One Nigerian soldier’s poignant history highlights the enormous and little-known contribution of West African troops in the British Army during World War II.
The colliding forces of racism, colonialism and nationalism came to play in the extraordinary journey of Isaac Fadoyebo (1925-2012), from the Yoruba village of Emure-Ile. In 1942, the young man enlisted in the Royal West African Frontier Force; he served in a medical unit in the depths of the Burmese jungle and managed to survive the war after his unit was decimated by Japanese attack in 1944. British author Phillips, a senior correspondent for Al Jazeera English, came across Fadoyebo’s obscure published account at London’s Imperial War Museum and recognized its significance as one of only a few from the point of view of the African participants. Why would a Nigerian youth enlist in the colonial army to fight a war that was anathema to himself and his enslaved people? With little desire to stay and work the family farm and not enough money for advanced schooling, Fadoyebo swallowed the recruiter’s propaganda pitch, which promised a rich return of British justice, pay and the prospect of a good job after the war. At the time, Nigeria was a “model” British protectorate, and the people were considered cheerful and dependable, with an “instinctive respect for position and authority.” As a medical orderly, Fadoyebo had to infiltrate the perilous Arakan mountain region to check the invading Japanese; he was gravely wounded in the leg after the attack and left for dead in the jungle. Thanks largely to the care of a kindly Muslim villager, Fadoyebo made it through, returning to his village a rare and triumphant survivor to face the next step in gaining his country’s independence from Britain.
A remarkable story about a war during which thousands followed Fadoyebo’s example and fought valiantly for, and with little recognition from, the British Empire.