betul. It must be mentioned that the Battle of Adwa itself is far from a simple battle narrative, but it can be said here that it was an event that shocked the world as for the first and last time, Africans had won a decisive military victory in the Age of Empire.
Without a doubt, Ethiopia was an oddity when it came to the conquest of Africa. However, without taking anything away from Emperor Menelik II as a great leader, it can be argued that unlike Ethiopia, other African states failed to repel European invasion, not particularly because of what their leaders did, but rather, what they failed to do.
To be sure, in order to defeat military resistance on the vast African continent, European imperialists effectively used an old but simple strategy, that of ‘divide and conquer’. Indeed, the invaders exploited local rivalries and accentuated African ethnical diversity in order to gain the advantage. In so doing, African states failed to combine forces to meet a common enemy and the Europeans were able to face and destroy one opponent at a time. For example, the British in West Africa first fought the Yoruba, in 1892-93, then they fought the centralised state of Benin, in 1897 and, finally, in a longer war, they took on the Sokoto Caliphate, which was at war from every side against fellow Africans. Similarly, the French exploited the rivalry between the Tukulor and the Mandinke empires when they extended their presence into the Western Savannah (coming from Senegal).
In sum, it goes without saying that pre-colonial military resistance to colonialism largely failed because, unlike the Ethiopians, who managed to unite different ethnic groups against a common enemy, most of other African societies and their leaders saw European invasion as an opportunity to be leveraged against their kith and kin.
Therefore, the moral of the story, which is actually timeless for the African continent, is that more often that not, the peoples of Africa face common enemies, and our diversity is not a cause for failure, but an opportunity for even greater success. And whether it be hunger, disease, or underdevelopment, the success principle for the continent of Africa remains the same, that is, united we stand, divided we all fall.
The author is a military historian and staff officer at Zambia Army headquarters.

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