When powerful nations were plunged into a war and interests clashed, more than half of the world was drawn into the war. The rise of Fascism across Europe put many countries at loggerheads and the continent was engulfed in battle.
While the debates went on in Europe and fighting became inevitable, Africans were either busy trying to survive colonialism in their home countries or leading anti colonial movements in foreign countries.The war, now remembered as the Second World War was well documented in the world’s imagination. Unfortunately, there is a part of the war which has been treated simply as a mere footnote in history. This part is the story of Africans who fought for the British Empire in the war.
Britain conscripted young men from the colonies into the war, many of whom were teenagers. Some of these young men had no prior military training and had to rely on grit to survive the war. The changes were sudden but these young Africans had no choice. Colonialism was not benign and so no one could resist the decision of the War office. The decision to conscript these men was born out of the inferior way that Africans were looked upon at the time. Some of the soldiers were even too young to know why they were fighting. It was not for nationalist reasons as many African nations as we know them now did not exist then. What they fought for, for those who had a reason was the British Empire. Some were also told that Hitler, if he wins the war, would overrun Africa and kill them all.
These Nigerian soldiers formed the bulk of the 81st and 82nd West African divisions of the British Army. Of the 1 million African soldiers, 126,000 were Nigerians. The campaign was tough and the terrain was rough but they prevailed. Some lost their lives and some returned with permanent physical and mental damages. Unfortunately, the allied Commander, William Slim, while thanking the victorious Army forgot to mention these soldiers and they were tagged “The Forgotten Army” by many. However, he corrected this in his memoir and acknowledged that their “discipline and smartness were impressive.” While the war helped young Africans demystify the White race, colonialism continued in most parts of Africa many decades after the war. The veterans went home with stories and this undoubtedly gave impetus to the agitation for self rule in the colonies.
74 years after the war ended, lawyer, documentary filmmaker and public historian, Ed Emeka Keazor recalled the efforts of the Nigerian soldiers who fought in the war in a documentary. Ed Keazor is not new to historical documentaries so it did not come as a surprise when he released the trailer of the documentary. Remembering the facts is important even though many of the soldiers are now late. What is even more important than remembering is documenting it in a way that it is preserved for generations to come.
The documentary, titled “Company Yaya: Lost African Voices of World War 2” was done via readings from historical materials, archival footages, rare field recordings of the soldiers’ voices, comments from family members of some veterans and footages from monuments. The story was leanly told despite the rich archival content and the illustrious lineup of participants. For a story more than 7 decades old, this is not out of place. Also, the decision to get members of the public to read from historical texts is ingenious and it helps to tell the story better. The story is multilayered but it is not told in a straitjacketed way. Many of the participants were allowed to share their perspectives and their connection to the war and the two races involved in the story were humanized. Also, participants were drawn from different backgrounds across both races.
The participants in the documentary are Hon Justice Kenneth Keazor, Rtd., Who witnessed young men being conscripted, Emeritus Professor David Killingray – history scholar who has researched and written widely about the role of Africans in the war, Ojinnaka Obi Asika – Archivist and Cultural Entrepreneur, Ruth Bourne – Public Historian, Professor Saheed Aderinto – Professor of History, Edaoto Agbeniyi – Musician/Activist, Tajudeen Ipaye – Archivist and son of a veteran, Chief Keith Richards – Public Historian and Entrepreneur, Pastor Taira Afaha-Akpan, Mike Akinwande Savage – son of a veteran, Oliver Coates – History scholar, Aduke Gomez – Lawyer, Public Historian and Poet, Captain Kola King – Pilot and Son of a veteran, Maxwell Bobby Benson – Entrepreneur and Son of a Veteran, Ifeanyi Keazor – Lawyer and Public Historian, and Barnaby Phillips – Journalist and Historian. Despite the diverse lineup of participants sharing their perspectives and reading from several texts, the documentary maintains focus all through. This diversity is reflected in the experience of Aduke Gomez whose father saw the conscription of protesting students at Kings’ College, Lagos and was inspired to become a lawyer. Also notable is the story of Tajudeen Ipaye whose father joined the army to protect his mother from the young unruly officers who harassed women in the market.
The greatest accomplishment of the documentary is how it humanizes the soldiers. They were not projected as colonial subjects but as men who fought the war with dignity and honor, against all odds. The participation of their children gives a human face to their memory and shows them in another light. For Bobby Benson who became popular in Nigeria as an entertainer, the documentary shows that he had another life even though his son said that he hardly spoke about it. This repression might be because of his experience in a concentration camp as reported by his son. Another less known veteran whose story is striking is that of Tai Solarin who later became popular as an educationist and activist. Other veterans were mentioned and their pictures were used in the story, some of them include Major Akinwande Savage, Major Peter Thomas, Tanimose Bankole-Oki, Bomber Sergeant Bankole Vivour, Flight Sergeant David Abiodun Oguntoye, Dr. Robert Mgbaraonye, Babatunde Alakija, Dr, Akin Senbanjo and Omoba Lawal Akanni King, whose pilot son read an excerpt from a book.
The story is even timelier with its spotlighting of the role of a few white officers. General George Giffard, Inspector General of the Royal West African Frontier Force insisted that African soldiers be issued shoes against the opinion of the British Defence Ministry. He was also noted to have paid strict attention to the welfare and training of the officers. Sir Alan Burns, Governor of Gold Coast was also mentioned and commended for his effort in ensuring that African soldiers get a fairly reasonable pension after the war. Even though there were institutional attempts to demean the efforts of the African soldiers, the efforts of these white men in fighting for Africans bore fruit. The role of one man in making important changes is acknowledged and it is even more important to spotlight such positive use of “white privilege” in such a racially charged period.
The excerpts which the documentary participants read from are also varied. From newspaper reports to memoirs, scholarly essays and history books, these texts help to tell the story in more nuanced ways. Some of the texts are J. O. Ariyo’s Ojú mi rí ní India, Michael Hickey’s The Unforgettable Army, David Killingray’s Fighting for Britain, Barnaby Phillips’ Another Man’s War, Oliver Coates’ essay, ‘Between Image and Erasure: African Soldiers in India, 1944-1946’, John Slader’s The Red Duster at War. In spite of this rich catalogue of books, the voices of the soldiers run through the documentary and this helps to restate the importance of the primary subjects of the story.
There are no standards to telling necessary stories like this, the basic requirement is to be sensitive and make attempts at representing parties fairly, which Keazor excelled at in this documentary. While the story might look simple, it is not. The research and narrative style is such that only an experienced director could have pulled it off. Participants are drawn from different backgrounds but this came at a cost. This meant that the participants recorded their own amateur videos and sent to the director, lowering the overall technical quality of the documentary. The technicalities of the story could also have been better as the subtitles were a little jumpy at different points but it does not impede on the overall quality of the actual storytelling. A number of things could have been done better but nonetheless, the story was told. It is hoped that the production style of the documentary will inspire more storytellers and perhaps it is time for African storytellers to begin thinking of other less expensive and less complicated ways to tell the important stories. Keazor’s work is commendable and one can only hope that support for projects like this from institutions, governments and individuals will increase. Stories like this are replete in world history and the roles played by people of African descent in world affairs are grossly underrepresented. It is hoped that more people would tell stories that show the many underrepresented sides of Africa.
 William Slim, Defeat Into Victory.Cassell and Company, 1956.
“Ayọ̀délé Ìbíyẹmí is a lifetime student of Literature. He is also a reader who writes occasionally. For him, words are what makes the intractable world livable. Ayo tweets at @Ayo_eagles. He was a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow and won the 2019 Ken Saro-Wiwa Prize for Book Review.”