And after 2009, we arrived at 2010. A year which is expected to be full special moments for the continent, especially the Football World Cup in South Africa which starts on June 11th. But as we look forward to what 2010 will bring, we must not lose sight of what happened before. And this time something that took place, not last year, but few years before: 50 to be exact.
Because in 2010 it will be the 50th anniversary of the “Year of Africa” or the “Year of African independence”. During the 12 months of 1960, 17 African countries regained their independence after decades of European coloniation. Fourteen of these countries were French colonies: Cameroon, Togo, Mali, Senegal, Madagascar, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo (Brazzaville), Gabon and Mauritania, and the other three, two territories colonized by Great Britain: Somalia and Nigeria, and one from Belgium: Congo (Kinshasa).
Map showing the borders of African countries on July 15, 1960 – National Geographic ( here you can see the details)
It is true that in 1960 the decolonization of Africa had already begun: in 1957 the Gold Coast led by Kwame Nkrumah became independent from Britain and was renamed Ghana, and in 1958 Sekou Toure’s Guinean Democratic Party voted against staying within the French Community, declaring their independence. But 1960 was the year in which the processes of independence reached cruising speed, an exciting year full of events, celebrations and intrigues, and which can be symbolically situated between two events of very different character.
The initial moment was the speech of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in Cape Town on 3 February 1960. In it, Macmillan, Conservative Prime Minister said Britain would not oppose the processes of independence that were brewing in most African countries. He did it with some famous words that gave the name to his speech:
“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.”
Full text of the speech
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
If this speech, in which he also criticized the continuation of apartheid in South Africa, can be seen as the symbolic beginning of the “year of Africa”, its end can be placed in January 1961, with a totally different event. I am talking about the murder, after his kidnapping and torture of the elected prime minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was elected to form a government in May 1960 and became prime minister of Congo on June 30 of that year. Although he was a government leader, Lumumba was excluded from the official independence ceremony in which both President Kasa-Vuvu and King Baudouin of Belgium spoke. Despite his exclusion Lumumba, enraged by the apology of colonialism and the defense of King Leopold II delivered by Baudouin, could not refrain from speaking against the European dignitaries, denouncing the humiliation and suffering inflicted on the Congolese people during colonialism:
“Because … no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that is was by fighting that it has been won [applause], a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood.
… We have known ironies, insults, blows that we endured morning, noon, and evening, because we are Negroes.
… We have witnessed atrocious sufferings of those condemned for their political opinions or religious beliefs; exiled in their own country, their fate truly worse than death itself.
… All that, my brothers, we have endured.
But all this is over today.
… We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom, and we are going to make of the Congo the center of the sun’s radiance for all of Africa.
… Our government, strong, national, popular, will be the health of our country.
… Long live independence and African unity!
Long live the independent and sovereign Congo!
Full text of speech
Signing of the Act of Independence of the Congo
Less than 7 months later however, Lumumba was assassinated in a plot orchestrated by the governments of Belgium and the U.S. – the CIA had already supported Joseph Mobutu’s coup in September 1960 that had deposed Lumbumba – and with the complicty of the United Nations, whose troops were deployed in the country.
The choice of these two moments as symbolic beginning and end of year 1960, reflects the desire to reflect on the process of African decolonization in this 50th anniversary.
Therefore, and although historical debates are too complex to enter in depth here, it seems necessary to emphasize that decolonization largely responded, not to the simple words of the former European powers, but to the actions of political leaders – whether in favor of independence, as in the commitment of many African leaders, or against, as in South Africa or the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) – and the struggle of African peoples.
A second reflection is aimed at pointing out how Macmillan’s “wind of change” swept not only Africa, but also Europe. This explains that during the three decades after 1960, the main external player in the continent were the former colonial powers (although the persistence of the “Francafrique” should be noted) but the U.S. and the USSR, locked in a Cold War which in Africa however, was rather “hot” (Congo, Angola, Ethiopia / Somalia, etc).
The “50 years of independence” appear thus as a moment for taking stock of half a century (which, I think we need to remember, though it may seem long, it is still a very short time in the history of any country): the successes and failures of African leaders, the causes of current problems, the responsibility of the former colonizing countries … All this should be analysed, and especially it must be emphasized the need for people to have a role in the decisions concerning their future.
Congratulations to all those people for whom 2010 marks 50 years since independence !!
And let these people decide the direction of their country during the next five decades!!