African history is full of stories of triumph, golden ages, and other high points in human history. Sadly, the continent has also seen some of the darkest phases we’ve gone through as a species, especially during the age of colonization. From slavery to many of the early genocides of the 20th century, the last few hundred years have been particularly dark for some regions in Africa.
10. Sharpeville Massacre
On March 21, 1960, a crowd of about 20,000 black protesters gathered near a police station in Sharpeville – a small town just south of Johannesburg, South Africa. They were protesting the oppressive pass laws that had been in place in South Africa since the early 18th century, which severely restricted the movement of non-whites by requiring them to carry identification documents in restricted areas. The protesters were unarmed and peaceful, only demanding to be arrested for not carrying their pass books.
According to the police’s version, however, the demonstrators turned violent at some point, resulting in a shootout that left 69 people dead and 180 wounded. It lasted for about two minutes, and the cops reportedly used automatic weapons to gun down the unarmed protesters.
The Sharpeville massacre became a focal point in the larger protest against South Africa’s brutal apartheid, and directly led to many organizations adopting more militant and revolutionary tactics in their resistance against the regime.
9. Mau Mau Uprising
From 1952 to 1960, a group of Bantu-speaking Kikuyu people from south-central Kenya fought a rebellion against the ruling British empire. Now known as the Mau Mau uprising – or the Kenyan emergency in Britain – it was a violent war marked by widespread violence against civilians, as well as retaliatory meaures like torture. Like all other colonies fighting for their freedom at the time, the conflict was a result of the dissatisfaction among the native Kikuyu tribe due to factors like racial discrimination, land dispossession, and forced labor by the colonial British government.
The colonial government responded with extreme violence, declaring a state of emergency and deploying troops to quash the rebellion. They also implemented a unique network of detention camps to pacify the local population, where thousands of Kenyans were held without trial and subjected to inhumane treatment. While casualties figures are difficult to estimate, some reports place the number of Kenyans killed at more than 10,000. The rebellion would officially go on until 1960, though large military operations had largely ceased by 1955.
8. Herero And Namaqua Genocide
The Herero And Namaqua Genocide refers to the mass killing of indigenous people in Namibia by imperial German forces between 1904-07. It started after the local population rebelled against colonial German policies, resulting in a relentless campaign by the Germans to eradicate the indigenous people of the region. According to rough estimates, more than 80,000 natives perished in the massacre – most of them belonging to the Herero and Namaqua tribes – though the real number is probably far higher.
Over the course of the next four years, German forces systematically hunted down and killed the local population, using tactics like starvation and forced labor to subjugate and control them. The genocide claimed the lives of around 80% and 50% of the Herero and Namaqua population, respectively, and many historians consider it to be a prelude to the German atrocities seen in World War 2.
7. 1993 Massacre In Burundi
In October 1993, members of the Burundian military launched a coup against the newly elected democratic government led by President Melchior Ndadaye. While his election was seen as a breakthrough moment in Burundi’s tumultuous history, the ultimately-failed coup resulted in his death, sparking a horrific period of violence between the Hutu and Tutsi communities.
The violence was largely directed against the Hutus, as they were seen as supporters of Ndadaye’s government. The killings were carried out by the military, police, and armed civilian groups associated with the Tutsis, lasting for several months and resulting in the deaths of an estimated 80,000 – 100,000 people. Many of the victims were killed in their homes and sent to mass graves, while others were targeted in public spaces like churches and schools.
6. First Congo War
The First Congo War was a part of a larger war that could be called the deadliest conflict in Africa’s history, with an estimated death toll of over 5.4 million people. It was one of the many fallouts of the Rwandan genocide, as the Tutsi-ruled Rwanda hunted suspected perpetrators of the massacre that killed more than 800,000 people back in 1994, most of them Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
In October 1996, Rwanda and Uganda invaded the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically targeting the Hutus that had had fled Rwanda after the genocide. The conflict quickly escalated into a regional war, with multiple armed groups and foreign powers being involved at some point. It saw large-scale ethnic violence, displacement, and human rights abuses of civilians, including rape, torture, and murder without trial. The war ended in 1997, with Rwanda and Uganda-backed Laurent Désiré Kabila taking power as the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
5. Maji Maji Rebellion
From 1905 to 1907, Germany fought an intense war against the local population in German East Africa – or present-day Tanzania. Named after a local medicine, the rebellion was led by various ethnic groups, including the Ngoni, Hehe, and Yao, who united in opposition to German officials, Arab administrators, rich traders, and other ruling groups in the area. Specifically, it was triggered by the introduction of a German policy that forced the local population to only cultivate cotton, resulting in mass confiscation of land and displacement of people from their native homes.
The rebellion began in July, 1905 in the southern part of the colony and quickly spread throughout the region. Some of the rebels believed they were immune to bullets due to a local medicine called maji maji, though they’d quickly find out that wasn’t true. The Germans responded with brutal force, committing numerous atrocities like burning villages, summarily executing rebels, and using high-powered weapons against residential areas like villages. Despite their numerical disadvantage, the Germans ultimately prevailed because of superior military technology, as the local armies were usually ill-equipped and poorly-trained. By the end of it, anywhere between 200,000 – 300,000 Africans had lost their lives in the war.
4. War In Darfur
The Darfur conflict is an ongoing humanitarian crisis that began in 2003 in the western region of Sudan. While it’s a complex conflict resulting from a combination of political, economic, and environmental factors, at its root, it was the ultimate result of long-seated tensions between the Sudanese government and the non-Arab African population living in parts of the country.
The war in Darfur has seen widespread human rights abuses, including ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and torture, along with the displacement of millions of people. The Sudanese government is accused of arming and supporting Arab militias known as Janjaweed, who have been responsible for many of the atrocities committed against non-Arab civilians in Darfur. In response, many local rebel groups have taken up arms against the government and its allied militias, further complicating the situation. According to UN figures from 2021, the conflict has left about 300.000 people dead so far, with over 2.5 million displaced from their homes.
3. Algerian War Of Independence
From 1954 to 1962, armed groups in Algeria fought against the French in what would become one of the largest rebellions in history, involving more than 500,000 French troops at its peak. The conflict began when the National Liberation Front – or FLN – started attacking French personnel and properties in and around the capital Algiers.
France responded to the insurgency with brutal force, using methods like torture, execution, and concentration camps to suppress the FLN. They also imposed a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties, leading to widespread human rights abuses by the French colonial forces. Estimates of casualties vary widely, but according to French sources, the conflict claimed the lives of anywhere between 300,000 to 500,000 Algerians. Algerian sources, though, put the death toll at well over 1.5 million people.
2. Igbo Genocide
The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigeria-Biafra war, was a 30-month-long conflict between Nigeria and the secessionist eastern region called the Republic of Biafra, lasting from 1967 to 1970. It was a brutal conflict, resulting in the deaths of at least one million people – mostly from the Igbo ethnic group – in the relatively-short time that it lasted.
Much of the violence was perpetrated by the Nigerian army and security forces under General Yakubu Gowon – a military leader that seized power after a coup in 1966. Their primary targets – the Igbo people – were subjected to widespread violence, including mass killings, rape, and starvation. The Nigerian government also imposed a blockade on Biafra throughout the conflict, preventing food and medical supplies from reaching the region and causing a famine that led to the deaths of thousands of civilians. The war remains one of the deadliest civil wars in Africa’s history, ending in January 1970 with the rebel groups surrendering to the Nigerian government.
1. Congo Free State
The Congo Free State was a privately-owned colonial entity, encompassing almost the entire region of the Congo Basin. Created in the 1880s as a private holding of the king of Belgium, Leopold II, the colony lasted for more than two decades. The period was marked by oppressive violence against the native Congolese, as Leopold’s agents and private militias used brutal methods to force local workers to collect rubber, including torture and mutilation.
One of the most infamous practices of the time involved cutting off the hands of Congolese workers who failed to meet their collection quotas on the plantations. While we don’t have specific estimates on the number of deaths, the population of the region was reportedly reduced from 20 million to 8 million during this time.
The atrocities of the Congo Free State got international attention in the early 20th century, as a worldwide campaign to bring an end to the regime was launched in Britain and other parts of Europe. Thanks to widespread opposition, Leopold was eventually forced to turn over control of the colony to the Belgian government in 1908.