Fifty-five years ago today, Ghana became the first black African nation to gain independence from a colonial power. As the Ghana Broadcasting Corp. reported today, apparently without great enthusiasm, “The day will as usual be marked all over the country with parades of security agencies, school children, workers, and other groups.”
When independence day becomes a ho-hum affair, it's a good sign. It means freedom is the accepted norm.
The path of independence has not been easy. Kwame Nkrumah – the pan-Africanist leader who galvanized various different tribes into a single nation, and then was overthrown in a 1966 coup for overstaying his welcome – told his countrymen that their success depended on common effort for the greater good.
…from now on, today, we must change our attitudes and our minds. We must realize that from now on we are no longer a colonial but free and independent people.
But also, as I pointed out, that also entails hard work. That new Africa is ready to fight his own battles and show that after all the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.
We are going to demonstrate to the world, to the other nations, that we are prepared to lay our foundation - our own African personality.
But the pride and hope of Nkrumah’s speech, and the enthusiasm of the crowd, helped set off a wave of independence movements across the continent that didn’t stop until the end of apartheid in 1994. Given how many African nations followed Ghana toward independence – some peacefully, others fitfully – it’s natural to think of this day as a collective rebirth-day for Africa.
Among the leaders of the 54 nations that make up independent Africa, there were philosophers like Mr. Nkrumah, Senegal’s Leopold Senghor, and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere; in addition, there were functionaries, pawns, and thugs. The state of relative freedom found in each country varies considerably, largely because of the efforts of these men, but as the American novelist Richard Wright wrote during a 1953 visit to Ghana in his book “Black Power,” the natural drive for freedom among Africans was the same everywhere.
“… here in Africa ‘freedom’ was more than a word; an African had no doubts about the meaning of the word ‘freedom.’ It meant the right to public assembly, the right to physical movement, the right to make known his views, the right to elect men of his choice to public office, and the right to recall them if they failed in their promises. At a time when the Western world grew embarrassed at the sound of the word ‘freedom,’ these people knew that it meant the right to shape their own destiny as they wished.’
Ghana has had its achievements and disappointments, and like far too many other West African nations, its coups d’état. Yet human rights organizations such as the New York-based Freedom House regularly praise Ghana for its overall adherence to the rule of law and the right to free expression of political views. And when President Obama made his one and only trip to Africa as president, in July 2009, it was in Ghana that he stopped off and delivered a speech about Africa’s promise.
With the discovery of oil, some observers are asking if Ghana can retain its reputation for freedom and relatively effective governance. Surely the answer to that question will come from the Ghanaian people themselves.