Africa's Independence, 50 Years Later

More than a dozen African countries are celebrating 50 years of independence this year. But, it was hard getting there, former New York Times correspondent Howard French tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "To be frank, Africa was prepared for its independence…in just about the worst possible way." The last 50 years included civil wars, dictatorship, corruption and so on, but NPR West Africa Correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton tells Hanse, "we tend to forget that … there have been some good leaders." The next 50 years may bring population boom, dissolution of certain borders and reconfiguration of states, French says. Quist-Arcton hopes for better leadership.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Fifty years ago, 17 nations in sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence from Europe. From Senegal on the far western edge of the continent to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the heart of Africa, 1960 marked the year the countries broke free from European colonial rule.

So, what have the countries gained from half a century of independence? To answer that question, we're joined by Howard French, a journalist and author of "A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa." He's at the studios of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York where he is an associate professor. Welcome to the program.

Professor HOWARD FRENCH (Associate, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism): Thank you.

HANSEN: And also joining us is NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's in Accra, Ghana. Good to talk to you again, Ofeibea.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Greetings.

HANSEN: Ofeibea, we'll start with you. Explain briefly: how is it that about a quarter of Africa's nations gained independence in the same year, 1960?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, most of them were actually former French colonies. France sort of did a job lot. France went around the continent saying to all its colonies, OK, now you can have independence. That's why we've got most of the French colonies in 1960, but also the former British colony, Nigeria, and the former Belgian colony, the Democratic Republic of Congo. So, it was a huge year for African independence.

HANSEN: Howard French, have the hopes of an entire continent during the wave of independence 50-plus years ago been anywhere near fulfilled?

Mr. FRENCH: The short answer is, obviously, no. It doesn't comfort anyone to say so, but we have to put this in perspective. And to be frank, Africa was prepared for its independence from country to country almost in just about the worst possible way. Then I think one has to look at the early decades of independence. Certainly the first three decades, which coincided with the height of the Cold War, in which African politics and economics were sort of buffeted by the interests of outside powers in ways that were deeply harmful to the continent for the most part.

HANSEN: Ofeibea, Africa seems to have some strong leaders and some very poor leadership since independence. How has this hampered development on the continent?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, Howard French mentioned the fact that the Cold War was such a key player. Africa and different African countries being used as a pawn and some African leaders also using the Western powers, you know, playing one off against the other and then playing the Soviet Union as it was against the United States and so on.

But, yes, because of poor leadership, this has led to civil wars, dictatorships, corruption and so on. But we tend to forget because of the poor leadership that there have been some good African leaders who have managed to push the continent forward.

There are burgeoning democracies in Africa now, like the tiny island of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa; Mozambique, which recently has had problems, yes, because people are saying the cost of living is too high, but which after a war has managed to push itself forward. My own country, Ghana, from where I'm speaking to you now, on the verge of becoming an oil producer.

So, African leaders do have to take a lot of the blame for the continent having gone wrong. But also the West has to take a lot of the blame by imposing what it thought was best for the continent.

HANSEN: Howard French, what do you expect for Africa in the next 50 years?

Mr. FRENCH: The first thing I expect is an immense population boom. Africa will go from roughly one billion people to two billion people, which is just mind-boggling. I think that we will also see the dissolution of certain borders and a reconfiguration of states in certain parts of Africa. I think the big wildcard here for the next 50 years is global warming, which could wreak immense havoc in Africa.

You have already very large zones in West Africa - one called the Sawhill(ph) -and in southern Africa that are desertified(ph). These are stretches of land as big as Europe, in the case of the Sawhill. And global warming, no one knows for sure, of course, but there are predictions that global warming could extend these zones dramatically, which will create population pressures in other places, which will create unviable states and could make things very difficult in certain parts of the continent.

HANSEN: Ofeibea, what do you expect for Africa in the next 50 years?

QUIST-ARCTON: Joy, joy, Liane, joy. No, seriously, we need much better leadership - and I take my journalist hat off here. As a continent, we need much better leadership. And that's talking about all of Africa. You know, English speaking, French speaking, Portuguese speaking, Spanish speaking, those who were colonized by all of Europe. That, I think, is what is going to push this continent forward.

And, of course, civil society and the ordinary people having more of a voice. The West has talked really to governments and to leaders, not taking into consideration, I think, ordinary African people. Now, more and more, they have a stronger voice, civil society, and I think they need to be heard. Because often what they're saying is common sense and that is what is going to propel this continent forward.

HANSEN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joined us from Accra, Ghana. And Howard French, author of "A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa," joined us from Columbia University in New York. Thank you both.

Mr. FRENCH: Thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you.

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