A day for Africans to rise

This year’s Africa Day was marked by a new movement that seeks to define liberation as starting within each African.

Young people somersault over old tires in the Khayelitsha township, near Cape Town, South Africa, on May 25, celebrated as Africa Day.

Across Africa on May 25, thousands of people celebrated Africa Day, an event first marked in 1963 to honor the continent’s liberation from colonial powers. This year, however, the day took on a new meaning of liberation. Many people used it for the first time, either in group forums or on the internet, to “liberate their minds and bring about self-governance,” as one organizer put it.

The day was dubbed “Africans Rising,” which hints at both its optimism and its grass-roots nature. “Let this be the day that Africa starts having conversations of change with itself,” said Mildred Ngesa of Peace pen Communications in Kenya.

Last year, a few hundred activists from 44 countries decided to use Africa Day 2017 to advocate a “decentralized, citizen-owned future” for Africans. Over the decades, there have been many such Pan-African movements. This one may be different for a number of reasons.

For one, Africans are now digitally connected and more literate. The population is the youngest in the world, with more than 3 out of 5 under age 35. Most of all, according to former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a political consciousness “associated with demands for good governance [is] increasing across Africa.”

This mental shift is reflected outwardly in different ways. African nations are the most generous hosts of refugees from other countries. They provide a majority of United Nations peacekeepers. The continent is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. 

Yet the shift in “consciousness” may be best represented by the number of protests, which rose 5 percent last year and occurred in countries from Tunisia to South Africa. “Street protests have become a metaphor for popular expressions of powerlessness,” says Mr. Obasanjo. They are a new way of asserting citizens power, shifting power from entrenched regimes to the people.

One good example: The legal constraints on the powers of the African president “are greater than at any time in the last 50 years,” writes Nic Cheeseman, democracy expert at the University of Birmingham in England.

Since the first Africa Day more than half a century ago, the continent has tried to liberate itself from much more than colonialism. It still struggles with dictators, foreign companies extracting natural resources, violent militant groups, and the oppression of women and minorities. Yet, says Obasanjo, “Africa must prepare itself to handle and solve most of its problems by itself....” For many, that means a day – or more – to celebrate Africans rising.

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