The Washington Diplomat / September 2010
By Larry Luxner
YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon — The year 1960 was a defining moment for sub-Saharan Africa. Fourteen former French colonies declared their independence — eight of them in August alone — Somalia and Nigeria broke from British control and the Belgian Congo became Zaire.
One of those ex-French colonies, Cameroon, recently hosted a lavish two-day party, inviting 17 heads of state to celebrate their countries’ 50th anniversary of independence at the Yaoundé International Conference Center. The red carpet was laid out for presidents, prime ministers and dignitaries ranging from Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, to Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission.
Annan, a citizen of Ghana and 2001 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said Africans should be proud of their accomplishments over the last 50 years. Yet opportunities for economic growth and social development won’t come easily.
“We cannot take further progress for granted. We need to work hard for it,” the elder statesman told his audience. “It is strong leadership and good governance that will make the difference, both at home and on the global stage.”
Annan specifically called on African heads of state to democratize their societies, a crucial point since at least six of the presidents seated on red velvet chairs and listening to him through headphones, including the host — Cameroonian President Paul Biya — are considered dictators by Amnesty International and other leading human-rights groups.
“We need to see the fulfillment of commitments in our national constitutions and in the AU Constitutive Act, promises kept on good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law,” he said. “Across the continent, civil society needs to be given more space and rights to be able to hold leaders accountable for their actions and make an essential contribution to nation-building efforts.”
Annan added: “We must see greater transparency in the way governments manage revenues, particularly those from the extraction of natural resources. These revenues must be turned into results for all citizens, not just the elite few.”
Egypt’s Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who won his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, told delegates that “if Africa is put on the right track, it could be a major player.”
Biya, as the host president, gave a long history lesson on the significance of the 50th anniversary for the 17 countries celebrating that milestone — largely blaming the West for Africa’s economic problems while ignoring the problem of governance and the lack of real democratic reform in most of the continent’s 54 nations, including his own.
“For a long time, we believed in the advent of a new world economic order that would enable Africa to fit into globalization and thereby find its way out of poverty. We still have a glimmer of hope because we believe there is no genuine solution other than the regulation of the global economy based on solidarity with the most disadvantaged countries,” Biya said.
“We have understood that, at best, this will take time. Meanwhile, Africa is determined to forge ahead. We hope that besides its own resources and those of the new economic players, Africa can continue to count on the assistance of the partners that have supported it since independence.”
Janet Garvey, U.S. ambassador in Yaoundé since September 2007, told The Diplomat that Cameroon has made some advances toward democracy, but that the Biya government — in power since 1982 — has not gone far enough.
“Right now, we’re participating in a conference celebrating 50 years of independence,” said Garvey, interviewed on the sidelines of the two-day Yaoundé extravaganza. “ That’s a relatively short time, so it’s not surprising things are not as developed as they should be.”
She added: “President Biya has been elected by the people of Cameroon in elections that were generally accepted by the international community. We have told the government that we hope next year’s elections are even better, and that they’re well-run. We would like to see a very vibrant political scene, with [opposition] parties that have nationwide appeal.”
While Cameroon chose to observe its 50th anniversary of independence with a lengthy military parade that served mainly to glorify the 77-year-old Biya — who of course watched from a viewing stand with his 39-year-old wife Chantal — other countries chose to celebrate the half-century mark in equally dramatic ways.
Senegal, for example, unveiled its “Statue of the African Renaissance,” a 50-meter-high bronze work of socialist-realism art that dwarfs the Statue of Liberty and dominates a hill just outside Dakar. The statue, commissioned by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, depicts an athletic man baring his chest and holding a child on his bulging bicep. Behind him is a buxom woman with her dress blowing back, revealing a thigh — and offending imams and religious leaders in a country that is 96 percent Muslim.
“This African who emerges from the volcano, facing the West,” said the president, describing the monument’s significance, “symbolizes the Africa which freed itself from several centuries of imprisonment in the abyssal depths of ignorance, intolerance and racism, to retrieve its place on this land, which belongs to all races, in light, air and freedom.”
Yet the $27 million colossus has also outraged many Senegalese because Wade plans on charging tourists admission to see it, then pocketing a third of the profits because it was his idea.
Nearby Togo celebrates its 50th anniversary in October, even though its actual date of independence from France was Apr. 27, 1960. The country’s ambassador to the United States, Limbiye Kadangha Bariki, says Togo — population 6.5 million — faces many challenges.
“Fifty years in the life of a human being is the age of maturity. It’s the same thing in the life of a country,” Bariki told The Diplomat. “After 50 years, we have accomplished a lot but we still have a long way to go. We would like Togo to be better than what it is today.”
Mamadou Traore, ambassador of Mali, said that “after 50 years of independence for 17 African countries, the idea of Africa — in charge of its own destiny, on equal footing with the rest of the world — is back again.”
Traore noted that Mali — home to 14.5 million people and geographically the largest nation in West Africa — is proud that his fellow Africans stood firmly in defense of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) and CAADP (Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program) “when for years our partners in development didn’t want to hear about it.”
He added: “We praise President Obama for breaking this position and calling for a trust fund to finance agricultural projects in Africa. America is the first country to recognize the maturity of the continent in aligning the U.S. Feed the Future Initiative with a genuine African initiative: CAADP.”
Worldwide, the anniversary has generated lots of publicity, from Japan to Jamaica. There’s even a Facebook site called “FESTI 50: The 50th Anniversary of African Independence,” with tens of thousands of followers.
In early August, cabinet ministers from 38 countries eligible under the provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) converged on Washington for the annual U.S.-Africa economic forum. AGOA, adopted in 2000 and extended by Congress in 2006, offers preferential access to U.S. markets for a broad range of goods from sub-Saharan African countries that meet eligibility requirements.
In addition, said Benjamin Chang, spokesman for the National Security Council, youth leaders have been invited to Washington to discuss how a U.S.-African partnership “can ensure that all Africans, 60 percent of whom are under 30, are prepared to face the challenges of the coming decade.”
With an estimated 160 million inhabitants, oil-rich Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, as well as the most populous and wealthiest black nation in the world.
“The 1960s was the decade of independence for Africa, and Nigeria — being the most populous — did encourage other African countries to struggle for their independence as well, particularly Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe,” said Nigerian Ambassador Ade Adefuye. “We were in the forefront of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and played a big role in the emergence of the Organization of African Unity.”
Adefuye said his staff is planning a huge party on Oct. 1, Nigerian Independence Day; some 1,000 people are expected to attend.
“We’ll have an art exhibition, launch a book on 50 years of Nigeria’s relations with the United States and host a musical extravaganza to reflect our rich culture,” said Adefuye, noting that the party will be held at a hotel in Maryland rather than at the Nigerian Embassy because “the embassy grounds will not be enough to contain us.”
Yet not everyone sees a reason to celebrate.
Alafuele Kalala, a pro-democracy activist who ran for president of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, said the 70 million people of war-torn Congo, which won independence from Belgium in 1960, have little reason to be happy.
“This country is a nightmare for most Congolese, and they don’t know what 50 years of formal independence means,” said Kalala, who now resides in Washington. “People are suffering. The country is completely bankrupted, at all levels. I say it’s a quintuple bankruptcy: political, economic, social, military and cultural. The country is completely destroyed.”
Congo’s civil war, which began in August 1998 and ended in July 2003 — though hostilities continue to this day — involved eight countries and 25 armed groups. The fighting and its aftermath claimed the lives of an estimated 5.4 million people, making it the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II.
On June 30, a panel discussion was held at Washington’s True Reformer Building, entitled “Congo Independence 50 Years Later: The Continuing Pursuit.” The event, co-sponsored by Friends of the Congo, TransAfrica Forum and various other NGOs, offered film screenings, musical performances, poetry readings and speeches aimed at “charting a way forward to a free and liberated Congo,” in the words of its organizers.
More than 150 people attended the day-long conference, said co-organizer Nefta Freeman, noting that “frustration and disgust, intermingled with African pride and human compassion, were the order of the day.”