Two stories from the days of Africa’s independence

I’m reading The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, a marvelously detailed tome by Martin Meredith. The first chapter is on Ghana’s break from its colonial masters in 1957, the first sub-Saharan country to achieve independence. The author relates the congratulatory messages sent by world leaders. As Meredith writes:

Messages of congratulations came in from an array of world leaders, from Eisenhower, Bulganin, Nehru and Zhou En-Lai. Delegations from fifty-six countries arrived, exuding warmth and goodwill. From Britain, representing Queen Elizabeth, came her aunt, the Duchess of Kent; the Chinese sent a general in a turquoise blue uniform; the Russians, a junior minister, with a fistful of invitations to Moscow; the South Africans, an all-white delegation. But the most enthusiastic visitor was Richard Nixon, the the United States vice-president. From the moment he touched down in Accra, he rushed about shaking hands, hugging paramount chiefs, fondling black babies and posing for photographs. It was not always to good effect. Surrounded by a crowd of Ghanaians at an official ceremony, he slapped one man on the shoulder and asked him how it felt to be free. “I wouldn’t know, sir,” replied the man. “I’m from Alabama.”

On a more somber note, a political leader whose life was cut drastically short belted out this vitriolic speech on his country’s independence day:

We have known sarcasm and insults, endured blows morning, noon and night, because we were “niggers”…We have seen our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the law of the land but which only recognized the right of the strongest. We have seen that the law was quite different for a white than for a black: accommodating for the former, cruel and inhuman for the latter. We have seen terrible suffering of those banished to remote regions because of their political opinions or religious beliefs; exiled within their own country, their fate was truly worse than death itself…And finally, who can forget the volleys of gunfire in which so many of our brothers perished, the cells where the authorities threw those who would not submit to a rule where justice meant oppression and exploitation.

That was Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the Congo back in 1960. He was ousted from his position after only a few months, and then murdered under suspicious circumstances that suggest complicity with the US and Belgium (its former colonial master whose leader King Leopold II pillaged the country). 

Transpose what Lumumba said to so many countries, not only in Africa – Sudan, South Africa under apartheid, present-day Congo, … – but throughout the world, and you see how much of what he said half a century ago still (regrettably) holds true.

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