It was impossible for Sub-Saharan Africa to avoid the economic impact of World War II. By the outbreak of the war in 1939, the economies of Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain and their colonies in this region formed part of a single economy. In addition, many of the strategic mineral and agricultural resources that were demanded by the nations at war were found in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The period 1939 to 1942 was a time of hardship for the agricultural sector in the region. In French West Africa for example, farmers in the colonies that remained loyal to the Vichy regime suffered because the naval blockade of the Allied forces brought trade to a virtual standstill. This was also a difficult period for the producers of agricultural commodities, who were either heavily or completely dependent on the export market for their livelihood. Included among them were citrus farmers in southern Mozambique; coffee growers in Angola; cocoa farmers in Nigeria and Ghana, and most oilseed producers. The notable exceptions to this trend were cotton growers in Nigeria, whose surplus was absorbed on the domestic market, and their counterparts in Mozambique, who were beneficiaries of the added impetus given by the war to Portugal’s drive for imperial autarky.
The Japanese victory over the Allied forces in the Far East in February of 1942 eliminated a major source for Allied supplies of agricultural produce and strategic minerals. As a result, Sub-Saharan Africa became a vitally important alternative source for Allied requirements of these commodities, and a concerted effort was made to expand their production for export. In the case of agricultural products, a lot of emphasis was placed on commodities such as groundnuts, palm oil, palm kernels, copra, and cotton. The expansion in their production led to an increase in economic activity in Sub-Saharan African states. However, the economic circumstances of African producers did not improve because the prices they received for their produce were well below the ones prevailing on the world market. Further, in places such as Mozambique, export maximization sometimes took precedence over food production, areas completely unsuited to cash crop production were brought under cultivation and forced labor was used to expand export production.
The major mineral exports of Sub-Saharan Africa were strategically important to the forces involved in the war; they were therefore not adversely affected by it. The Belgian Congo, for instance, was one of the principal sources for the copper, cobalt, industrial diamonds, tin, gold, silver, and uranium needs of the United States and Britain. Thus, to facilitate wartime production, the mining industry received major capital injections from the United States. In Zambia, the most important African source of copper, the demand that was generated by the rearmament program of the late 1930s continued during the war years, and a number of innovations in copper extraction were introduced. The war also led to the rise of the bauxite industry in Ghana and the revival of tin mining in Nigeria. Overall however, in most of the mineral-producing Sub-Saharan African states the development and expansion of mineral production during the war years did not lead to any significant economic growth. In many of them it resulted in the creation of small enclaves within colonial economies, the seasonal migration of workers in and out of the mining areas, and the repatriation of a large percentage of the profits made by mining companies to metropolitan countries. The severe restrictions imposed on goods imported into Sub-Saharan Africa during World War II caused severe shortages and steep price increases. The price of a bicycle in Brazzaville increased from 700 francs in 1939 to 2,700 francs in 1944. In Nigeria the Lagos Cost of Living Committee, appointed in January 1944, found that the cost of living index had increased by over 70 points between 1939 and 1943. Inadequacies in the food supplies in SubSaharan Africa reached crisis proportions in places such as Senegal and Mozambique. Many states sought to expand domestic food production in order to satisfy local needs. For example, compulsory rice production was introduced in Mozambique in 1941 and by 1946 it was self-sufficient in rice. In Nigeria, even though the demand for food outstripped its production during the war years, major improvements were made in the production of rice, wheat, sugar, potatoes, and onions.
The shortages in imported goods was also a powerful incentive for industrialization throughout SubSaharan Africa. In South Africa, the manufacturing sector expanded rapidly and significantly, creating a huge demand for industrial labor. By 1945, the urbanization of all races had increased substantially. In addition, the foundation was created for manufacturing to supersede mining as the dominant sector in the South African economy. In Nigeria increases in wheat production in parts of Bornu, Sokoto, Katsina, and Kano led to the establishment of a flour mill at Kano. Industries were also established or revived to enable the production of roofing shingles, soap, cigars, boot polish, belting, and shoe leather. In Angola and Mozambique the Portuguese government abandoned its opposition to industrialization and allowed companies for the manufacture of cotton textiles and other commodities to be established.
There was also an acceleration in the pace of economic reform in some Sub-Saharan African states during the war years. In the British colonies, for example, after the Japanese victory in the Far East in 1942, the Colonial Office acknowledged that it needed to adopt a more organized approach to colonial economic planning, and by the middle of 1943 the concept of planning was established as an important feature of its colonial development policy. In recognition of their loyalty and contribution to its war effort, France rewarded its colonies in Tropical Africa with the creation of the Fonds d’Investissement pour le Developpment Economique et Sociale, an investment fund for their social and economic development. By 1945 the economic measures that were introduced into the colonial dependencies during the war years had produced an unprecedented level of state intervention in colonial economic affairs in Sub-Saharan Africa and enhanced the economic links between colonial economies in the region and the economies of metropolitan countries.
See also: Fonds d’Investment pour le Developpement Economique et Social (FIDES).
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Crowder, M. “The 1939-45 War and West Africa.” In History of West Africa, vol. 2, edited by J. Ajayi and M. Crowder. London: Longman, 1987.
Dumett, Raymond. “Africa’s Strategic Minerals during the Second World War.” Journal of African History 26, no. 4 (1985): 381-408.
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