THERE are celebrations taking place across Africa this year — and they have nothing to do with soccer. In 1960, 17 African countries gained their independence from colonial rule; this year marks the 50th anniversary of these momentous events.
The landmark occasion has been celebrated with parades, parties, football games, dancing, public speeches and publications glorifying the achievements of governments.
Some governments have not stinted on spending. In Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade, who describes himself as something of an art boffin, spent about $70m on an African renaissance statue to mark the occasion. Some may argue that this is a fitting tribute to the independence struggle and its fruits.
However, the statue was built by North Koreans, who, ironically, have created a thriving business building monuments to mark freedom and independence for African countries. Senegalese craftsmen, who are among the continent’s finest, had a minor role in the project.
And the statue did not come cheap. Yet Senegal remains a poor country 50 years after independence and the statue towers over extreme poverty in Dakar.
In Nigeria, which celebrates 50 years of independence in October, President Goodluck Jonathan has earmarked about $66m for projects to mark the occasion — a dramatic increase from the $400 000 suggested by his predecessor, the late Umaru Yar’Adua. The list of Nigerian anniversary projects seems uninspiring and designed more to line the pockets of suppliers than make a nation proud.
The extravagance is not lost on a population struggling with virtually no power supply, rampant poverty and a depressed economy. In Cameroon, President Paul Biya, in power for 28 years, spoke at length about democracy and good governance in the presence of presidential guests from other African countries, not one of whom was democratically elected.
In Madagascar, citizens raised flags on independence day but had little to celebrate with their economy struggling and their nation diplomatically isolated since its unelected president, Andry Rajoelina, swept to power last year in an uprising that removed his elected predecessor.
Other countries marking 50 years of independence include the failed state of Somalia; the resource-rich but governance-poor nations of Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Mauritania; and others that have experienced limited democracy or development, such as Togo, Gabon, Benin, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon.
The desire to celebrate 50 years of independence is understandable, but the occasion does raise the issue of what these countries have achieved in that time. In Africa, the vision of 1960 remains, in most cases, a vision.
The success rate in building politically and economically sustainable entities has been patchy. And many of the problems African countries are experiencing today are of their own making. Leaders spend more time trying to find scapegoats for their problems than solving them.
Fifty years after independence, most Africans are dissatisfied with their lot. Poverty is rife, there is little decent infrastructure, public finances are regularly plundered and politics is about acquiring personal power and money rather than governance.
Planning for the future is almost nonexistent, reflected in the fact that countries have preferred to mark their anniversaries with one-off events and monuments rather than with projects to take them into the future.
Africans themselves, instead of benchmarking their performance against global successes, measure their progress against the relatively modest successes of the continent.
It is often said that Africa needs more time; that developed countries had centuries to get to where they are. The success of Asian countries undermines this argument. Trotting out examples of the different growth trajectories of Asian and African countries over the same time frame — Ghana versus Malaysia or Sudan versus South Korea — may have become a cliche but the comparisons remain instructive.
There is no doubt that 50 years of independence should be marked in some way, and even celebrated. But 2010 also needs to be a year of reflection and stocktaking. The future depends on it.