Countries that have developed into mature societies characterized by economic and social progress and exercise their human rights including the right to elect their representatives freely and hold them accountable went though difficult times: recall the Glorious, the American and the French Revolutions. The people in these countries made huge sacrifices in human lives and property. They were laying a solid foundation for their future generations. They faced many obstacles but worked hard to overcome them – and they did overcome them.
In Africa, the political struggle for independence was hardest in countries with settler communities. Recall the experiences of Algeria, Angola, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. One of the reasons that Belgium – which never thought Congolese would become independent – granted independence so readily in the wake of the 1959 bloody riots in Leopoldville is because it did not want to get dragged into the Algerian-type situation. Those of us who witnessed the struggle at close range in some of these countries, it was very tough but worth it.
What we observed in the these African people was the determination to prevail. The people we interacted with told us they could not afford to be the exception – they had to win their independence regardless of the sacrifices involved. They all played a part in one form or another. And they were not alone. They had friends in Africa and beyond. Some friends gave material support, others took in refugees and yet others campaigned for them in the corridors of power.
Campaigning for independence – relatively free and fair – contained many promises. Leaders promised eloquently that with independence ignorance and the offshoots of poverty, hunger and disease would be consigned to the heap of history. Every child would go to school free and lunches would be served to keep standards of attendance and performance high; every citizen would have at least three balanced meals a day – breakfast with eggs, milk and honey; lunch and dinner with sufficient amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals for a healthy, active and productive life – safe drinking water and adequate sanitation; affordable housing and clothing including shoes; and everyone would access free preventive and curative healthcare services. Further promises included the availability of remunerative jobs. Above all, the exploitation of man by man would end on the eve of independence!
During the first ten or so years of independence – most African countries became independent in the 1960s – there was significant progress. Leaders tried to fulfill their promises. Schools and clinics and hospitals were constructed mostly in rural areas, teachers, doctors and nurses were trained and retained, roads were constructed and maintained, public transport became available and affordable, radios and newspapers kept citizens informed about what was going on domestically and globally – I never missed ‘Focus on Africa’ on BBC! On balance the first generation of African leaders tried. They were not perfect but they genuinely tried and produced some tangible results that improved the quality of African lives.
The decade of the 1970s witnessed the gathering of thick clouds on the political and economic horizon. The oil crises of 1974 and 1979, political instability and military coups took a heavy toll on economic performance and delivery of services. Governments took loans not so much for development purposes but for their survival either by investing in security forces and apparatus or stashing large amounts of looted money abroad should they be overthrown. The few jobs that were available went to relatives or those whose political support they needed.
Then came the lost decade of the 1980s and beyond: harsh economic reforms were introduced that severely cut into budgets for social services, retrenchment of public servants and the export of foodstuffs to earn foreign exchange and repay external debts. Privatization of the economy and social sectors was promoted and government responsibility and accountability were eroded in preference for market forces and laissez faire. Multi-party politics to improve governance was introduced forcing sitting governments to violate human rights to stay in power including at gun point.
Since then economic and social standards have deteriorated, human rights abuses have increased, income gaps between classes and regions have widened, governments are increasingly relying on foreign rather than domestic support for survival forcing marginalized Africans to begin to think about the next steps.
The 7th Annual African Economic Forum at Columbia University took place on March 26-27, 2010. The co-chairs of the Forum sent out an open invitation letter which, inter alia, contained the following message “Our generation has witnessed remarkable changes that revolutionized our thinking with respect to African growth and development. Today, we seek to highlight the rebirth of the beautiful African minds that have emerged as a result of these changes. Together we can engage, discuss and propose new ways to rebuild Africa’s new frontier and inspire the way we view economic sustainability on the continent.
We are delighted to welcome you to Columbia University’s campus, in the heart of New York City, where dreams are born and this African revolution begins”.
As a panelist I was delighted to be part of the new African revolution.