Reclaiming the Sword: 50 Years Later, a Brief Account of Africa's Road to Independence

07/29/2010 06:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On June 30th of this year, in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Belgian King Albert II stood alongside 39-year-old Congolese President Joseph Kabila to celebrate the country's 50 years of independence from Belgium. The two men watched in silence as the Congolese military paraded along the city's main avenue, an avenue recently renovated with the assistance of Africa's newest "best friend," China.

Exactly 50 years earlier, on June 30th, 1960, King Albert II's late brother, King Baudouin, rode down the same boulevard in an open-top limousine, accompanied by the Congo's first President, Joseph Kasavubu. He had come there to grant freedom to the Congolese people, after some 80 years of brutal colonial rule. A large crowd had gathered to welcome the "Bwana Kitoko" (handsome master), most of them unaware of the true content and limits of their eagerly anticipated independence.

As the convoy made its way across the city, King Baudouin rested his sword on the vehicle's backseat and rose to salute the expectant crowds. Suddenly, a young Congolese man, Ambroise Biombo, jumped out of nowhere and seized the Belgian King's sword! He had boldly reclaimed for himself, and for millions of long-suffering Congolese, the symbol of Belgian authority!

For a brief moment, Biombo was allowed to parade his "trophy." Quickly though, he was caught by a detail of nervous policemen and brutally beaten. Stunned, onlookers failed to understand why Biombo's patriotic feat had been so forcefully repressed by their "newly emancipated" security forces.

Three months later, in October 1960, a young officer named Olusegun Obasanjo arrived in the Congo as part of an early United Nations' peacekeeping force, which had been deployed to put an end to a secessionist rebellion. Thirty-nine years later, in 1999, Obasanjo would become the first democratically elected president of Nigeria after 15 years of military rule. In 2008, he would return to the Congo to broker peace as a United Nations envoy. Thus began the tumultuous, complicated 50-year-long journey of modern, independent Africa!

2010 is a momentous year for Africa. Next week, President Barack Obama will host a three-day forum for young African leaders to mark the fact that 17 African countries are celebrating 50 years of independence from colonial rule. The countries include 13 former French colonies from West and Central Africa, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Somalia. For the majority of these countries, independence was the result of a painstaking transformation process, accelerated by the political and social conditions that prevailed after World War II.

History often overlooks the fact that some 500,000 African soldiers served in World War II alongside French and British troops. Those soldiers were instrumental in spearheading the general movement that lead to African Independences, as they returned home with increased political awareness, demands for social-justice and emancipation from colonial rule. A major psychological shift had also occurred amongst the African veterans, they no longer feared their colonial master: "The bullet had the same effect on black and white alike."

Meanwhile, the superpowers that emerged from WWII, the United States and Soviet Union, also voiced opposition to colonialism. In Europe, the anti-colonial movement gathered momentum with the ascendency of Communist parties, and the vigorous militancy of left-wing intellectuals of African descent like Franz Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah. Many of those intellectuals would return to their countries to lead political parties and, at times, armed resistance movements.

For more details of the history of this period, please read the complete version of this blog posting.

Faced with anti-colonial sentiment at home, general discontent in the colonies, and growing international opposition to colonialism, colonial powers had little choice but to accept concessions. By the late 1950's they could no longer resist the tidal wave of emancipation that swept across the world.

Upon achieving independence, the countries each faced a series of challenges: building a state apparatus with little, experienced human capital, fostering unity out of ethnically divided societies, educating young and illiterate populations, providing basic services to impoverished masses and transforming a colonial economy, based on resources exploitation, into modern economies that would benefit our local populations. Over time, it became clear that most African countries were ill prepared to meet those challenges, but turning back was not an option. Securing freedom and dignity was the way forward.

Today, as we look back on our 50 years of independence, admittedly, the assessment is mixed. But hope remains. In this decade alone, Africa registered impressive economic growth rates, many conflicts have ended and democratic advances are visible. On the other hand, we continue to struggle with the translation of growth indicators into improved social welfare for our people. Also, we are yet to fully embrace democracy, and to bring an end to all of our conflicts and internal contradictions.

But "hope is not a strategy" for those of us "global Africans" who matured or were born after Independence! We have a duty to coalesce and harness our energies for a better African future, if we are to make good on Africa's promise of becoming "the next big thing!"

Again, Ambroise Biombo's "reclaiming of the sword", our sword, on the day of Independence in the Congo, is a powerful reminder and an inspiration for "the simple acts of courage" required to build the continent.

Olusegun Obasanjo is a former president of Nigeria (1999-2003). Former President Obasanjo is a leading voice on African governance issues. He is one of the architects of Nepad, the New Partnership for Africa's Development. He is also a member of numerous influential organizations, including the Africa Progress Panel, the Inter-Action Council of Former Heads of Government and Club of Madrid.

Malik Dechambenoit is the CEO of Sankoré, an Africa focused Strategic Advisory firm based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Prior to founding Sankoré, Malik was a senior political staff at the United Nations in New York, Nairobi and Kinshasa. He dedicated his UN career to the resolution of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. Malik is a national of Cote d'Ivoire.