The first world war: A Nige­rian per­spec­tive

Sunday Trust - - VIEWPOINT - By Prof.David Jowitt Jowitt is a Pro­fes­sor of English Lan­guage at the Univer­sity of Jos

We of­ten re­mem­ber an­niver­saries; cen­te­nar­ies less of­ten. Novem­ber 11, 2018 was the cen­te­nary of the end of the First World War. It was on that day in 1918 that the armies of Ger­many on the one hand and those of France, Bri­tain, and the USA - ‘the Al­lies’ - on the other signed the Ar­mistice mark­ing the end of more than four years of fight­ing. The war had be­gun when Ger­many in­vaded Bel­gium and France in the hope of quickly de­feat­ing France be­fore turn­ing her at­ten­tion to the much big­ger quan­tity of Rus­sia. Now she ac­knowl­edged that that bid - for mas­tery of Europe, of the world - had failed. Her own al­lies, Aus­tria-Hun­gary and Tur­key, had given up the fight shortly be­fore.

This was the most ter­ri­ble war waged up to that time in the his­tory of the world. It is a huge irony that great advances in tech­nol­ogy made it so. Mus­tardgas was for the first time used at the bat­tle­front to blind en­emy soldiers. Tor­pe­does de­stroyed en­emy ship­ping at sea. Huge new air­ships car­ried out bomb­ing raids on civil­ians. Each side im­posed a block­ade on the other, re­sult­ing in se­vere food short­ages.

Most fright­ful of all, how­ever, was the slaugh­ter on the bat­tle­fronts through the use of heavy ar­tillery and ma­chine­guns. Nearly ten mil­lion mil­i­tary per­son­nel per­ished in the War, and on the first day of just one bat­tle, that of the river Somme in north­ern France, over 19,000 Bri­tish soldiers died.

It has of­ten been ar­gued that this was not truly a world war. Most of the bel­liger­ents were Euro­pean pow­ers. Most of the fight­ing was done in Europe, and what was done in Africa was an ex­ten­sion of the con­flict in Europe, since nearly all of Africa lay un­der Euro­pean colo­nial rule.

Yet in dif­fer­ent ways the whole world did get caught up in the war. Nige­ria suf­fered be­cause be­fore it be­gan fifty per cent of her palm prod­ucts had gone to Ger­many; now this trade was cut off. The Bri­tish also feared that Ger­man agents were at work in Nige­ria fo­ment­ing re­bel­lion. In the North, the fear was that Mus­lims would rise in sup­port of Ger­many’s ally Tur­key; in the Delta re­gion, to Bri­tish alarm, a Chris­tian ‘prophet’ call­ing him­self ‘Eli­jah II’ at­tracted crowds of fol­low­ers who be­lieved that Bri­tain was about to quit Nige­ria.

Iron­i­cally, Bri­tain’s rea­son for en­ter­ing the War was to de­fend the in­de­pen­dence of Bel­gium; yet it was just re­cently that Bri­tain, like other Euro­pean pow­ers, had used largely force­ful means to ac­quire var­i­ous parts of hith­erto in­de­pen­dent Africa. Nev­er­the­less, Nige­ria’s newly de­vel­op­ing ed­u­cated elite, based mainly in La­gos, ex­pressed loy­alty to Bri­tain. They hardly had any choice, be­cause there was cen­sor­ship - as there was in Bri­tain it­self.

Euro­pean colonies par­tic­i­pated in the War chiefly be­cause men en­listed in - or were con­scripted into - the re­spec­tive colo­nial armies. As is well known, Nige­rian soldiers un­der the Bri­tish flag fought the Ger­mans, first in Cameroon, later in Tan­ganyika. Their Bri­tish of­fi­cers paid trib­ute to their discipline, en­durance and brav­ery. There is some con­tro­versy as to whether they have ever been ad­e­quately re­warded.

The First World War did not have the same mo­men­tous con­se­quences for Nige­ria as did the Sec­ond. The lat­ter was fol­lowed by the rapid growth of the na­tion­al­ist move­ment, lead­ing to in­de­pen­dence in 1960. How­ever, the First set the mod­ern na­tion­al­ist move­ment in train. For the 17,000 com­bat­ants (and the much greater num­ber of Nige­ri­ans who served as ‘car­ri­ers’ in the colo­nial army) had trav­elled out­side Nige­ria and re­turned with their men­tal hori­zons ex­tended and their self-con­fi­dence deep­ened. They shared their ex­pe­ri­ences with the peo­ple they re­turned to; hence the out­look of large sec­tors of the pop­u­la­tion be­gan to be trans­formed. Sig­nif­i­cantly, as early as 1920 a Na­tional Congress of Bri­tish West Africa was es­tab­lished in Ac­cra to cam­paign for African rights; and two years later the gov­ern­ment in La­gos in­tro­duced a new Con­sti­tu­tion un­der which for the first time elected Nige­rian rep­re­sen­ta­tives be­gan to sit in the Gover­nor-Gen­eral’s Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil.

The First World War showed that mod­ern war is an evil likely to at­tain mon­strous pro­por­tions, since huge num­bers of both com­bat­ants and civil­ians are likely to be killed or wounded. The Sec­ond World War spec­tac­u­larly con­firmed this truth, but it has been un­der­lined by con­tem­po­rary wars, such as those in Syria and Ye­men.

Af­ter the First World War, many high-minded peo­ple be­came paci­fists, ar­gu­ing that war must be avoided at all costs - that if your coun­try is in­vaded you should not re­sist the ag­gres­sor with force. To most peo­ple, the idea is un­ac­cept­able; and para­dox­i­cally, dur­ing the era of Cold-War con­fronta­tion be­tween the USA and the Soviet Union af­ter 1945, the pol­icy of de­ter­rence (the threat of each side to use mas­sive force against the other if the lat­ter struck first) ac­tu­ally made con­flict be­tween the two sides un­likely.

Now we live in more uncer­tain times again; but what­ever our view of war may be, each new hu­man gen­er­a­tion needs to be re­minded of the hor­rors that war brings with it. Let us hope that com­mem­o­ra­tion of the end of the First World War has served this purpose.

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