The art of war in Africa

After the collapse of the Nile valley’s empires, the formation process of sub-Saharan kingdoms and empires started. Every people according to the norm of historical evolution, tried to obtain by force lands as much as they could. Even though African kings and emperors were not going to war in an act of peace, we can bring out some peculiarities of the psychology and the art of war in Africa.

Sonni Ali Ber, founder of the Songhay empire, who wages many wars
Sonni Ali Ber, founder of the Songhay empire, who wages many wars; illustration by Anheuser Busch

We cannot find traces of wars that were ending in millions of dead in Africa like in Europe. Only Shaka kaSenzangakhona (Zulu)’s war and Samory Turé’s ended in carnage with tens or hundreds of thousands of civilian and military dead. But those outcomes which have remained exceptional in African history were common in European history. Generally, the features of those intra-African wars before the introduction of European and Arab slave trades, particularly their violence very much less than the one of the European basin, is globally due to three factors: Maât, the absence of weapons of mass destruction (firearms) and the material abundance.


Shaka kaSenzangakhona Source : Wikipedia
Shaka kaSenzangakhona

Life is sacred for Kamits (Blacks), therefore wars for the peoples of southern Africa had to be as less deadly as possible. Jean Philippe Omotunde tells us that war in that part of Kama (Africa) was reduced to a spares contest. Both camps were standing far from each other and the one who threw his spear the farthest in his opponent’s territory was the conqueror. The war had to last for some days at most and had to be as less deadly as possible. Covenants through inter-clans marriages for example were privileged. Maât (kamit philosophic perception) has fully determined the non-violent character of conflicts, in southern Africa especially. It is during the famous Shaka kaSenzangakhona Zulu’s times that the methods changed and deadly wars actually took place in southern Africa. From this point of view, Shaka Zulu although with the Maât feather on his head is a sort of anomaly in African history.

Generally the aim of a territory conquest was to submit that territory to the authority of the conqueror. The war chief who had seized a territory wanted its authorities to acknowledge his supreme power and pay regular taxes, sign of their submission. Like Cheick Anta Diop said, very often it happened that the conqueror sovereign used to confirm the conquered sovereign. Such approach mitigated the intensity of an extremist resistance and was less conducive to an escalation in violence. It was through that way that Sunni Ali Ber, founder of the Songhay Empire, besieged the town of Jenné for 4 or 7 years to oblige the authorities to acknowledge his power. When the sovereigns gave up under famine pressure, Sunni Ali confirmed the king of Jenné in his position and returned to his capital city.

Warrior in the Great Lakes
Warrior in the Great Lakes

That search for compromise, of course, was accompanied by exceptions in West Africa. Sundjata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire razed the former capital city of the Wagadou Empire (ancient Ghana) to the ground; but he rebuilt his region right afterwards. That region recovered prosperity and its population had once again increased. This point is to be underlined because Soundjata conquered Wagadou but rebuilt it in aid of the native population who was from there under his administration the same way Ramesu Maryimana (Rameses II) conquered Nubia to distinguish that region by a gigantic architectural work.

The objective of war in Africa seemed never to be the extermination of natives. Therefore, the assaulted people had to swear allegiance to the new master to continue living like before. The sense of annihilation like in European history actually did not not exist.

From the 14th to the 20th century whereas Europe practically went through ceaseless wars at the continental scale with hundreds of thousands even millions of dead, that increased till World War II – without external attacks – Africans on the other hand were living in the greatest safety, essential to the phenomenal economic expansion that the continent had experienced for 1200 years. The Mali Empire for instance experienced 170 years of peace and led only four conquest wars of one year maximum and another war of four years, whereas France and England, and France and Germany, had never ceased to scratch each other resulting in the outcome of millions of dead. The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta testified the exceptional safety of Black countries.

The Mogho Naba, king of the Mossis, at the head of cavalry
The Mogho Naba, king of the Mossis, at the head of cavalry

The absence of weapons of mass destruction

The absence of firearms was also favouring the happening of very less deadly wars than in Europe or the East. The most dreadful weapon of African armies was the poisoned arrows. The Kamits among themselves had never been obsessed with manufacturing the most destroying weapons. The absence of firearms considerably limited the macabre outcome of intra-African wars.

Material abundance

Finally, it is important to say that the extreme, legendary, hardly imaginable wealth of Africa had greatly mitigated the ardours at war. One of the main purposes of conquest war was the search of natural resources that someone lacks. It seems that the material abundance that the Continent enjoyed before its holocaust had curbed any destruction will against other people. When the dry season took place in the city of Great Zimbabwe, the sovereign went to conquer the surrounding territories; this created the Mwene Mutapa Empire (Monomotapa). In that ambiance of material abundance, it was therefore by absolute necessity that war was taking place.

Per aa (Pharaoh) at the head of his army
Per aa (Pharaoh) at the head of his army


By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

Notes :

  • Afrique noire, démographie, sol et histoire (Black Africa, demography, soil and history) ; Louise Marie Diop-Maes.
  • La traite négrière européenne : vérité et mensonges (the European slave trade : truth and lies), Jean Philippe Omotunde ;
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