A life under colonial occupation, exploitation and repression. A mostly negotiated freedom. A squandered future. That is the story of African independence. Yet, some sixty years later, every year all across the continent, governments preside over glamorous and expensive ceremonies celebrating “victory” over colonial rule. The reality is that with a few exceptions, African countries were handed their “freedom” from colonial rule on a silver platter. Even more tragically, the great majority of African countries if not all of them, are free only in name, and politically, having to beg and borrow to keep their governments running, and carrying back-breaking loads of debt that they can barely finance, year in, year out. What independence “victory” is there then, to celebrate in such lavish fashion?
It is an indisputable fact that the great majority of Africans have not enjoyed the benefits – the rights, freedoms, prosperity and good life – in whose name their independence was sought. In 2023, the culture of colonial autocracy and financial exploitation of the poor continues to manifest itself in the parochial mentalities of many African leaders. Like the old white colonial leaders, most African leaders are more preoccupied with their own political survival and economic wellbeing than with the welfare of their people. Today, over sixty years since independence was first attained by an African country, the majority of Africans are living under the most unimaginable poverty and difficulties, rendered more insidious by the relentless cancer of corruption and greed in government circles in cahoots with unscrupulous private sector actors. Perhaps to maintain our own sanity in the face of these baffling contradictions, it helps to revisit the story of African independence and its aftermath.
By the end of the 1940s, no one needed much convincing of the need for decolonisation. The United States was insisting on an end to imperialism as a precondition for aid to war-ravaged Europe; and the European colonial powers were themselves finding the burden of colonial rule too heavy to carry. The political glamour and material benefits of colonialism had significantly declined, and Europe saw that maintaining colonial territories had outlived its usefulness. Europe also knew that through their colonial policies and future plans, they were assured that Africans could only be independent politically, not economically. The emergent world economic system had firmly relegated Africa to the status of dependency, a status African governments have proven incapable of outgrowing. This, not because Africa lacks the capacity or resources, but because the politics of greed, selfishness, corruption, marginalisation and exclusion became the order of the day immediately after independence.
American insistence on decolonisation and European disenchantment with colonial rule aside, there emerged during and immediately after the Second World War an array of newly minted international rights instruments from which African nationalists freely drew to justify their demands for independence. They cited the universal rights and freedoms in the Atlantic Charter (1941), they reaffirmed their subscription to the egalitarian creeds of the European enlightenment and the Commonwealth, and brandished these in the face of the colonial powers as evidence that Africans had a right to govern themselves. The Atlantic Charter’s affirmation that all peoples have a right to self-determination was particularly potent in the hands of the eager African nationalists. In addition to the Atlantic Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was a favorite hobbyhorse for African nationalists and they rode it to good effect. In the end, self-rule was granted to African countries either as a result of agitation and peaceful diplomacy or as a result of armed conflict as happened in some settler and all Portuguese colonies on the continent. Thus, the late fifties and early sixties gave birth to the glittering spectacles today called independence celebrations across the continent. Especially in former British colonies such as The Gambia, the independence era nationalist leaders helped organize the first such glittering spectacles and kept them going for as long as they stayed in power. Successive African leaders have uncritically mimicked their political ancestors.
During Gambia’s first independence ceremonies in 1965, the Queen dispatched the Duke and Duchess of Kent as her official representatives, and both London and Bathurst (now Banjul) actively encouraged the attendance of white dignitaries. Only after a long list of often expensive ceremonies in which the Duke dutifully re-enacted the entire spectacle of imperial power as he understood it was independence formally granted, through a royal charter signed by Her Majesty the Queen. The days leading up to February 18, 1965 were days of pomp and ceremony in Bathurst and its environs. Guards of Honor were mounted for the duke with the Prime Minister by his side. Expensive gala dinners were organized at which the majority of the guests were colonial officials and other white people. The fact that more Europeans than Africans were invited to these sumptuous dinners angered many Gambian nationalists who loudly and publicly complained about the fact.
The speeches made by both colonial and local officials during Gambia’s first independence ceremonies were revealing. In Enter Gambia, his highly entertaining and profoundly edifying work on Gambia at independence, Berkeley Rice, who was present, reports that at a civic reception at Gambia High School, the Duke presented to Bathurst city officials “the Royal Charter by which Queen Elizabeth granted Bathurst ‘the status and dignity of a city’.” Until then, presumably, Bathurst was to Great Britain a mere colonial outpost, without status and without dignity. The two virtues – status and dignity – were owned and could only be conferred upon Bathurst by British imperial authority. Rice reports how the duke claimed at the same event that “as I flew over your city an hour ago, I saw exciting possibilities for development” (Rice, 43). Needless to say, the duke saw no such possibilities from the air.
The duke also presided over a Mansa Bengo (chiefs’ meeting) at Brikama at which a senior chief read an officially prepared statement of welcome and thanks from Bathurst to Her Majesty’s Government. The chief dutifully declared: “it gives us confidence to know that as a Monarchy within the Commonwealth of Nations, we are members of that family of which Her Majesty is the Head” (Rice, 45). In response, the duke spoke another piece of invented history by proclaiming that “your proud record over the past years enables you to look forward to the future with every confidence” (Rice, 45). Obviously, whatever they had, Gambians could hardly boast of a proud record under colonial rule. The duke’s statement reveals the extent of imperial hypocrisy and the relative lack of importance attached to African independence. An English reporter covering the Mansa Bengo in Brikama observed that the ceremony “Looks like a bloody circus.”
It was not only chiefs and colonial officials who made strange statements during Gambian and other African independence ceremonies. Taking a cue from their party leadership, ruling party stalwarts and newspapers loudly exhorted their countrymen to put all their political differences aside and join the ruling party. In Bathurst, The New Gambia, mouthpiece of the PPP declared that “all politicians of all tendencies should rally round the Government of the masses, the PPP, so that the country’s concerted efforts will bear golden fruits. We must not allow factions to undermine the real issues of the day” (Rice, 331). In effect, immediately after independence, the real issues of the day were parochialized and defined in absolute, narrow terms by the emergent African leadership and its supporters. Paradoxically, the emergent African nation was seen at once as a monolith, a single entity encompassing everyone, as well as a fractured entity composed of the government and its supporters on one hand, and everyone else on the other. That politics of marginalization and exclusion continues to wreak havoc on our nations to this day.
Today, African independence celebrations continue to look curiously fake and meaningless. Most of these colourful spectacles are little more than ridiculous theatres for the performance of outmoded colonially invented traditions and a reaffirmation of ongoing neo-colonial hegemony. They are spectacles staged not so much to affirm African freedom, but to accord failed and heavily dependent states an opportunity to showcase their legendary penchant for the good and flashy life. Burning issues of the day that need to be faced with courage, honesty and determination are relegated to the margins of national priorities, while flashy speeches and meaningless invented traditions are re-enacted as the rest of the world looks on in barely concealed amusement.
There is certainly no problem with remembering the day colonial rule ended in a country. But there is a need to reconsider our mode of marking such an occasion. It should be enough, for example, to observe Independence Day with a public holiday during which the nation is encouraged and enabled to reflect upon the journey so far, to highlight the achievements and failures, to showcase and encourage national talent, and to brainstorm on how best to face and overcome the ever-growing mountains of challenges African countries are facing. There’s no need for the red carpets, the expensive colourful ceremonies, the marches by school children and security forces with ceremonial dresses, the gathering of dignitaries for a few hours, the disconnected speeches, and all the fanfare that goes with our current mode of independence celebrations. These activities as we have them today suggest a bravado and chest-pounding that is utterly meaningless in the light of the mountains of debt under which our country is sinking, the crippling poverty of the vast majority of our people, the dismally poor health facilities and service delivery, and the poor educational and other infrastructure we have to contend with from day to day.