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For post-colonial Africa, hopes deferred

By Scott Baldauf, Rob Crilly, Tristan McConnell / March 6, 2007


When Ghana begins celebrations this week for its 50th year of independence – the first of a wave of African countries to throw off colonial rule in the 1950s and '60s – there will be brave speeches, feasts, free concerts, and plenty of the national colors of red, yellow, and green.

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There will also be mutters of disappointment that one of Africa's most promising countries, which gained independence from Britain on March 6, 1957, hasn't achieved more. For many Africans, the lack of post-colonial progress is brought home by the fact that Ghana has done far better than most other African nations, but far worse than Asian countries that achieved independence at around the same time, such as India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

If Ghanaians are the first to feel this pungent mixture of pride and resignation, it will not be alone. Over the next five years, dozens of other African nations will celebrate 50 years of independence – and decry the lost opportunities to make more of their freedom.

Ghana "lit the torch of African independence," says Vladimir Antwi-Danso, a lecturer in international affairs at Accra University in Ghana's capital. Mr. Antwi-Danso points to Ghana's relative stability in a war-torn West Africa as a major reason for the success. "What I mean by stability is that we have seen several military cycles, but we have not degenerated into carnage, civil war, and the kind of thing that some of the countries around us have, so we have something to be proud of."

As a continent, Africa remains home to 34 of the 48 poorest countries in the world, and 24 of the 32 least developed. It is by far the largest recipient of donor aid – $18.4 billion in current projects from the World Bank alone – but also home to some of the richest untapped oil reserves and natural resources in the world. That Africa as a whole remains economically stagnant and chronically unstable would have pained visionary independence leaders like Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta, as much as it does South Africa's Nelson Mandela today.

"If you look at the [2007] World Bank report [on global economic prospects] for 2030, most of the rest of the world will have eliminated poverty, except Africa," says Princeton Lymon, a senior analyst on Africa for the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Now, global environmental factors will have an effect, as Africa expects even more drought than it has the capacity to deal with. So things will be more difficult, rather than less."

Mr. Lymon metes out blame equally to the rich countries of the West and to the despotic African leaders they supported in the name of stability. Both sides now need to drastically change past agreements in order to stave off economic and political catastrophe in Africa, he says.

"It falls on the African states themselves to provide better governance, better political participation, sounder economic policies. And the US and the European Union have to face the fact of their bilateral trade agreements, particularly on agriculture. Africa is the only place in the world where food production, per capita, is going down."

In Ghana this week, focus is on pride

In their 50th anniversary celebrations this week, there is more focus on pride than disappointment. At a free concert held in front of the State House on Saturday night, Ghanaian musicians played the drums, guitars, and horns of Ghana's distinctive "Highlife" music to a crowd of thousands. Many of the performers wore T-shirts bearing the portrait of Ghana's founding father, Kwame Nkrumah.

Even the simple mention of his name got the audience cheering and waving flags.

This view of Ghana's history as it shrugged off British imperialism safely ignores Mr. Nkrumah's less-hallowed achievements, including transforming the country into a one-party state, presiding over economic collapse, and dying in exile after a military coup deposed him in 1966.