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50th Anniversary Of Independence Under Way in Number of African Countries

  • Nico Colombant

Ivory Coast will be celebrating 50 years in August, even though it is currently divided in two (file photo)

Ivory Coast will be celebrating 50 years in August, even though it is currently divided in two (file photo)

As more than a dozen African countries became independent in 1960, making 2010 the 50th anniversary of their independence, there have been many reflections from heads of state to comedians and Africa experts on what this means.

Next month, Ivory Coast will celebrate 50 years of independence, but one comedian Gbi de Fer recently went on Ivorian television saying he thought celebrating was misguided.

He asked whether Ivory Coast should present its buildings in the main city Abidjan which do not have any more paint on them.

Or, he wondered, should Ivorians present their divided country, with two armies which have been killing each other?

Another former French colony, Cameroon, became independent on January first 1960, making it the first to celebrate this year.

In a rare speech to mark the occasion, President Paul Biya said the first 50 years had built the architecture of independence.

Tomorrow, he concluded, Cameroonians will give it the social and economic content it deserves.

Mr. Biya has been in power since 1982, for more than half of the period of independence. Several people posted comments below his video on the Internet wondering whether Cameroonians would ever get independence from Mr. Biya.

He was one of many African leaders who this week attended Bastille Day celebrations in France, the former colonial power for 14 of the 17 countries reaching 50 years in 2010. African soldiers marched in Paris to mark the event. Many African commentators were puzzled, saying it should have been French officials going to Africa and not the reverse.

The three other countries reaching half a century this year are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Nigeria.

Stephen Smith, a journalist and anthropologist who has written several books about Africa, says many Africans have struggled economically in recent years.

"Celebrating definitely not, but commemorating, I think you would not scrap your 50th anniversary because you are unemployed," said Stephen Smith. "You have to put up with the circumstances as they are. This argument about that there is little to celebrate is being made broadly in Francophone Africa specifically this year, but I think there is a distinct quality that is between commemoration and celebration. I think there is lots to commemorate and maybe to pore over and to reflect on, not necessarily celebrating. I do agree that maybe African soldiers marching on Bastille Day in Paris may not be the appropriate way of thinking over what has happened."

Gerald LeMelle, the executive director of the U.S-based advocacy group Africa Action, helped organize recent commemorations in Washington for Congo's 50th anniversary, which were called "The Continuing Pursuit."

LeMelle says he believes political independence means nothing if Africans have no say in how the continent's resources are traded and profits distributed.

"That is what independence is all about and so, it is very, very, difficult 50 years after so-called independence day, it is very, very, difficult to see where countries on the continent are able to make decisions without significant input by international economic and political actors," said Gerald LeMelle. "If people cannot make decisions that are in the country's own best interest, first vis a vis their resources, then we have not achieved independence."

Yale University professor and West Africa expert Mike McGovern says there is definitely a mixed legacy, but he is hopeful about growing awareness among Africans.

"Democracy is pretty much a globally accepted ideal, if not always practiced for allowing citizens to choose their own leaders," said Mike McGovern. "I think the rights of women, of young people, of poor people, are increasing by coming to the fore as things that have to be taken into account alongside economic growth."

Next month, President Barack Obama will host a town hall meeting with African youth leaders in Washington to mark the occasion of a half-century of independence.

Mr. Obama's father was a Kenyan who was one of the first of a growing African diaspora in the United States. He returned to work in his post-independence homeland but died disappointed with the gains made by Africans since breaking free of colonial rule. President Obama who will turn 49 in August, has called for helping African countries get on the right track as they enter a new half century.