How the Second World War decolonised Africa

Most historical events have some unintended consequences. It is in this sense that the European Second World War made a contribution to the decolonisation and political liberation of Africa. In 1885 at the Berlin Conference, the most powerful European countries, the British, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese, divided the continent amongst themselves.

Most historical events have some unintended consequences. It is in this sense that the European Second World War made a contribution to the decolonisation and political liberation of Africa.

In 1885 at the Berlin Conference, the most powerful European countries, the British, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese, divided the continent amongst themselves.


However, Africa’s involvement in the two world wars helped fuel the struggle for independence from colonial rule. This was partly because participation of Africans in these wars exposed them to ideas of self-determination and independent rule.


The wars destroyed the economies of European countries. At the end of WW 1, the Europeans turned to Africa to exploit its mineral and agricultural wealth. (Even today some European countries cannot sustain their economies without their former empires) Europe’s growing interest in Africa’s minerals led to her expansion into the interior.


The mining of mineral wealth from Africa required the reorganisation of colonial rule, which meant that the autonomy chiefs and kings in Africa would be increasingly dissolved to make room for a more direct form of government.

The colonial situation: Expropriation of land from Africans to European settlers

The need for agricultural wealth required expropriation of land from African people and giving it to the growing number of Europeans in the colonies. Kenya and Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) are examples of the expropriation of land.

The introduction of taxes like the hut tax and poll tax forced Africans to work for European settlers as the new taxes had to be paid in cash and not as cattle or crops as was the practice before. Exploitation of African laborers by European employers added to the growing resentment among the local people.

Colonial governments developed new methods of agriculture aimed at increasing revenues collected from African farmers. This also required a shift from subsistence crops to cash crops like coffee, cotton and tea.

People were now forced to sell their cash crops through Coffee, Cotton, or Tea marketing boards to colonial markets at low prices, then colonial merchants would in turn sell these crops to an international market at a much higher price. In this way, the Colonies made a lot of profit for the colonisers. As a result, people began to demand an end to colonial rule.

Resistance movements began to rise in Africa. With the growing number of settlers in some colonies, the demand for more land and labor increased tensions between colonial authorities and the white communities that had settled in the colonies.

More land was taken from African people and given to Europeans for settlement. In response to these developments, some chiefs organised rebellions against colonial authorities.

Development of political parties

Another response to colonial transformation was the formation of political parties. These were formed by the small educated group of Africans mainly residing in developing colonial towns. These Africans were educated at missionary schools.

At first, these parties did not seek to create a mass following, but to lobby their respective colonial governments to recognise the civil rights of Africans and protect and recognise the land rights of Africans in rural areas. In Buganda (part of Uganda), the Government of Buganda had a strong lobby and was in constant touch with the colonial office in London about land issues.

Second World War

In this colonial situation, European powers could no longer hold to their empires because they were exhausted and impoverished by the time war ended. France had been humiliated by Germany.

Suddenly, the myth of European invincibility was demythologised. When India became independent from the British in 1947, it set a precedent in challenging British rule and thus inspired many African nationalists.

Soldiers who joined the Seventh battalion of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) (Abaseveni) were posted to India and Burma and were inspired by the Indian and Burmese soldiers, who were compatriots.

In this context, the Second World War broadened the general social and political horizons not only of ex-servicemen who had served in the war, but of many Africans who had remained behind. The idea of listening to the radio for overseas news concerning the war gathered momentum during the war.

Power shift from Europe to Washington and Moscow

World War II also influenced the spirit of self-government and self-determination because at the end of it the seat of world power was no longer Western Europe but had divided itself between Washington and Moscow (The East/West Divide).

The two superpowers had a tradition of anti-imperialism although both the USA and Russia had colonised other people as well and were also Imperialist. However, the Soviet Union and the United States supported nationalist movements after the Second World War, which created pressures on European powers to make concessions to African nationalists struggling for independence. After all, the USA has a fought a war for independence against the British.

For millions of Africans all over the continent, the Second World War was an important internationalising experience. By the end of it many Africans were ready to agitate for freedom and independence.

The World War II humanised white men in the eyes of their African comrades as they fought together in the Horn of Africa, North Africa, Malaya and elsewhere. To witness a white man scared to death under fire was itself a revelation to many Africans, who had previously seen white men only in their arrogant commanding postures as a colonial élite.

So, while the image of the African was humanised by being pulled up from equation with devils, monkeys and children, the image of the white man was humanised by being pulled down from equation with supermen, angels, and the gods themselves. Since the World War was also fought to defend freedom, hence, Africans capitalised on that to promote nationalist campaign against foreign or colonial rule.

After WW Ii, Colonial governments made it their policy to prepare Africans for future self-government. However, many of them were not ready to hand over rule to African people. Most European governments thought that colonial rule would end much later or would never end. In colonies like Angola, Mozambique, Algeria, and Kenya, African people were forced to fight wars to win their independence.

As part of the policy toward African self-governance, colonial governments began to invest in education and schools in the colonies. This resulted in a growing number of young educated black people whose social and political mobility was restricted by colonial rule. These growing numbers of educated elites were frustrated with the limited prospects they held under the colonial state. They were increasingly driven to fight for an end to colonial rule. Self-rule became the slogan. Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, captured the aspiration for self-rule with his popular slogan: seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things shall be added unto you. What he meant was that independence from colonial rule was the only way to guarantee a better life for all Africans.

One would say that WW II was a fortunate event because it had the unintended consequence of liberating Africa from colonial. How do you avoid unintended consequences? Only history can tell.


Prof. Geoffrey Rugege, the vice-chancellor at the African Leadership University (ALU).

The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.

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