Colonial Legacies in Modern African Militaries: A Call for Abstracts

Charles Thomas's picture

Myles Osborne (U. of Colorado) and Charles Thomas (U.S. Air Command and Staff College)

It is widely accepted that colonialism wrought massive changes upon the peoples of Africa. Societies were broken up and combined; states were shattered and made into colonies; cultures were forcefully co-opted or erased. Later, when these colonies made their first steps into independence in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, there were vast processes of remembrance and forgetting among the citizens and their governments. Governments now had to make stark choices as to how their new nations would function. These new institutions were not traditionally African, but neither were they models drawn simply from the colonizing power. The inherited structures took on new forms as their new African owners shaped them to their own needs, but they often held some legacy of the colonial forms whether in form, function, or simply conception within a Western-dominated world.

While scholars have undertaken significant study about the many aspects of colonial legacies within post-colonial African states, there has been little examination of these legacies in the armed forces. Throughout the colonial era European powers had created and fostered local military units, largely built around European standards of military service, society, and culture. These militaries were inherited by new nations at decolonization, which then needed to reckon with the legacies of colonial practice within their new armies – legacies that often endure in various forms to the present day. Even starker, those countries who had to violently decolonize still often needed to adopt European methods, organization, and military culture during and after they won their independence, often in the process of merging their army with that of their former colonial enemies (consider ANC fighters and the South African Defense Force, for instance).

This project therefore seeks to explore the various ways that African militaries have understood, envisioned, suffered from, or co-opted their colonial legacies. This may include cultural, social, structural, or economic factors, or any other manifold ways the colonial process changed and shaped African military service and practice. It is inspired in part by recent work such as Erik Kennes and Miles Larmer’s The Katangese Gendarmes and War in Central Africa: Fighting Their Way Home, which ties Katangese veterans exiled in Angola to the Cold War and post-colonial Africa. Scholars may wish to develop themes raised as early as the 1970s by Anthony Kirk-Greene who considered the “martial” legacy of colonial militaries. Or think along the lines of Philip Frankel in Soldiers In A Storm: The Armed Forces In South Africa's Democratic Transition who revealed new and telling insights about the important role of the army in 1990s South Africa. Ethnic recruitment continues in many regions of the continent, after all, and played a role in Mali’s recent army coups. We are open to any approach that provides new insight into this topic, from soldiers’ songs to storytelling, art or graffiti, and so on.

While we assume the majority of participants will likely be academics, we would like to encourage former military officers with relevant experience to participate, as well as public scholars.

The schedule of meetings we arrange once we have a list of interested participants is not fixed. We may decide to organize a panel or several panels at a major conference (e.g. the African Studies Association) or possibly arrange a small, dedicated workshop (and our plan in this regard would be to procure funding for participants). The end goal of these meetings is to produce an edited volume, but we will also consider whether producing something for the Journal of African Military History could work alongside this text.

Please contact us if you’re interested. We will continue to accept abstracts through November 19.


Myles Osborne (

Charles Thomas (

Categories: CFP, Announcement
Keywords: announcement