Many countries experiencing high levels of humanitarian need today were, until recently, colonial territories. That’s not a coincidence.

Content Advisory: This story contains some descriptions of violence.

Last Tuesday, on an official state visit to Kenya, King Charles of the United Kingdom acknowledged his “greatest sorrow and deepest regret” over “the wrongdoings of the past.” He was referring to the period that Kenya was a British colony, which, following a bloody, decade-long struggle for independence, ended in 1963.

Charles’s speech marked the first significant acknowledgement of Britain’s colonial past in Kenya. His mother was only months into her own reign when the Mau Mau rebellion broke out in late 1952. It would continue for eight years, ending in 1960 with an estimated 90,000 Kenyan casualties. Three years later, after mounting political pressure, Kenya became a sovereign nation. However, the lasting effects of British rule are still felt in the country today. From the effects of the Horn of Africa drought to high levels of poverty and hunger, many of the issues Kenya faces today can be traced back to its colonial past.

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The colonial history of humanitarian crises

This isn’t a unique situation. Many of the countries where Concern works have a history of colonial rule. Many of these countries gained independence at around the same time. Many have faced cyclical crises since then.

Understanding the colonial roots of these humanitarian crises is also important in knowing how many of these crises may someday end. For this article, we’ll be focusing on three countries in Africa, which all gained independence between 1960 and 1963.


The Scramble for Africa

To really understand how so many countries in Africa are in crisis today, we have to go back about 140 years. European countries had colonial presence in Africa dating back to the 15th Century. However, conquest of the continent accelerated after the Berlin Conference of 1884, which set regulations for European occupation of and trade in Africa.

Historians see this as the beginning of a period known as the “Scramble for Africa,” a time in which seven European powers (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom) quickly gained control of most of the continent. This was in part driven by a spirit of nationalism that dominated the late 19th Century. Having an “empire” was a status symbol for European countries, particularly smaller nations that hoped to balance their power against larger nations. In the late 1800s, many countries also faced economic struggles that were offset by establishing colonies: Setting up in Africa gave cash-poor European powers cheap access to valuable raw materials, plus additional markets where they could export surplus goods to sell.

An editorial cartoon published in Punch magazine in 1892 references the Scramble for Africa, in which seven European powers divided the continent up amongst themselves.
An editorial cartoon published in Punch magazine in 1892 references the Scramble for Africa, in which seven European powers divided the continent up amongst themselves. (Public Domain)

The result of the so-called scramble was stark: Before the 1884 Berlin Conference, only 10% of Africa (all coastal territories) was controlled by European nations. By 1914, only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent (Ethiopia would be occupied by Italy later, in 1936).

Equal for some, not for all

Colonization benefited European governments and many citizens, but to say it did the opposite for indigenous Africans would be an understatement. Historian Walter Rodney writes in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa: “If economic power is centered outside national African boundaries, then political and military power in any real sense is also centered outside.” People living in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and the Central African Republic lost much of their autonomy, equity, resources, and in some cases lives due to this shift in power.

Democratic Republic of Congo

A group of forced laborers in Kinshasa, now the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, during Belgian colonization.
A group of forced laborers in Kinshasa, now the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, during Belgian colonization. (Photo: Public Domain)

The area now known as the DRC was part of a larger territory that fell under Belgian control in the late 1800s. It was a rich resource for ivory and rubber, the latter becoming a valuable asset at the end of the century in a post-abolition slave economy. Missed quotas were met with beatings, mutilations (most memorably severed hands and feet), and death. One English missionary wrote to a Belgian official in the Congo that “the abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable.” Later academic research suggests that, during Leopold II’s rule and its immediate aftermath, Congo’s population may have been reduced by 10 million people — half of its pre-colonial population.


A British hunting party in Kenya, 1923.
A British hunting party in Kenya, 1923. (Photo: Public Domain)

During the Harlem Renaissance, historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois documented some of the effects of British colonial rule over Kenya, which began in 1920: “Following the lead of South Africa, Britain took 5 million acres of the best lands from the 3,000,000 native inhabitants, herded them towards the swamps giving them nothing as compensation, even there, no sure title; then by taxation the British forced 60% of the Black adults into slavery for the ten thousand white owners for the lowest wage.” A 1913 bill gave white British settlers 999-year leases on land in Kenya. In 1919, they made it compulsory for native Kenyan men aged 15 and older to wear their registration documents around their necks, a means of limiting movement.

Central African Republic

An archival photo from the territory known as French Congo in 1904.
An archival photo from the territory known as French Congo in 1904, a colony that broke off into several independent states, including present-day Central African Republic.

Indigenous communities in present-day Central African Republic (among many other countries in the area) were offered protection from the French in exchange for economic opportunities. However, as France gained power, it offered little protection. Instead, like Belgium, the French government hired private companies to strip the region of ivory, coffee, and rubber. A 2010 Radio France feature on CAR called it “the most brutal colonization” efforts on France’s part, and , in a 2015 article for Foreign Policy, Ty McCormick writes: “The French operation in CAR was never as profitable as the Belgian Congo, but it matched Leopold’s slave colony measure for measure in brutality.” Many Central Africans were forced into unpaid labor by these private companies, which held family members hostage until their “workers” met a quota. Between 1890 and 1940, approximately half of the population of present-day CAR died either as a result of this violence or the disease that came in its wake.

What changed for the colonies?

European colonization continued for over 75 years. During World War II, over 1 million Africans were drafted into military service on behalf of their European powers. Many were sent to European and Asian fronts. Even before this, a pan-African movement had been growing (Du Bois was a key part of this as well with his theory of self-determination), and it was furthered by the social and political awakenings that many African soldiers experienced while fighting abroad. The 1945 Pan-African Congress demanded an end to colonialism. Riots took place in many countries as indigenous communities fought for their own rights to self-determination.

At the same time, many European countries were left in dire financial straits after the end of the war. A major development came via France, which was catapulted almost immediately into a war with Algeria that lasted from 1954 to 1962. In 1958, facing crisis both at home and in northern Africa, the French Parliament drafted a new constitution that (among other things) redefined the roles and rights of its colonies. When the colony of Guinea refused to agree to these terms, France cut it off financially and politically, effectively granting Guinea its independence. The following year, President Charles de Gaulle decided to grant all of France’s colonial territories independence if that was what they wanted.

Patrice Lumumba signs the document granting independence to present-day Democratic Republic of Congo next to Belgian Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens.
Patrice Lumumba signs the document granting independence to present-day Democratic Republic of Congo next to Belgian Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens (Photo: Congopresse / Wikimedia Commons)

The Year of Africa

As it turned out, that was what many countries wanted.

Following Guinea’s independence in 1958, 13 French colonial states declared independence in 1960 alone, including Niger, Burkina Faso (formerly known as Upper Volta), Chad, and the Central African Republic. That same year, Somalia and Nigeria gained independence from the UK, and the DRC gained independence from Belgium. 1960 became known as “The Year of Africa” in part because of this sweeping decolonization movement. In February of that year, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told South African Parliament: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

That October, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah told the United Nations:

“Over two million of our people cry out with one voice of tremendous power. And what do they say? We do not ask for death for our oppressors; we do not pronounce wishes of ill-fate for our slave-masters; we make an assertion of a just and positive demand… Africa must be free. It is a simple call, but it's also a signal lighting a red warning to those who would tend to ignore it.”

Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends.

Kwame Nkruman (back row, far right) with Queen Elizabeth II and the other leaders of the British Commonwealth at a 1960 conference. (Photo: Public Domain)
Kwame Nkruman (back row, far right) with Queen Elizabeth II and the other leaders of the British Commonwealth at a 1960 conference. (Photo: Public Domain)

The aftermath of independence

“For virtually  all of  Africa  and  for the overwhelming majority of its citizens, the rapid economic transformation which had been hoped  for on independence, failed to materialize,” Nigerian economist Adebayo Adedeji writes. “Instead, the African economy moved from one crisis to another; the revolution of rising expectations gave way to the revolution of rising frustrations with the consequent waves of military revolts and political upheavals in different parts of the  continent.”

Six decades after hard-won independence, many countries are still paying this price across multiple sectors.

Conflict in the DRC


Over the last 60 years, the DRC’s history has been marked by protracted crisis and violence. Patrice Lumumba was just four months into his term as the DRC’s first elected Prime Minister when he was overthrown by a military coup in September 1960 (aided by Belgium and the United States) and executed in 1961. This set off a 36-year, dictatorial reign of Col. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, two Congo Wars, and regional violence that continues to this day.

The DRC is home to the world’s largest food crisis, has one of the largest global refugee populations, and consistently ranks among the world’s poorest countries. Much of this comes down to the political instability that was fostered in tandem with the country’s independence. The DRC remains resource-rich; among other things, it produces materials that are critical to making items like our smartphones. However, the sale of these minerals is also allegedly funding the continuation of conflict — and, by extension, its dire humanitarian impacts.

Lost educations in Kenya


Education also became a weapon in both the colonial and decolonial eras. In Kenya, schools for British nationals were vastly different from those established for native Kenyans. Schools run by the British government for local Kenyans would claim to fit on agricultural skills training, but this was so often not the case that locals in Tanganyika Province began to set up their own schools. When the Mau Mau rebellion began, one of the first responses by the British government was to close 184 of these independent schools.

Years of inadequate education combined with school closures are not easy to make up. Multiple generations of Kenyans were deprived of a basic human right, and a key asset towards living a productive, dignified life. Many of the country’s youngest residents are still missing out on their right to a quality education today.

Neocolonialism in CAR


Despite the French constitutional reforms allowing colonies to gain independence, the provisions on independence still left many former colonies reliant on France. Unlike Haiti, these countries weren’t explicitly required to pay reparations to France, however they did remain economically dependent on the former occupying power. The independence process for CAR also allowed France to install military bases in the former colony so as to protect its economic interests. However, this also weakened CAR’s sovereignty and political stability and halted progress towards key improvements to infrastructure: Nearly a decade after independence, only 2% of the country’s roads were paved, secondary school enrollment was approximately 4%, and only one physician per every 50,000 people was available.

With limited government influence outside of the capital city, CAR has, like the DRC, become a site of cyclical crisis and conflict. This has created a level of humanitarian need that one UN official compared to an IV drip. Writing for the Brookings Institute, Julius Agbor and Michael Rettig described the situation as “neocolonialism,” adding that France continued to extract CAR’s natural resources “at the expense of developing the country’s human resources, institutional and physical infrastructure.”

Where the past is not even past

These are just some of the issues faced by three countries on a continent that is almost uniformly still dealing with the effects of colonialism. Whether the challenges are conflict or climate change, the net result is that millions of people have been systemically set up for failure, facing high levels of risk without the resources needed to offset that risk.

Over the last 60 years, millions of people have been born into a cycle of poverty, passed on from one generation to the next, and at times facing more vulnerabilities than their parents and grandparents before them. “That is why development cannot be seen purely as an economic affair, but rather as an overall social process which is dependent upon the outcome of man’s efforts to deal with his natural environment,” writes Walter Rodney.


This isn’t unique to Africa, either. In our timeline of Haitian history, we can see how the poorest country in North America is still paying for its colonized past. Syria’s ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis grew out of its history as a country under French mandate following World War I — a dynamic similar to colonialism. These histories may seem long past, but they are vital to Concern’s work as they inform many of our approaches and programs. Much like our climate resilience work, we can’t undo the past, but we can address how it affects the most vulnerable people living in the present.

This work, however, is not enough. Ending poverty will be impossible without political action and policy reforms, both within the countries that once existed as colonies, and the countries that occupied them. In response to Charles’s speech last month, Kenyan president William Ruto acknowledged the importance of his words. But he added that “much remains to be done in order to achieve full [colonial] reparations.” In his country, like so many others, the past is not over; it’s not even past.

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