Weighing a half century of independence

Beyond ‘heady days’ and sobering reality lies great untapped potential
Yaoundé
From Africa Renewal: 
page 10
Cameroon and 16 other African countries celebrate their 50th anniversary of independence this yearCameroon and 16 other African countries celebrate their 50th anniversary of independence this year.
Photograph: ACP Press and Information / Robert L. Iroga

Standing before an assemblage of local and international dignitaries in Cameroon’s capital, UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro noted that she had been too young to celebrate Cameroon’s independence on 1 January 1960. But in her own country she did “remember clearly the joy in my school when Tanzania became independent. Those were heady days indeed for Africa.”

Since then Africa has registered some notable accomplishments, Ms. Migiro said at the opening of a two-day international conference assessing the 50th anniversary of nearly a score of African countries. The continent has also produced many great figures, from leaders like Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela to the millions of “unsung heroes and heroines” who toil daily to build a better life for their children.

“However,” Ms. Migiro added, “as we celebrate Africa’s achievements, opportunities and potential, we must also honestly address the realities and challenges that confront the continent.” Too many babies still die in infancy, she pointed out, too few children find places in school, too many farmers cannot get their crops to market and too many factories lie idle for lack of spare parts, skills or investment.

This mixed assessment of Africa at 50 is typical of reactions across the continent. Togo’s celebrated singer King Mensah told a French television station, “In these 50 years, good things have happened, but a lot of work remains to be done.” He added that if his father, who died 25 years ago, returned from the grave, “he’d be able to walk home without asking anyone for directions. So little has changed. That doesn’t mean leaders have done nothing, but they have done more harm than good.”

‘Trial and error’

African leaders themselves, while often emphasizing the advances, have nevertheless felt obliged to acknowledge some of the shortcomings. President Paul Biya of Cameroon, at the 18 May opening of the Yaoundé international conference, noted how ill-prepared many African countries were when the former colonial powers decided to hand over the reins of national sovereignty. “We have undoubtedly proceeded by trial and error. But could it have been otherwise?” Besides inexperience and lack of preparation, President Biya cited “hunger, pandemics, civil war, external pressure and even corruption to justify our failures. We prefer to accept responsibility and say: ‘We have done our best’.”

The conference, entitled “Africa 21, an Opportunity for the World,” was organized to mark this year’s 50th anniversary of Cameroon and of 16 other African countries, mostly former French colonies but also Nigeria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A few countries in North and sub-Saharan Africa attained their independence earlier, and it took years longer for the colonies of Portugal and the peoples governed by the white-minority regimes of Southern Africa to win their freedom. But 1960 was the year in which the greatest number of African states won independence, giving a major impetus to the liberation process for the continent as a whole.

Beyond celebration, the Yaoundé conference was intended to stimulate reflection by government leaders, academic experts, civil society representatives, businesspeople, donor officials and others on the continent’s experiences over the past half century — and the prospects that lie ahead. Whatever their assessments of the past, most agreed that the continent’s potential is enormous.

Showing the flag at the Independence Day march in Cameroon: President Paul Biya and other leaders note, however, that most African countries remain highly dependent on an international economy over which they have little influence.Showing the flag at the Independence Day march in Cameroon: President Paul Biya and other leaders note, however, that most African countries remain highly dependent on an international economy over which they have little influence.
Photograph: ACP Press and Information / Robert L. Iroga

‘Unfinished independence’

For Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, the attainment of national sovereignty brought a basic reorientation to African countries. “Freed from the will of European capitals,” Mr. Annan said, “they have sought their own governance paths and political directions and built national identities. Many of these countries have worked hard to develop functioning economies and political systems that prioritize the needs of their own citizens, rather than distant consumers.”

A number of conference participants questioned the extent of that change, however. With most African economies still relying heavily on foreign financing and earnings from the export of unprocessed raw materials, they continue to depend on the same patterns of exchange that were originally developed in the colonial era. President Biya noted that with globalization, Africa’s “national economies are still subject to the fluctuations of a global economy over which its governments have little influence.”

Others have been more severe in their judgments, pointing to the continued political and language ties that also closely link European powers with their former colonies. “Formally, [African] states acceded to international sovereignty in 1960,” Senegalese historian Ibrahima Thioub told the French daily Le Monde. “But that juridical change did not mean the end of colonization, that is, of an economic exploitation coupled with submission to another culture.”

While the UK, Belgium and Portugal have all maintained extensive commercial and political relations with their former African colonies, France’s ongoing ties have been especially pronounced. They also have generated considerable comment, given that 14 of the 17 countries that achieved independence in 1960 were formerly under French rule.

Symbolizing those links, France has organized annual Franco-African summit meetings for the past quarter century, most recently in June in the French city of Nice. Until 1989 France maintained 15,000 troops at bases in Africa; over the subsequent two decades that number fell to 10,000, with about half serving on temporary missions, often under UN peacekeeping mandates.

In his Independence Day address on 4 April, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal noted that many of his country’s youth, professionals and soldiers resented the continued presence of a French base on the Cap Vert peninsula near Dakar, regarding it as a mark of an “unfinished independence.” He announced plans to negotiate a rapid closure of the base. On 9 June the French flag finally came down and the base was transferred to Senegal’s control.

Waiting for treatment at a hospital in Sudan: Improvements in health care have extended Africans' average life expectancy in most countries, despite the ravages of AIDS.Waiting for treatment at a hospital in Sudan: Improvements in health care have extended Africans' average life expectancy in most countries, despite the ravages of AIDS.
Photograph: UN Photo / Fred Noy

Improving governance

President Biya, in his opening address to the Yaoundé conference, emphasized the early difficulties that confronted the continent’s newly independent states. There were few trained civil servants, few military officers and few professionals returning from studies abroad, while the territories the new governments sought to administer were vast and their populations belonged to different ethnic, cultural and language groups. In such a context, building new states “was no easy task.”

The people of the DRC had long equated Belgian rule with violence and expected that independence would bring an end to such violence, Congolese philosopher Kä Mana has noted. Unfortunately, the new Congolese state was immediately swept by violence, ethnic secessionist movements, army mutinies and political competition stoked by foreign mining companies and the international rivalries of the Cold War. From the 1961 assassination of the visionary Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, through decades of repressive dictatorship, to the outbreak of two civil wars that claimed several million lives, the Congolese people have known little peace. It was “violence which has dominated the five decades of our independence,” Mr. Mana has written.

Many other African countries were also marked by political turbulence and war. Most of those that managed to escape outright armed conflict were afflicted to varying degrees by authoritarian rule, under either military or one-party regimes. When in the early 1990s much of the continent was swept by massive popular agitation for democracy, activists frequently referred to those movements as struggles for Africa’s “second independence.”

With a few exceptions, most African countries have since adopted some form of multiparty electoral system, with periodic elections of their presidents and parliaments. For many of the participants at the Yaoundé conference, that shift has been one of the most notable achievements of the past 50 years, along with the emergence of an independent media and in some countries quite vibrant and active civil society organizations. Those developments, they argue, place Africa on a sounder footing for dealing with the many challenges that face it.

Some of Africa’s critical intellectuals believe this recent democratic shift has been more in form than substance. According to Achille Mbembe, a well-known Cameroonian academic who now teaches at US and South African universities, “For the most part, Africans still are not even able to freely choose their leaders. Too many countries are still at the mercy of satraps whose sole aim is to remain in power for life.”

The Yaoundé conference heard some stern words as well. Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 when he was head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, commented on the 50th anniversary: “Africa has been liberated — as states. The people have not been liberated in many countries, because they have not gained the right to empower themselves and to live in a democracy.”

Mr. Annan noted that despite progress in the quality of African governance over the last decade, “There is still a long way to go. There are still too many instances of corruption, of elite capture of resources, of growing inequality in wealth and opportunity, abuse of electoral processes and selective adherence to the rule of law.” Therefore, he said, improving governance is the most crucial step for moving the continent forward. “It is strong leadership and good governance that will make the difference.”

Student in Malawi: The continent’s future lies with its youth.Student in Malawi: The continent’s future lies with its youth.
Photograph: UN Photo / Evan Schneider

Progress and potential

However much commentators have highlighted Africa’s numerous problems over the past half century, most conference participants also took note of its progress despite a difficult international environment. Jean Ping, president of the African Union Commission, declared himself “resolutely optimistic.” After all, he pointed out, 50 years “is both much and little,” and it took other countries and regions far longer after their independence to show tangible results.

The statistics demonstrate that Africa has made some notable gains. In 1960 the average life expectancy was just 42 years. But by 2007 it had increased to 55 years, despite the recent ravages of AIDS. Over that same period the infant mortality rate declined by nearly half, from 153 deaths per 1,000 live births to 82 deaths. At independence in 1960 very few African children were able to go to school. Subsequent decades saw concerted efforts regarding education, despite the serious financial constraints of the 1980s and early 1990s. Thanks to a major push for “education for all,” the net primary school enrolment rate climbed from 58 per cent in 1991 to 77 per cent in 2006, and the rate of university enrolment doubled.

Such improvements are all the more telling given Africa’s enormous increase in population. In 1960 there were an estimated 280 million Africans on the continent as a whole. Today, Ms. Migiro noted, there are a billion, “more than half of whom are under the age of 25.”

The continent’s relative youth poses serious challenges, President Ali Bongo of Gabon emphasized in his conference address. “What vision does Africa have for Africa’s young people?” he asked. So far, he suggested, African countries have not invested enough in human development — including education and training — or in creating jobs that can keep skilled and talented young Africans from emigrating abroad. Their energy and abilities can help transform Africa, President Bongo insisted. Moreover, “Young Africans can change the world and must change the world.”

Women too must acquire a more central role, argued Ms. Amina Hassane Wangari of Niger, president of the West Africa Businesswomen’s Network. Women are not only at the heart of the continent’s development, she said, but can be at the heart of African democracy if they are able to obtain more pivotal decision-making positions.

Overall, African leaders must take greater initiative and responsibility for their development, argued Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, who spoke to the conference on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. A major step in that direction, he said, was the adoption by African leaders of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), which is intended to create a continent of “self-confident African men and women.”

“Africa has boundless potential,” Ms. Migiro affirmed. In addition to its young and talented people, it has tremendous mineral wealth, 40 per cent of the world’s unharnessed hydroelectric power generation potential and “vast untapped geothermal and solar resources.”

Because of its wealth, Africa is seeing an increase in its geostrategic importance on the world stage, Mr. Annan pointed out. It is not only attracting greater attention from investors but also acquiring a stronger international voice, as during the December 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change or in the high-level discussions of the industrialized and developing countries’ Group of 20. “Comprising a quarter of the world’s states and one billion people,” Mr. Annan said, “Africa is a sleeping giant about to be awoken.”