In December 1944 a group of African former prisoners of war, who had been repatriated to West Africa and placed in a holding camp at Tiaroye just outside Dakar, staged a demonstration in protest at the failure of the French authorities to pay them the salary arrears and discharge allowances they were due. The French soldiers guarding them opened fire, leaving 35 African soldiers dead and another 35 injured. The killings seriously worried the government, which desperately wanted to retain Africans' loyalty to the empire, and it immediately introduced measures to prevent any repetition of Tiaroye. Improved arrangements were put in place to avoid further protests and ensure that claims for backpay and other monies owing were settled in a timely manner. After the War, successive French governments did whatever they could to ensure that former soldiers did not become disruptive and disaffected. On discharge they were given professional retraining and preferential access to jobs. As a result, they rarely turned into radical nationalists and problems such as Tiaroye were portrayed as atypical, isolated incidents.
Under the Fourth Republic (1946-58), African war veterans – and indeed their political leaders – used the notion of a ‘blood debt’ to France to justify and give political force to their demand that the rhetoric of a ‘one and indivisible republic’, uniting the populations of metropolitan and overseas France, should be made a reality. Thus, equal treatment of French and African veterans became the rule in the 1950s. Moreover, African war veterans were for the most part seen as loyal to France, with the result that African troops were regularly used by France in its wars of decolonisation in Indochina and Algeria. Once France’s sub-Saharan African colonies became independent in 1960, the role of African troops in the French armyfell into a kind of official forgetfulness in Africa as it had in France.
The problem was that African troops who had served France loyally both in the world wars and in its wars of decolonization did not fit easily into the official, nationalist narrative of postcolonial African leaders of an African nation united in the struggle against French colonialism and for national liberation. As a result their role and experiences were largely ‘forgotten’ for some forty years after independence. A powerful symbol of this official forgetting is that even as recently as 1999, in France’s oldest African colony Senegal, a French colonial monument to the memory of African war veterans who had fought for France was removed to a small cemetery on the outskirts of Dakar because its presence in the centre of the city was considered too redolent of the country’s colonial past.
Yet five years later the monument made a great comeback to the city centre after the announcement by the president, Abdoulaye Wade, in the presence of a plethora of African heads of state of former French colonies, of the creation of a national day to commemorate the tirailleurs. At the same time he also announced that the Senegalese government would henceforth pay an allowance to all Senegalese war veterans still alive on 2 March 2000, in addition to the increase in African war veterans’ pensions recently announced by France. Following this the monument was restored to the centre of the city to become the focal point of a vast commemoration project in which the Place de la Gare was renamed the Place du Tirailleur and designated as a memorial to African soldiers who perished in both world wars. How can we explain this sudden transition from official ‘forgetting’ to official ‘remembering’?
Part of the explanation lies in the ongoing reassessment in France of its colonial past, which has found echoes in the media and in political debate in Africa. Indeed the announcement of a Senegalese national day to commemorate the tirailleurs was only made after Chirac’s speech acknowledging the contribution of African troops to the Allied landings in Provence in 2004. However this is not a sufficient explanation for the official change of heart that has taken place, which must be situated in the context of recent developments in Senegal and their impact on public perceptions of its shared colonial past with France.
Firstly, since his election as president in 2000, Wade has made deliberate efforts to diversify Senegal's foreign relations, with high profile visits to the US, China and Brazil, for example, to sign a range of accords. This has in turn led to an opening out to new perspectives beyond an exclusively France-centred perspective in this new context the role of African troops can be seen no longer in a purely Franco-Senegalese perspective, but as part of a global struggle against fascism and for human rights and freedom. Secondly, this reassessment can be seen as part of a generational shift, as a new Senegalese elite educated in the US, Europe and the Middle East steadily replaces an earlier generation whose education and early formative experiences took place in an exclusively French context. Thirdly, after independence, the Senegalese people and their political leaders were preoccupied with the future. The colonial past was behind them and the priority was to build a new, modern Senegal. The failure of this post-independence development project has led in recent years to a renewed interest in the past. As a result, French neocolonialism and its responsibility in Africa’s problems has been the subject of an intensifying debate throughout Francophone Africa since the early 1990s. Continuing economic crisis, growing political instability and civil conflict, first in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and subsequently in the former showcase of French West Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, frequent French military interventions to prop up unpopular and authoritarian African leaders and the obstacles placed in the way of Africans who want to obtain visas to visit France are among the factors that have led many Africans to question the benefits of close and exclusive links with France. This has in turn led to a critical reassessment in Senegal, paralleling that which is taking place in France, of the French colonial period and its legacy in Africa.
Within this debate, it is interesting to examine the paradoxical manner in which the war veterans have been reinserted into the African nation. On the one hand they are seen as heroes and martyrs who fought honourably and often gave their lives in the struggle for the human rights and freedom that we all enjoy today. As Abdoulaye Wade put it in a speech announcing the creation of a national 'Journée du Tirailleur': ‘[Its] objective has largely been achieved. I wanted to focus the attention of Africans, of French people and of the whole world on the contribution of the tirailleurs sénégalais to the building of today’s world’. On the other hand they are simultaneously portrayed as victims of French colonialism who were, and continue to be, shoddily treated by France. In this respect it is noteworthy that President Wade, on the same occasion, paid tribute to the African war veterans killed by French soldiers at Tiaroye and expressed the hope that ‘one day France will present its apologies . . . because nothing can justify this killing’. Their role recast in this way, the tirailleurs can now be presented as part of the ongoing struggle for decolonization, at once victims of French colonialism and fighters for freedom, dignity and human rights.