JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA; NAIROBI, KENYA; AND ACCRA, GHANA — 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.
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  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 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.
Yet Ghana does have much to be proud of today. According to World Bank statistics, Ghana has decreased its poverty rate from 52 percent to 33 percent between 1990 and 2005; it has increased the per capita share of gross domestic product from $181 in 1983 to $400 in 2005; and it has increased the percentage of roads in good condition from 27 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2006.
"We are doing great compared to the other countries" around Ghana, says Esther Amakye, a student, "and we have come a long way. But as we develop, new problems come up."
One of those problems is urban poverty. Like many countries in Africa, rural citizens are abandoning the hard life of farming for the harder life of urban slums. Many struggle by on less than $1 a day and live – even in the capital city – without running water or toilets.
"This is a poor area," says 32-year old wood trader Yunusa Eliasu waving a hand at the stinking stream of sewage and trash that runs past his small shack. "We are not proud to be living like this, but we are proud to be Ghanaians."
His friends behind him, some in Ghanaian colors grin and agree.
Kenyans also say that independence has proved a mixed blessing. The East African country will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence in 2014.
From independence in 1964 to 1980, Kenya's GDP grew at an average rate of 6.5 percent. But by the 1990s, one-party rule, increasing political corruption, and brief flirtations with socialist policies had erased many social and economic gains. Primary education enrollment dropped from 91 percent to 82 percent between 1989 and 1995. The AIDS crisis made its mark, too, raising the infant mortality rate from 62 to 78 per 1,000 births, and lowering life expectancy from 57 to 47 years, according to the World Bank.
"People say independence was a good thing because it means we can make our own decisions," says Njoki Muruiki, a travel agent in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. "But we are still not really free. We rely on donor money to survive – so are we really free to run our country the way that we want?"
Others agreed that independence was a good thing in and of itself, but the country was still a long way from political maturity.
Peter Mutua, a 65-year-old retired civil servant, says: "So many leaders – like our own – became dictators or refused to listen to the people, but it has only been in very recent years that people here have been demanding real democracy. I hope that if you come back in 15 or 20 years time that we can tell a different story."
Despite disappointment, no one wants a return to colonial rule.
"We still have problems of tribalism here, but that's nothing like the racism that was here under the British," says John Mbugua, a taxi driver. "Schools and hospitals were often reserved for the whites. Our fathers and grandfathers tell us it was as if the black man was a source of labor while all the good things were reserved for the white man."
Some harkened back to a golden age in the early years of independence.
"Things were good before [former president Daniel Arap Moi] came to power [in 1978]. People could live really well," says Cosmas Munyao, who ekes out a living selling newspapers in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. "In the past few years, all the essential costs have doubled, so life is becoming more and more difficult."
Still, Africa experts warn against undue pessimism about Africa and its future.
"When you look at Africa as a continent, you don't want to get trapped in an Afro-pessimism, nor trapped in a ludicrous optimism," says Sean Morrow, a historian of Southern Africa, at the Human Sciences Research Council in Tshwane, as the capital, Pretoria, is now called. The loudest voice of pessimism often comes from Africa's educated middle class, who point to bad governance, corruption, and the lack of education and health care services.
Yet this pessimism itself may provide its own silver lining, Dr. Morrow adds. "One of the achievements of the independence period is the creation of the rightly discontented middle class, many of whom are now in places like South Africa or the US" as doctors, businessmen, and academics. "They are products of independence, too."