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July 27, 2010

Many African Countries Mark 50 Years in 2010

Seventeen African countries are marking half a century of independence this year.  These include a number former French colonies, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.  Celebrations are being held in Africa and outside the continent, but Africa analysts say Africa needs to see much more progress before celebration is really warranted.

The government of France, a former colonial power in much of West Africa, recently invited African leaders to commemorate 50 years of independence for 14 of its former colonies.

The president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, thanked his host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"I want to thank you warmly for this initiative," said Biya.  "It allows us to re-examine and accept our common history, to reassert our desire to build our future, even further than ever before."

Mr. Biya has been in power since 1982, for more than half of Cameroon's independence, and has maintained very close ties with France.  But as in many other African nations, Cameroon's independence has not solved all its problems.  Despite its many resources, parts of the country still suffer from malnutrition.

Independence for many Africans has also been marked by conflicts, coups and disease. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which recently celebrated 50 years of independence from Belgian rule, is no exception.  The current president, Joseph Kabila, a former rebel fighter, has been trying to liberalize the country's mineral-rich economy and enforce rules against corruption.

Congolese citizen Jose Mungongo remains hopeful.  "We hope that everything he started will continue and will be for the better of the country," said Mungongo.  "And of course, we hope that the social element of that will continue as well."

The executive director of Africa Action in Washington, Gerald LeMelle, says Africans themselves need to control what they do with their resources, rather than anyone from outside.

"It is very, very difficult, 50 years after so-called independence, 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 LeMelle.  "If people can't make decisions that are in the country's best interest first, vis a vis their resources, then we have not achieved independence."

In terms of the next 50 years, Steve McDonald from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says he would like to see civil society groups, such as media, gain more and more importance.

"I think work needs to be done across the board for them to play the role that civil society does in the west," said McDonald.  "I think it's still a nascent movement in that they are not really empowered.  They are an irritant.  They are a voice in the wilderness often, sometimes they affect the flow."

The U.S. government will mark the many African independence milestones with a town hall meeting hosted by President Barack Obama in early August - for African youth leaders, the African diaspora community, civil society groups and leaders of Africa's private sector.  Mr. Obama, whose father was a Kenyan who came to the United States to study, has said he wants to make sure the U.S.-African partnership can help all Africans in the decades ahead.