Exactly 50 years earlier, on June 30th, 1960, King Albert II’s late brother, King Baudouin, rode down Kinshasa’s main boulevard in an open-top limousine. He had come there to grant freedom to the Congolese people, after some 80 years of brutal colonial rule. Joseph Kasavubu, the Congo’s first president, sat next to him in the car. A large crowd had gathered to witness the event and welcome the “Bwana Kitoko” (handsome master), most of them unaware of the true content and limits of their eagerly anticipated independence.
As the convoy made its way across the city, King Baudouin rested his sword on the vehicle’s backseat and rose to salute the expectant crowds. Suddenly, a young Congolese man, Ambroise Biombo, jumped out of nowhere and seized the Belgian King’s sword! He had boldly reclaimed for himself, and for millions of long-suffering Congolese, the symbol of Belgian authority!
For a brief moment, Biombo was allowed to parade his “trophy” before the cheering crowds. Soon enough, however, he was caught by a detail of nervous policemen and brutally beaten. Stunned, onlookers failed to understand why Biombo’s patriotic feat had been so forcefully repressed by their “newly emancipated” security forces.
Three months later, in October 1960, a young officer named Olusegun Obasanjo arrived in the Congo as part of an early United Nations’ peacekeeping force, which had been deployed to put an end to a secessionist rebellion that threatened the integrity of this young African nation. 39 years later, in 1999, Obasanjo would become the first democratically elected president of Nigeria after 15 years of military rule, Africa’s most populous black nation. In 2008, he would return to the Congo to broker peace as a United Nations envoy! Thus began the tumultuous, complicated 50-year-long journey of modern, independent Africa!
2010 is a momentous year for Africa. 17 African countries are celebrating 50 years of independence from colonial rule, including 13 former French colonies from West and Central Africa, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Somalia. For the majority of these countries, independence was the result of a painstaking transformation process, accelerated by the political and social conditions that prevailed after World War II.
History often overlooks the fact that some 500,000 African soldiers served in World War II alongside French and British troops. Those soldiers returned home with increased political awareness, demands for social-justice and emancipation from colonial rule. A major psychological change had also occurred amongst many of these African war veterans. ”They no longer feared their colonial masters. This shift of consciousness is best described in the following account by an African rifleman, who wrote: “The bullet had the same effect on black and white alike. After spending four years hunting white enemy soldiers, the African never again regarded them as gods”. He added: The girls of England, France and Italy, who went out with African soldiers, did not help the preservation of the white myth!”
Meanwhile, in Europe, the anti-colonial movement gathered momentum with the ascendency of Communist parties, and the vigorous militancy of left-wing intellectuals of African descent like Franz Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah, who made passionate calls for the immediate social, economic, and political emancipation of colonized people. Many of those intellectuals would later return to their countries to lead nationalist political parties and, at times, armed resistance movements. On the continent, local labor movements also denounced the harsh working conditions imposed by colonial administrations, including low wages, and the inhumane practice of forced labor.
In 1955, six African countries joined some 20 Asian countries at a conference in Bandung, Indonesia, to oppose colonialism. In his account of the meeting, African-American author Richard Wright wrote: “ there was something … almost extra human about it, it smacked of tidal waves… only brown, black and yellow men who had been made agonizingly self-conscious of the rigor of colonial rule could have felt the need for such a conference.” The conference was a turning point in the irreversible march towards independences. Colonial powers could no longer ignore the solidarity of the colonized in their collective opposition to colonial rule.
Meanwhile, the superpowers that emerged from WWII, the United States and Soviet Union, also voiced opposition to colonialism. The United States cited the “right of people to self-determination” while the Soviet Union decried the oppression and “exploitation of the world’s masses.” These views were echoed by the newly established United Nations.
Faced with anti-colonial sentiment at home, general discontent in the colonies, and growing international opposition to colonialism, colonial powers had little choice but to accept concessions.
British Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, in his now-famous, 1960, “winds of change” speech in Cape Town, South Africa, declared with candid foresight: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it”. From 1956 onwards, when the Sudan gained independence from Britain, the Colonial Government in London initiated separate negotiations, with nationalist political parties from many of their colonies in Africa. In 1957 Ghana achieved independence, this was followed by Nigeria in 1960.
In former-French colonies, most of which are celebrating 50 years of Independence this year, the process of emancipation was gradual and more or less peaceful, with the exception of the violent riots that took place in Cameroon and Madagascar in the late 1940s. In 1946, in anticipation to France’s decision to allow for the election of African representatives to its National Assembly, several nationalist political parties and labor unions from France’s African colonies joined forces to create a Pan-African political party, the African Democratic Rally. The presence of African Representatives at the French National Assembly would highlight the plight of the colonies in mainland France. From 1946 to 1956, the French colonial system witnessed several reforms. Those reforms allowed for increased autonomy in the colonies.
In 1958, France organized a referendum, which led to the establishment of a political arrangement known as “the French Community”. The arrangement gave the colonies limited political autonomy. Guinea voted against the proposed framework and gained independence immediately. The “Community” was short-lived, as France struggled to maintain consensus in the colonies, about the new political framework it had established. Eventually, in 1960 France relented to anti-colonial pressures, and granted independence to 14 African colonies.
Upon achieving independence, the countries each faced a series of daunting economic and societal challenges: building a state apparatus with little, experienced human capital, fostering unity out of ethnically divided societies, educating young and illiterate populations, providing basic services to impoverished masses and transforming a colonial economy, based on the extraction of resources for the colonial power, into modern economies that would benefit our local populations.
Over time, it became clear that most African countries were ill prepared to meet those challenges, but turning back was not an option. Securing freedom and dignity was the way forward, even though many countries became enmeshed in cold war rivalries that generated scores of military coups, civil wars, single party rule, short-lived economic booms for some and recurrent crises for others.
Today, as we look back on our 50 years of independence, admittedly, the assessment is mixed. But hope remains. In this decade alone, Africa registered impressive economic growth rates, many conflicts have ended and democratic advances are visible. On the other hand, we continue to struggle with the translation of growth indicators into improved social welfare for our people. Also, we are yet to fully embrace democracy, and to bring an end to all of our conflicts and internal contradictions.
But, as one of our friends likes to remind us, “hope is not a strategy” for those of us “global Africans” who were matured or were born after Independence! We have a duty to coalesce and harness our energies for a better African future. We have no choice but to infuse leadership, commitment and forward thinking into our collective destiny, if we are to make good on Africa’s promise of becoming “the next big thing!”
Again, Ambroise Biombo’s “reclaiming of the sword”, our sword, on the day of Independence in the Congo, is a powerful reminder and an inspiration for “the simple acts of courage” required to build the continent.
About the authors:
Olusegun Obasanjo is a former president of Nigeria (1999-2003). Former President Obasanjo is a leading voice on African governance issues. He is one of the architects of Nepad, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. He is also a member of numerous influential organizations, including the Africa Progress Panel, the Inter-Action Council of Former Heads of Government and Club of Madrid.
Malik Dechambenoit is the CEO of Sankoré, an Africa focused Strategic Advisory firm based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Prior to founding Sankoré, Malik was a senior political staff at the United Nations in New York, Nairobi and Kinshasa. He dedicated his UN career to the resolution of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. Malik is a national of Côte d’Ivoire.