YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon — The year 1960 was a defining moment for sub-Saharan Africa. Fourteen former French colonies declared their independence — eight of them in August alone — while Somalia and Nigeria broke from British control and the Belgian Congo became Zaire.
This past summer, one of those ex-French colonies, Cameroon, hosted a lavish two-day party, inviting 17 heads of state to celebrate their countries’ 50th anniversary of independence at the Yaoundé Conference Center. The red carpet was laid out for presidents, prime ministers and dignitaries ranging from Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, to Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission.
Annan, a citizen of Ghana and 2001 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said Africans should be proud of their accomplishments over the last 50 years. Yet he cautioned that opportunities for economic growth and social development won’t come easily.
“We cannot take further progress for granted. We need to work hard for it,” the elder statesman told his audience. “It is strong leadership and good governance that will make the difference, both at home and on the global stage.”
Pointing out that South Korea and Sudan had the same per-capita income in the 1960s, Annan lamented that today, South Korea is one the world’s richest countries while Sudan is one of its poorest, despite massive oil wealth — a reflection of the broader gap between Africa and Asia, many of whose countries achieved colonial independence around the same time. Yet despite possessing far more energy resources, Africa lags far behind much of Asia economically.
Meanwhile on the political front, despots rule countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya, Egypt and Ethiopia, with recent military coups in Niger, Madagascar and Guinea (although healthy democracies exist in countries like Ghana, South Africa and Kenya).
Annan specifically called on African heads of state to democratize their societies, a crucial point given that at least six of the presidents seated in red velvet chairs and listening to him through headphones, including the host — Cameroonian President Paul Biya — are considered dictators by Amnesty International and other leading human rights groups.
“We need to see the fulfillment of commitments in our national constitutions and in the [African Union] Constitutive Act, promises kept on good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law,” he said. “Across the continent, civil society needs to be given more space and rights to be able to hold leaders accountable for their actions and make an essential contribution to nation-building efforts.”
Annan added: “We must see greater transparency in the way governments manage revenues, particularly those from the extraction of natural resources. These revenues must be turned into results for all citizens, not just the elite few.”
Egypt’s Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who won his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 (and who may be eyeing a run for the Egyptian presidency), told delegates that “if Africa is put on the right track, it could be a major player.”
Meanwhile, Biya, as the host president, gave a long history lesson on the significance of the 50th anniversary for the 17 countries celebrating that milestone — largely blaming the West for Africa’s economic problems while ignoring the issue of governance and lack of real democratic reform in most of the continent’s 54 nations, including his own. Biya has ruled his impoverished nation of 20 million for nearly 28 years, more than half of its post-colonial existence, in fact.
“For a long time, we believed in the advent of a new world economic order that would enable Africa to fit into globalization and thereby find its way out of poverty. We still have a glimmer of hope because we believe there is no genuine solution other than the regulation of the global economy based on solidarity with the most disadvantaged countries,” Biya said.
“We have understood that, at best, this will take time. Meanwhile, Africa is determined to forge ahead. We hope that besides its own resources and those of the new economic players, Africa can continue to count on the assistance of the partners that have supported it since independence.”
Janet Garvey, U.S. ambassador in Yaoundé since September 2007, told The Washington Diplomat that Cameroon has made some advances toward democracy, but that the Biya government — in power since 1982 — has not gone far enough.
“Right now, we’re participating in a conference celebrating 50 years of independence,” said Garvey, interviewed on the sidelines of the two-day Yaoundé extravaganza. “That’s a relatively short time, so it’s not surprising things are not as developed as they should be.”
She added: “President Biya has been elected by the people of Cameroon in elections that were generally accepted by the international community. We have told the government that we hope next year’s elections are even better, and that they’re well-run. We would like to see a very vibrant political scene, with [opposition] parties that have nationwide appeal.”
While Cameroon chose to observe its 50th anniversary of independence with a lengthy military parade that served mainly to glorify the 77-year-old Biya — who watched from a viewing stand with his 39-year-old wife Chantal — other countries chose to celebrate the half-century mark in equally dramatic fashion.
Senegal, for example, unveiled its “Statue of the African Renaissance,” a 50-meter-high bronze work of socialist-realism art that dwarfs the Statue of Liberty and dominates a hill just outside Dakar. The statue, commissioned by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, depicts an athletic man baring his chest and holding a child on his bulging bicep. Behind him is a buxom woman with her skimpy dress billowing back, revealing a thigh — and offending imams and religious leaders in a country that is 96 percent Muslim.
“This African who emerges from the volcano, facing the West,” said the president, describing the monument’s significance, “symbolizes the Africa which freed itself from several centuries of imprisonment in the abyssal depths of ignorance, intolerance and racism, to retrieve its place on this land, which belongs to all races, in light, air and freedom.”
Yet the $27 million colossus has also outraged many Senegalese because Wade plans on charging tourists admission to see it, then pocketing a third of the profits because it was his idea.
Nearby, Togo celebrates its 50th anniversary in October, even though its actual date of independence from France was April 27, 1960. The country’s ambassador to the United States, Limbiye Edawe Kadangha Bariki, admits that Togo — population 6.5 million — faces many challenges.
“Fifty years in the life of a human being is the age of maturity. It’s the same thing in the life of a country,” Bariki told The Diplomat. “After 50 years, we have accomplished a lot but we still have a long way to go. We would like Togo to be better than what it is today.”
Mamadou Traore, ambassador of Mali, took a more optimistic view, saying that “after 50 years of independence for 17 African countries, the idea of Africa — in charge of its own destiny, on equal footing with the rest of the world — is back again.”
Traore noted that Mali — home to 14.5 million people and geographically the largest nation in West Africa — is proud that his fellow Africans stood firmly in defense of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) and CAADP (Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program) “when for years our partners in development didn’t want to hear about it.”
He added: “We praise President Obama for breaking this position and calling for a trust fund to finance agricultural projects in Africa. America is the first country to recognize the maturity of the continent in aligning the U.S. Feed the Future Initiative with a genuine African initiative: CAADP.”
With an estimated 160 million inhabitants, oil-rich Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. “The 1960s was the decade of independence for Africa, and Nigeria — being the most populous — did encourage other African countries to struggle for their independence as well, particularly Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe,” said Nigerian Ambassador Ade Adefuye. “We were in the forefront of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and played a big role in the emergence of the Organization of African Unity.”
Adefuye said his staff is planning a huge party on Oct. 1 to commemorate Nigeria’s Independence Day, with some 1,000 people expected to attend.
“We’ll have an art exhibition, launch a book on 50 years of Nigeria’s relations with the United States, and host a musical extravaganza to reflect our rich culture,” said Adefuye, noting that the party will be held at a hotel in Maryland rather than at the Nigerian Embassy because “the embassy grounds will not be enough to contain us.”
Worldwide, the big anniversary has also generated lots of publicity, from Japan to Jamaica. There’s even a Facebook site called “FESTI 50: The 50th Anniversary of African Independence,” with tens of thousands of followers.
On a more official level, in early August, cabinet ministers from 38 countries eligible under the provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) converged on Washington for what was dubbed the 2010 AGOA Forum on U.S.-Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation. AGOA, adopted in 2000 and extended by Congress in 2006, offers preferential access to U.S. markets for a broad range of goods from sub-Saharan African countries that meet eligibility requirements.
In addition, youth leaders were invited to Washington to discuss how a U.S.-Africa partnership can better prepare the 60 percent of the continent’s nearly 1 billion people who are under the age of 30 to face the challenges of the coming decade.
“In small villages and sprawling cities across that great and diverse continent, poverty conflict, and corruption are giving a way to opportunity, stability and democracy,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at the opening of the AGOA conference in Washington.
“Even after the global financial crisis, Africa’s economy is expected to grow at a rate of 4.5 percent next year, faster than Latin America’s, Central Asia’s, Europe’s, or the United States. All of these numbers tell the story of a continent on the rise. And this is a story that needs to be told. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops.”
Yet not everyone sees a reason to shout from the rooftops in joy.
Africa remains the poorest continent in the world. According to George Ayittey, president of the Washington-based Free Africa Foundation, “Of the 209 African heads of state since 1960, fewer than 15 can be classified as good, clean leaders,” he wrote in Foreign Policy earlier this year. “The rest — an assortment of military brutes, briefcase bandits and crackpot democrats — are decidedly uninspiring.”
And many on the continent remain just as uninspired on the economic front. In Nigeria, for instance, even though rulers have “looted more than $430 billion in oil revenue since independence in 1960 — or six times the United States’ Marshall Plan for postwar Europe,” Ayittey pointed out, 60 percent of its citizens still live on less than $2 a day.
Likewise, in Congo, a regional war that took the lives of millions may have officially subsided, but the country remains as destitute as ever, with 80 percent of its 70 million people surviving on less than $2 a day. Brutal killings of civilians by a hodgepodge of rebel groups also continue to this day (Human Rights Watch says the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, for instance, has been busy slaughtering and kidnapping Congolese civilians for the past year).
Alafuele Kalala, a pro-democracy activist who ran for president of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, agrees that people in war-torn Congo, which won independence from Belgium in 1960, have little reason to be happy.
“This country is a nightmare for most Congolese, and they don’t know what 50 years of formal independence means,” said Kalala, who now resides in Washington. “People are suffering. The country is completely bankrupted, at all levels. I say it’s a quintuple bankruptcy: political, economic, social, military and cultural. The country is completely destroyed.”
Congo’s civil war, which began in 1998 and ended in 2003 — though hostilities persist — involved eight countries and 25 armed groups. The fighting and its aftermath claimed the lives of an estimated 5.4 million people, making it the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II.
On June 30, a panel discussion was held at Washington’s True Reformer Building
About the Author
Victor Shiblie is publisher and editor in chief of The Washington Diplomat.