50 years later: what has African Independence given to the African masses?

Rosemary Anieze, Miss Independence 1960 -Nigeria. Photo Credit, the New York Times


The 1960s is generally considered the Decade of African Independence. But this decade actually started in 1957, when on March 6 of that year, Ghana became the first in sub-Saharan Africa to free itself of colonial rule. As Ghanaians across the world celebrate this day, it is worth reflecting on what independence has or has not given to the formerly colonized people of Africa 50 years after the Decade of African Independence.

In many African countries, the memory of national independence is the memory of school children marching to their national songs on the field on independence day. The feeling of independence, like the memory of African colonization, is hardly widespread among the masses that it appears they have to be reminded of it each year.

The reason for this is part historical and part reality. Not only has the memory of African colonization been lost on too many of its people, but the very presence of European colonizers was not widespread throughout each individual territory. The fight for independence in the colonies was therefore largely concentrated in the cities where the Europeans had settled, with little spillover beyond the suburbs. For the population living outside the areas of European interests during colonization, their memories of it, and the struggles against it, is hardly experiential.

On aggregate, individual African states, some more than others, have made significant progress on many fronts, and the notion that not much has changed is an affront to reality. However, the pattern of development in far too many countries has followed largely along the same colonial lines.

Everything important, everything worth seeing, and everything worth having is concentrated in the very areas that once upon a time the colonists settled or took great interest in; the seat of government, the best roads, the nicest malls, the best schools, the best hospitals, the best jobs, and even the best television programs can be accessed only in one city in some cases, and hardly anywhere else. National life, in effect, is the property of only some citizens: city dwellers with the right ethnic roots and, not to mention, political attachments. The de facto spatial and ethnic definitions of nationality have, in effect, made it impossible to create a national culture within individual African states, which is indispensable to national peace and development.

On the international front, and putting aside the glaring qualitative difference, it is hard to miss the fact that like colonial Africa, post-colonial Africa is significantly being defined by a mass movement of its most able human resources to the West. Some leave because they can, others out of necessity. Thanks to these friends and relatives in the diaspora, grandma can live out the remainder of her days in a house that affords her the dignity and privacy which public toilets do not, mother and father can put food on the table regularly, and the little ones can attend decent schools.

But these fruits of hard labor in the cold world do not compare to the aggregate loss to the continent in dollar amount. In 2018 for instance, $46 billion were remitted to sub-Saharan Africa (Nigeria accounting for more than half the total amount). In a region (sub-Saharan Africa) with a population of 1.1 billion people, that is less than $42 per head, enough to take a taxi to the airport. The cost of sending this money alone, $1.8 billion annually, nearly exceeds what was remitted to each sub-Saharan African state in 2018, outside of Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal.

Consider the fact that if you combine foreign aid, loans, and remittances sent to Africa each year, you will still fall significantly short of the money that leaves the continent annually through plunder by tens of billions of dollars. And the fact that most remitted dollars do not go into productive enterprises back home. But more importantly, emigration is an examination that most Africans can never pass. When it comes to emigrating to the West, no African goes to Europe or North America at least legally unless they have proven their absolute worth. African migrants are among the most educated group, many have received a university education and attended some of the best schools their country has to offer. All have benefitted from government investments in education, roads, healthcare, energy, agriculture, water, and peace and security. By the time an African becomes worthy of admission into Europe or the United States, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of resources had been invested in him or her in their country of origin. Yet, somehow Africa is supposed to look at the bright side of the $150 a month an African might send home to his or her relatives each month.

But nowhere has our continent stalled more than in our education systems and in our systems of government. Our education systems are very good at producing decent men, but hardly men with productive skills or independent thought. Our curriculum remains a system still more capable of instilling in the African the knowledge of, and appreciation for, what Europeans have thought or accomplished. A pupil is only ever asked what is as opposed to what should be. So in the end, our education systems produce men and women that are just content with being merely acquainted with those in the West or the East who actually shape the world’s destiny. The richest among us too often are not the owners of factory or intellectual property- just intermediaries between local governments and foreign investors. These are men whose physical properties far exceed their workforce.

Politically, the system of government which we have inherited is not responsive to our need for sustainable long term growth. Ignore the fact that our leaders are making laws and foreign deals in languages they hardly understand, or the fact that we have never really done the hard work of raising the knowledge and consciousness of the masses so they could make informed political decisions in the interest of our nations. But consider just how short a four or five-year political term is: the first year and a half are spent learning how to govern; the following year and a half are spent governing; the final year is spent campaigning for a chance to repeat the same thing.

And since voters are expected to expect quick results, a government has every incentive to make things look good as quickly as possible, even if that means being quid pro-quo-ing with corrupt influences or borrowing the country’s way into bankruptcy. Elections more than just replace one political party in power for another; it so often discontinues whatever journey a nation was in the previous four years. We as individual nations are bereft of permanent national plans; our national plans are political party plans, like being on an airplane whose destination can be randomly decided by whoever finds himself in the cockpit. And here too is another area where just because a system is European in origin does not mean it is good as it is. Of what use is self-government if we continuously govern ourselves against our collective interest?

As we mark 50 years after the Decade of African Independence, it is important to take a step back and reassess our level of independence: we may not expect to walk shoulder to shoulder along every line with the rest of the world at this relatively brief time, but must the average sub-Saharan African earn 21x less than his EU counterpart today, when he only earned less than 7x in 1960?; we may not expect the world’s best universities to be located in Accra or Pretoria, but must we continue to use curriculums that teach us nothing about ourselves?; our system of government may be borrowed, but must it stay unaltered despite our challenges?; emigration may be a fact of life, but must the post-colonial period also be defined by a mass movement of Africans out of the continent? It appears to me that these are some of the questions we must answer if we are ever to consider ourselves truly independent.

By Ada’u Mohammed