It has been more than a half-century since the African continent began freeing itself from the scourge of colonialism. Ghana, my country, led the movement toward liberation by becoming the first sub-Saharan nation to gain its independence.
And today marks the 57th anniversary of that occasion.
When the clock struck midnight and Great Britain’s Gold Coast colony became Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, our first president, announced: “At long last, the battle has ended. Ghana, your beloved country, is free forever.”
But sovereignty does not guarantee self-sufficiency, and the rejection of domination is not a one-time affair—especially if you’re a poor nation that’s rich in resources. Nevertheless, Ghana, and Africa as a whole, has made significant strides. We have all but stopped the cycle of revolving-door dictatorships and placed our faith in the stability that democracy and the rule of law offer. We are steadily strengthening our institutions to ensure that development proceeds at an acceptable, if not rapid, pace. But the question remains, is all that really enough?
For a while, it seemed to be. Toward the close of 2012, the International Monetary Fund released a World Economic Outlook in which it forecasted the economic growth of 185 countries. Based on those estimates, 10 of the 25 countries with the highest projected compounded annual growth rate from 2013 through 2017 are in sub-Saharan Africa.
So the celebrations began. Business was booming! There were conferences, speeches, papers and articles devoted to the theme of “Africa Rising.” The proverbial “dark continent” had managed to find its way into the light again.
However, it soon became apparent that those glowing figures on paper were not translating into plain facts in the lives of African people. The growth we were boasting was not translating into sufficient jobs for a burgeoning population—cause for great concern. Africa’s labor force is rapidly expanding. It is expected to increase from the current 500 million to 1.1 billion by the year 2040, making our collective labor force larger than that of both China and India.
And then there’s also the issue of urbanization. Thirty years ago, 28 percent of the continent’s residents lived in cities. Today, of the 1 billion residents in Africa, 40 percent live in cities. That places us on par—not in the future, but today—with China and India. And within 15 years, that figure will rise to 50 percent.
Ghana, with a record-breaking GDP growth rate of 14 percent in 2011, our first year of oil production, was one of those top-performing economies. This year, the estimated GDP growth rate is 7.4 percent. Our growth is still impressive, and our long-term prospects give us reason to be optimistic. Imagine, though, if that level of growth had been sustainable, and if we had been able to utilize it to elevate more people out of poverty and enhance our over-burdened infrastructure.
As we celebrate the freedom we’ve enjoyed during our 57 years of sovereignty, we see that the freedom that comes with self-sufficiency seems to still elude us.
Ghana exports gold, cocoa, timber, minerals—and little else. These were our same primary exports at the time of independence. And like most African nations, Ghana imports almost everything our population consumes, from televisions to toothpicks. We even import goods and products that we are more than capable of producing locally, like rice, sugar, wheat, poultry and flour. Not surprisingly, the amount spent on imports exceeds the amount earned on exports.
It means that our fate is at the mercy of forces not always within our control. That’s a precarious place to be—but we should be used to it by now. Africa seems to be perpetually perched on the verge of war, famine, failure and—of late—success. Perhaps that is why Dr. Nkrumah, with his prescient words, prepared us for this day, this time in our maturation.
“From now on,” he said, “today, we must change our attitudes and our minds. We must realize that from now on we are no longer a colonial, but free and independent people.”
The next phase of Africa’s transformation must begin with the understanding that our natural resources are not the sum total of our net worth, as we were once asked to believe. We have much more to offer the world, and ourselves. We must continue to forge global partnerships and remain active on the world stage, but we must also invest in our own industries. The more revenue we are able to recycle in our economies, the faster we will be able to build our individual countries. And that would make Africa truly triumphant, independent and free.
John Dramani Mahama is president of the Republic of Ghana. He is also author of the critically acclaimed memoir My First Coup d’Etat: And Other True Stories From the Lost Decades of Africa. Follow him on Twitter.