By 2014, not only were all countries free from colonialism, but most had also overthrown the autocrats who all too often followed foreign rule. In some cases the original liberation movements have virtually disappeared. For example, Patrice Lumumba’s Mouvement National Congolais, which led what we now call the Democratic Republic of the Congo to independence in 1960, never recovered from its leader’s assassination and Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32-year one-party state. In Ghana, the Convention People’s Party of the first post-independence British colonial leader, Kwame Nkrumah, won just one seat in parliament in the 2008 election. The National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, along with the Nigeria People’s Congress, which jointly led the West African giant after independence, are no longer active forces.

Outside Southern Africa, it is only in Eritrea where there has been a one-party state since independence in 1993, and in Cameroon, under Ahmadou Ahidjo from 1960 and, since 1982, Paul Biya, that the original liberation party still holds sway. Gabon’s original ruling party, the Bloc D‫émocratique Gabonais, was replaced by the Parti D‫émocratique Gabonais although the Bongo thread remained unbroken, first with Omar and now his son Ali. In Kenya, the Kenya African National Union is part of the coalition government, though neither the president nor the prime minister is from the party of liberation icon, Jomo Kenyatta. In Ethiopia and Rwanda, liberation movements rule, though in both cases these removed post-independence governments. They appear, however, to have picked up bad habits, having been in power since 1991 and 1994 respectively.

It is true that the situation is more mixed in Southern Africa. Not only do Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) clique cling to power at any cost in Zimbabwe, but the ruling parties in Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa are the same ones that once brought democratic freedoms. Swaziland did away with political parties altogether in 1973. In Lesotho, however, the once-dominant Basotho National Party has withered to the point of virtual disappearance, as has the United National Independence Party in Zambia. Hastings Banda’s Malawi Congress Party has gone from all-powerful one-party dominance to official opposition, where it has been since 1994.

The continental shift away from the one-time liberators has gone hand in hand with the extension of democracy, from just three African countries regularly holding multiparty elections at the end of the 1970s (Botswana, Gambia and Mauritius) to more than 40 today. As the next chapter reports, while many of these processes are imperfect at best and often fraudulent, and the consolidation of democratic institutions lags, democracy as an organising political orthodoxy has no ideological contenders in today’s Africa. This is not to say that leaders willingly give in to these rights. Democracy is often a hard-fought process, and even today some suggest mischievously (and not without self-interest) that things would work more smoothly without the ‘costs’ of democratic niceties.

Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea

Africa’s political evolution points to a third liberation that most of the continent has yet to experience, one that will likely prove as important as the political freedoms earned over the past half century, or perhaps even more important: the liberation from political economies characterised by graft, crony capitalism, rent-seeking, elitism and, inevitably, widening (and destabilising) social inequality. Such an emancipation is necessary to open up economic space in which business can compete, a necessary condition to expand employment. One part of this third liberation has already happened: the evolution from seeing foreign development aid as the key source of development to more realistically portraying money brought in by outsiders as potentially useful, but only in the context of good governance. Remarkably, as recently as 2005, Tony Blair, backed by celebrity economists and a chorus of ageing pop-stars, led a campaign at the Gleneagles G8 summit to double aid to Africa as apparently the last, best hope of transforming the continent’s fortunes. Within just half a decade, a combination of higher commodity prices and better governance has relegated the aid debate, which distorted economic practices and the accountability of leaders to citizens, to a secondary development consideration. The focus has refreshingly shifted to the growth imperative and the need to lessen inequality by creating jobs, especially among the youth. Accordingly, in many parts of Africa (the conversation is still somewhat different in Washington DC, and Europe), foreign aid is no longer central to debates about growth. Instead, the debate is about how Africa can realise its enormous economic potential and thereby avoid the dashed hopes and disappointments so common in the first 50 years of independence. The stakes – which, for hundreds of millions of people in what is the world’s poorest continent, include their chance of escaping poverty – could not be higher.

Can Africa join in the world’s progress?

Now is a particularly appropriate time to examine Africa’s prospects, because the world record on poverty reduction over the past 50 years has been excellent. All signs indicate that it will be possible for at least some African countries to participate in an international economy that continues to be robust as long as they institutionalise and enhance their reforms. Whether all, or even most, African countries can find space to grow in the international economy is a separate question. Individual nations should feel a sense of urgency to enter the international economy while the window is open.

To see how much the world has changed, it is important to remember that in 1968, when Swedish economist and Nobel Prize winner, Gunnar Myrdal, published his three-volume work Asian Drama, instability, corruption and poverty were widespread, and development seemed a long way off.3 Singapore was just emerging under Lee Kuan Yew; Malaysia was a year away from the race riots that sparked Mahathir’s reforms; Vietnam was in the midst of a very hot war, its neighbours Thailand, Cambodia and Laos wobbling between insurgencies and military regimes; Indonesia had just suffered a palace coup as General Suharto took over from Sukarno in March 1968; South Korea seemed caught between student unrest and the ruthlessness of a military dictator; and Taiwan was still in the iron grip of Chiang Kai-shek, not yet eased by the modernising influence of his son Chiang Ching-Kuo. Engagement by external forces scarcely helped: the United States and Soviet Union poured military resources into their allies in Vietnam, which were locked in pitched battle, while economic growth in China and India was at a standstill. In the former, development had been halted by the destructiveness of the Cultural Revolution; in India the Licence Raj and centrally planned economy drip-fed a burgeoning population.

While his pessimism seems out of place, given what we know today, Myrdal’s book reflects the conventional wisdom of the day. It argued that the only way for Southeast Asia to develop was to control its population, redistribute agricultural land and invest in health care and education. While there is little wrong, even today, with these prescriptions, the region’s dramatic shift from being the epitome of conflict to peace and rapid economic growth demonstrates how quickly things can change with the right ingredients of policy, political will, external opportunities and domestic ownership.

Already in 1968 there were signs of the rapid change that was to become the regional hallmark. Japan’s annual economic growth averaged nearly 11 per cent between 1967 and 1970, surpassing West Germany to become the third-largest economy in the world behind the United States and the Soviet Union. And South Korea was already on the path to rapid transformation, as Figure 1 indicates, under General Park Chung-hee, who was intent on emulating Japan’s rapid route to prosperity. It took the United States 164 years, from 1820 to 1984, to get its per capita income from US$1 257 to US$20 123, while South Korea managed approximately the same jump (from US$1 092 to US$19 614) in the 88 years between 1920 and 2008.4 And Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong experienced similar leaps ahead in the first roar of the ‘tiger