AFRICA has lately been marking a milestone that, strangely, hardly anyone talks about.
Ghana gained independence in 1957. Though the Europeans were in Ghana (then Gold Coast) much earlier, all of its territory was declared a British colony in 1901. Therefore modern day colonialism in Ghana lasted 56 years, and the country has lived as an independent land for 58 years. And that is the big one – Ghana has now been independent longer than it was a colony.
Egypt got there much earlier. Egypt was declared independent from British rule in 1922, although it was only after World War II that the “natives” started calling all the shots. It was first occupied by British forces in 1882, and formally declared a protectorate in 1914.
Or take Morocco; it became a French colony in 1904 and gained independence in 1956 after 52 years. So Morocco has been independent for 59 years, seven years longer than it was a colony.
The history of Africa’s contacts and conquest by various powers and kings, including the Roman Empire, is longer but that was a different story.
And, of course, Ethiopia was never wholly colonised.
While history continues to shape the fate of African nations, it is getting to a point where we cannot selectively blame colonialism for our failures, while claiming full credit for our achievements.
African King Leopolds
Egypt has produced four generations of post-independence citizens, and most other African countries have had two, and more nations are now entering the zone where their independence periods are longer than the colonial one.
However, for many citizens of Africa this milestone decidedly lacks one of the main things associated with independence – freedom.
Last week, possibly up to 20 people were killed in Cairo after the police fired shotgun pellets at a small group of leftist activists marching to Tahrir Square with flowers to commemorate the hundreds of demonstrators killed there during the Arab Spring protests in January and February 2011.
Particularly shocking was the death of renowned activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh who was shot at close range in the back.
In DR Congo, counting the time when it was the “private property” of the cruel and predatory Belgian King Leopold II from 1885, through to 1908 when it became the dominion of the Belgium state, to independence in 1960, DR Congo was a colony for 75 years. It has been independent for 55 years, but its citizens are probably being murdered in larger numbers than the millions butchered by Leopold.
Estimates of deaths (and rapes) in eastern DRC as a combined direct and indirect result of the conflict there since the late 1990s range from three million to an extravagant 10 million.
However, last week alone, 42 people were killed in protests against attempts by President Joseph Kabila to pass a law that would have allowed him to perpetuate his stay in office, instead of stepping down next year.
It cannot be gainsaid that progress, in some cases a lot of it, has been made in several countries since independence. When it comes to education, the difference in Africa today and the colonial period is like Earth and Mars. Some countries like Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, are freer today than during colonialism.
But for most, including DR Congo and Egypt, it is doubtful that they are. Uganda, for example, is notorious for having crank candidates every other election who campaign for a return to British colonial rule, because it was “better”.
Despair and cynicism
On social media, it is not uncommon today for some African to claim that the British or French colonialists did better than the current crop of corrupt African rulers, and it doesn’t cause a ripple.
If there is one change that needs to happen most urgently in Africa, then, it is the right to peaceful protest. The continent cannot afford to continue with the situation where protests, whether one carrying flowers to a commemorative site or miners demanding better conditions as in South Africa, all ending in certain death.
It is dangerous and unacceptable that some countries have lived as independent nations longer than they were European colonies, and yet the fourth generation of their “free” citizens can’t express themselves freely without the fear of prison (at best), and being murdered (at worst).
One must wonder what kind of life and Africa, people who have lived for 100 years expecting freedom, and finding only terror, will build. It is worse that they are not getting even the usual goods of the “authoritarian bargain” as happened or is happening in parts of Asia – prosperity and a high standard of living in exchange for autocracy.
Supporters of dictatorship in Africa like to say, “people don’t eat freedom”. I say give it to them. You will be surprised.