In modern Africa's first half century of independence, no moment better encapsulates the hopes and despair of the continent than April 1994. Millions of voters were then queuing for hours to cast their ballots in South Africa's first all-race elections, which ended the racist apartheid system and brought to power Nelson Mandela, a fighter who spent 27 years in prison for his belief that all South Africans should be treated equally. At the same time, Hutu extremists in Rwanda were knee-deep in one of the 20th century's most brutal episodes of mass murder, one whose bloody ripples are still being felt today: the genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Between those extremesoptimism and anguishlies the story of modern Africa. It is a story that begins in the late 1950s, when Sudan and Ghana became the first of the continent's colonies to be given their freedom. Brutalized by slavery and subjugated by European masters who had divided the continent among themselves in a series of meetings in the 1880s, Africa was finally ready to claim its future. A trickle turned into a rush: in one eight-month period in 1960, France alone relinquished power in 12 countries.
Mostly the handovers were peaceful; sometimes, especially in those colonies where white rulers held on into the 1970s, they were not. But no matter how the colonies gained self-rule, the mood in those early years was buoyant, confident, full of a sense that Africa was ready to take on the world. As Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, put it: "We prefer self-government with danger to servitude in tranquility."
It is difficult to believe now, perhaps, but many parts of newly independent Africa were far richer and better developed than the countries that would later become Asia's tigers. In the mid 1960s, for instance, Ghana's per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was higher than South Korea's; today it is 35 times lower. Nigerians still lament that they once had a huge palm oil industry but that Asian countries such as Malaysia, which were better run and less corrupt, long since overtook them.
The problem was largely misrule. From the early 1960s to the late 1980s Africa experienced more than 70 coups. In the central African nation of Congo, Patrice Lumumba lasted less than a year before he was assassinated. Togo's president Sylvanus Olympio was overthrown by Gnassingbé Eyadéma, the first in a series of disastrous military rulers in West Africa. In East Africa, Ethiopian emperor Haile Sellassie annexed Eritrea. Even places not hit by military rule or war were badly run. In Tanzania, independence hero Julius Nyerere turned his nation into a Maoist state, nationalizing businesses and destroying the economy. In Southern Africa, white governments refused to budge even as black militias launched insurgencies that would last for decades.
It didn't help that the Cold War was fought in Africa as fiercely as anywhere else. Many countries aligned themselves with either the Soviet Union or the U.S. Both superpowers propped up dictators and forced their respective economic policies onto clients, a process that was particularly painful in nations just beginning to industrialize and in which the vast majority of people wereand often still aresubsistence farmers. Aid groups poured billions of dollars into staving off starvation and disease and into plans for development. Some of it worked; much of it did not.
The results were ruinous for much of the continent: wars, famine, economic collapse. One of the worst disasters was the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, in which almost a million people died. But there were other tragedies: the Biafran war in which hundreds of thousands died of starvation after the Nigerian government blockaded the secessionist eastern state; dictator Idi Amin's bloody reign in Uganda, which left some 300,000 people dead; and, of course, Rwanda.
The Rwandan genocide sparked a major shakeout across central Africa that continues still. Two wars in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo sucked in a dozen countries and left almost 4 million people dead. Thousands more have died in unrelated conflicts in Sierra Leone, Sudan's Darfur region and Ethiopia and Eritrea. Meantime the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, has infected and killed millions of people. In some parts of southern Africa, every third adult is infected.
It hasn't all been gloom. Strong economies were built on agriculture, tourism and a growing industrial base in such countries as Ivory Coast, Kenya, Senegal and, after 1980, Zimbabwe, whose black majority finally won the right to vote after a long civil war against the white minority rulers who themselves had declared unilateral independence from former colonial power Britain. The end of apartheid in South Africa offers new hope. South Africa's second president, Thabo Mbeki, has called for an African renaissance and in the past few years Africa has begun a series of political projectsthe African Union, the New Partnership for African developmentthat, if followed through, promise progress. In 2005 the developed world re-engaged with Africa too, canceling debt and promising more aid.
By the mid 1990s, Africa seemed to have turned a corner. The end of the Cold War spurred the spread of democracy. Free (though not always fair) elections are now standard in most African countries. Civil society is getting stronger and people are readier to speak out against corruption and bad governments. And in the past couple of years governments and drug companies have begun making AIDS drugs more widely available, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
Much remains to be done. Earlier stars such as Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe have recently been crippled by coups and bad leadership, while laggards such as Tanzania and Ghana and war-torn places such as Mozambique have boomed. The growing influence of China, and Asia's insatiable need for oil and raw materials, has pushed up commodity prices, boosting Africa's economic growth. In 2010 Africa will be center stage as South Africa hosts soccer's World Cup. Though problems remain, many Africans now feel hope, not despair, for the future.