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Ghana Marks 50th Anniversary, and Some Regrets

Motorists pass a monument dedicated to Ghana's independence in the capital of Accra.
Motorists pass a monument dedicated to Ghana's independence in the capital of Accra.

Ghana turns 50 today, and it's planning nationwide celebrations that will be attended by dignitaries from around the world. The West African nation was the first sub-Saharan African country to obtain its independence from colonial rule.

Formed from the British colonies of Gold Coast and Togoland, Ghana achieved independence from Britain in 1957.

But there are mixed feelings about Ghana's 50th anniversary — about its origins, its promise, and its current state.

Ghana was considered by many as a beacon and a continental trailblazer, the first along the path to freedom for Africa. British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan described it as the "wind of change" that was followed by many more African countries over the next 20 years.

Ghana's arresting red, gold and green flag — with the black star of freedom emblazoned in the center — is everywhere, adorning street lamp posts, fluttering in people's hands and on their cars, and used as scarves and belts.

But 50 years on, not all Ghanaians feel the golden jubilee is worth celebrating. They say it is time for sober reflection, to take stock of what has and has not been achieved in the five decades since independence.

Ghana, whose creation was greeted with such high hopes around the continent, suffered successive military coups d'etat, political repression and years of economic stagnation.

Ghana was once the world's top exporter of cocoa and a leading producer of gold. But many say the hopes of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first leader and chief architect of independence, have been sorely diminished.

They point to continuing unemployment in this nation of 20 million; its erratic water and electricity service. For some, there's virtually no tap water, and in those families, schoolchildren must wait in long lines at water pumps in the morning before they can attend classes.

There are complaints that the $20 million dollars earmarked for celebrating Ghana's 50th year could have been better spent on poverty relief and expanding utilities.

But it is not only ordinary Ghanaians complaining that there is little to celebrate. Two men have dominated the political limelight in Ghana: Kwame Nkrumah, deposed in a military coup in 1966; and retired Flight Lt. Jerry John Rawlings.

Rawlings first seized power in a 1979 coup before handing back civilian rule — only to stage a second coup in 1981. He remained in power for almost 20 years, first as an unelected military ruler and then, after restoring multiparty democracy, as an elected president in 1992. He won a second election in 1996 against the man who is now president, John Agyekum Kufuor.

Rawlings is credited with liberalizing the economy and enforcing painful World Bank-approved economic reforms and structural adjustment programs.

But Rawlings is boycotting Ghana's anniversary celebrations, which were organized by Kufuor, who became president in 2000.

Rawlings has accused Kufuor's democratically elected government of "pervasive corruption at all levels, missed opportunities for genuine progress, nepotism, tribalism and known cases of political tortures and killings."

Yet Ghana has a worldwide reputation as one of Africa's most stable countries in a volatile West African region. Kufuor has been praised by the United States among others for building on and consolidating democracy and progress.

Present-day Ghana still has a way to go, say many, including the country's most popular comedian and political commentator, Kwaku Sintim Misa. In a "Ghana@50" performance Sunday night, Misa called on all the political leaders to end their petty squabbles, focus on the nation and the people and unite.

Adopting a local dance, which features a few rapid steps forward, then as many steps backward, Misa said Kwame Nkrumah's pan-African vision was to unite the entire continent, not only Ghana. So he appealed to all Ghanaians to stop pulling back, and to move forward, quoting Nkrumah's slogan, "Forward Ever, Backward Never."

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