Africa at 50

Africa at 50



Speaking at the launch of the Organisation of African Unity, Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah, a leading advocate of Pan-Africanism, told his fellow leaders that the continent’s fate was in their own hands. “All we need to do”, he said, “is to develop with our united strength the enormous resources of our continent”. He was in no doubt that Africa’s time had come. 

Half a century later, we can see the journey has not been that straight-forward. Africa has ebbed and flowed. Economic, social and political progress has been uneven. Nor has “a united strength” always been the continent’s most obvious quality. Faced with division and conflict, the OAU has itself faced a battle to remain relevant and useful.

Africa continues to face huge challenges. Poverty remains widespread. Too many people still lack enough food. Food imports, which already stand at US $50 billion, could triple by 2030. Despite many fine words and declarations about the importance of regional integration, trade among the members of the African Union (AU) – as it is now called – stands at six per cent.

Infrastructure development and deeply rooted graft, too, remain critical issues of concern across the continent. Media freedom and expression continue to be threatened. Two serving African leaders are wanted by the International Criminal Court to answer for crimes against humanity.

But when the AU recently gathered again in Addis Adada to mark its 50th anniversary, the good outweighed the negative. There is real hope that Nkrumah’s hopes could finally be fulfilled. The future is truly promising.

Africa Rising is the new buzz phrase. The continent is home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies of the last decade. A succession of international reports have given Africa a glowing scorecard. While Europe remains, for example, deep in crisis, the African Economic Outlook 20131 forecasts that Africa’s economy is projected to grow by 4.8% in 2013 and accelerate further to 5.3% in 2014.

Trade and investment are replacing aid as the drivers of development. The continent’s oil and gas boom – and global appetite for its other rich natural resources – is helping drive this performance. But it is, by no means, the entire picture. There has been impressive growth from countries and regions not well-endowed with such wealth.

Strong consumer demand is equally important. The intake and uptake of technology is also playing a key role. As anyone who spends even a day on the continent can see, there are more mobile-phone users here than anywhere else in the globe. Africa enjoys, too, a demographic dividend other continents would dearly love to have.  Over one in three of the population is aged between 15 and 35 – a powerful driver for future success.

It is a population which is healthier and better educated than ever before. With improved and sustained economic growth has come a marked improvement in investment and access to public services.  A number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa have halved their levels of maternal mortality. Improved access to primary education – free in several countries – will have a major impact.

But as Nkurumah understood 50 years ago, building on and extending these successes needs Africa to come together.  What has been accomplished through strong regional bodies like COMESA, the EAC and ECOWAS needs to be replicated at a continental level.

In the Solemn Declaration released by African leaders to mark the landmark anniversary, they recommitted themselves to achieving the Union’s goals. They pledged to build an integrated and prosperous Africa – a continent that is at peace with itself and with the world and where its developments are driven by its own citizens.

An expanded role for the AU, responsive to the needs of the continent, is key to achieving the ambition of its founding fathers. We need to see the vision and courage to work together to harness Africa’s enormous resources – human and natural – for the good of all. If this can be achieved, we may indeed be in the early years of Africa’s century.


Beatrice Karanja heads Portland’s Nairobi office, which co-ordinates our pan-African campaigns.


At the end of May 1963, half a century ago, the Organisation of African Unity was established in Addis Ababa. It had noble ideals, reflecting the wind of change which Harold Macmillan saw blowing across the continent – promoting the political and economic betterment of Africa and its people, combating colonialism and defending the sovereignty of African states. Africa seemed set on a solid pathway to progress, unlike its counterparts in southern and south-east Asia. 

And for a while it seemed as if that sense of optimism was largely justified. But all too quickly the wealth of the continent was appropriated by the political elites and the Cold War – often an uncomfortably hot war in Africa – distorted political relationships and stymied progress.  Whether leaders were able to maintain peace and stability, or governed well, mattered less to the West and the East than which side of the political divide they lay.  The 1970s and 80s were as a consequence, for Africa, largely lost decades.

The end of the Cold War saw a major shift in the global political dynamic. As the countries of eastern and central Europe implemented political and economic transformation programmes – not least because that was a condition of membership of the European Community, to which many of them aspired – so economic and political governance became increasingly key elements in the relationship between donors and the countries of Africa.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2001 had as their overarching ambition the reduction by half of the proportion of people living in the world in absolute poverty, with a number of other Goals focusing essentially on primary health and basic education. The world has made remarkable progress against the MDGs – largely driven by strong economic growth in China and India and other countries which had seemed like hopeless cases – but with significant progress in a number of African countries too.  That has only been possible because of the establishment of a virtuous circle of better governance and increased peace and stability, leading to stronger education and health systems supported by robust economic growth.

That progress is in many ways symbolised by the transition of the OAU to the AU in 2002.  The OAU – essentially a club of unelected elites – became a more democratic institution, more focused on the well-being of its citizens and ready to intervene in cases of bad governance or a breakdown of peace and security.  Fifty years on, it remains a work in progress, facing many challenges, including the consequences of climate change and the need to create jobs for a rapidly increasing and youthful population.

The High Level Panel (HLP) created by the UN Secretary-General to make recommendations on what should follow the MDGs reported at the end of May. It identifies a number of challenges, including those above, and rightly concludes that the global community needs to address them together.  Africa, not least through the AU, is unquestionably now better able to play a full part in the discussions which will take place over the next couple of years about the sort of world we want to create over the next two decades in “our common interest” – the final words of the executive summary of the HLP Report, and the title of the 2005 Commission for Africa report.

The AU Summit which took place in May, celebrating 50 years of the OAU / AU, has focused not just on the next two decades, but on the next half-century. ‘Vision 2063′ is of an Africa in 50 years free from poverty and conflict, with its citizens enjoying middle-income status and people-centred governance.  And going back to the language of the Commission for Africa and High Level Panel Reports, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia, in his capacity as Chair of the AU, spoke of Africans in the continent and peoples of African descent in the diaspora sharing a common history and a common destiny.

That is all of us. Because the scientific evidence is now overwhelming that we are all of African descent, with Asians, Europeans, Americans, Pacific Islanders and all the rest of us coming from an extended family group of a few hundred people who crossed to the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa some 76,000 years ago.  So we do have a common history.  We do have a common destiny.  And we do have a common interest. Just like any family.

Myles Wickstead is Visiting Professor (International Relations) at the Open University and Advisor to Development Initiatives and Hand in Hand International.  He was formerly Head of the British Development Division in East Africa; Ambassador to Ethiopia; and Head of Secretariat to the Commission for Africa, whose report ‘Our Common  Interest’ informed the discussions at the Gleneagles Summit in 2005.