JOHANNESBURG – Africans offered tough love for their leaders and expressed hope for the future Tuesday as they assessed progress since 1960, the year that brought independence to a third of the continent.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian, said contemplating five decades of freedom gave him hope for the future.
"We think Africa does have the ability to become the next frontier, if we organize properly and if we govern ourselves properly," Annan told reporters in Johannesburg. "We can look forward with hope, provided that we do the basic work."
Annan was in South Africa to launch a report on the continent's political and economic state by his Africa Progress Panel. The panel was founded in 2007 to track progress on pledges by industrialized countries to increase aid to Africa and by African leaders to strengthen democracy and fight corruption.
In 1960, 17 African countries gained independence from European colonial powers, making it a banner year for African nationalists. The number nearly doubled over the next three years, and 32 independent African states formed the Organization of African Union, the precursor to today's African Union, on May 25, 1963 — the date now commemorated as Africa Day.
South African Archbishop Njongo Ndungane, who released his own assessment of Africa's progress this week, said Africans can "celebrate our achievements, our people, and more especially our ability to change our future for the better."
The African Development Bank's outlook released this week offered reason to celebrate. It determined Africa's economies were hit less hard by the international economic crisis than Europe or North America, but should recover just as quickly.
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a member of Annan's panel, said in Johannesburg Tuesday that he was encouraged by indications leadership was improving.
Obasanjo served as a special U.N. envoy on the Great Lakes region, the troubled heart of Africa. At one regional meeting in 2008, the leaders of Congo and Rwanda were so estranged, Obasanjo said, they refused to shake hands. Within months, they were carrying out joint peacekeeping patrols.
Linah Mohohlho, a member of Annan's panel and governor of Botswana's central bank, said Africa needs leaders who know "they're there to serve, and not to be served."
Annan said it was at times crucial for African leaders to criticize one another, a step they are notoriously reluctant to take.
"There's something called tough love, and we should do a bit more of that," Annan said.
Many of the countries that gained independence 50 years ago are troubled today. Among them are Madagascar, where a coup leader took power last year. And Chad, where civil war broke out five years after the country won independence Aug. 11, 1960.
Nigeria, which celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence Oct. 1, has been in a leadership crisis since President Umaru Yar'Adua fell ill and died earlier this month after months of political turmoil. Obasanjo said Tuesday he believed his homeland was resilient enough to overcome the crisis.
Benin, which became independent in August, 1960, could be a model for overcoming instability and violence. Benin's first decade of independence saw a series of military coups. Then Maj. Mathieu Kerekou, in power since 1972, lost elections in 1991 — and stepped aside.
In February, 1960 British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, touring southern Africa, told the South African Parliament the "wind of change" was bringing independence and black-led rule to the continent. A month later, police fired on a peaceful protest in Sharpeville, killing 69 black South Africans. The 1960s would see more violence and the imprisonment of the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups.
White rule was defeated at the negotiating table, and South Africa held its first all-race vote in 1994. This year, it will be the first African country to host football's World Cup, and achievement Annan saw as more reason for hope.
"This is an important moment for Africa," he said Tuesday.