The notion of independence itself — in a context of bad governance, economic inequality, poverty and dependence on foreign aid — has been called into question.

In a fancy resort on the French Riviera last week, limousines bearing African leaders gathered at the doorstep of France's president for the France-Africa Summit, a time-honoured ritual involving pledges of mutual love and, not surprisingly, some backbiting.

Conspicuously absent from the gathering in Nice, however, was a collective reckoning of a major milestone on the calendar: It has been 50 years since many of the countries gained independence.Unlike the glittering extravaganza on the Riviera, where extensive retinues accompanied the leaders, the anniversary — and its potential for taking stock — is passing largely unnoticed. Few official celebrations have been organised to mark the passing of five decades since France tentatively let go, albeit with many continuing ties, of 14 of its colonies; in all, 17 African countries, including Nigeria, gained independence in 1960.

Perhaps the most substantial collective commemoration is, paradoxically enough, not being held in Africa at all. Leaders from Senegal, Mali, Niger, Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mauritania, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Madagascar have all been invited to Paris to parade their troops along the Champs Elysees on Bastille Day, the national holiday of their ex-colonial ruler.

In Senegal, the few remembrances so far have at times been freighted with just as much ambiguity. In one of the rare, large-scale commemorative events, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal inaugurated a giant bronze statue meant to symbolise “African Renaissance” on a desolate hill near the airport here. Built by a North Korean company in pure Soviet-realism style, it is 13 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty and its three gigantic figures — man, woman, and child — tower over their surroundings.

But nearly everything about it has provoked controversy, rather than the outpouring of pan-African pride that Wade had hoped to generate: from the cost, in a country that ranks 166th on the U.N. Development Index of 182 nations; to the scantily clothed figures, in an overwhelmingly Muslim country (local imams raised a vigorous protest); to the questionable aesthetics of a monument that recalls Stalinist Russia rather than the distinctive Afro-Islamic culture of the Sahel. Some Senegalese debate whether the figures even look African.

Wade has said he simply traded state land, in exchange for building the statue, to the North Koreans, who then sold it at a profit; local and international media estimates have put the total cost at between $27 million and $70 million.

For some analysts here, the statue's mixed signals symbolise this anniversary year's uncertain meanings, calling it a monumental construction project conceded to foreigners and inaugurated in an April ceremony attended by heads of state like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast, both of whom have been the object of international scorn for their human rights records.

The notion of independence itself — in a context of bad governance, economic inequality, poverty and dependence on foreign aid — has been called into question by some African intellectuals.

“Our parents are still asking us when this independence is going to be over,” the narrator says mockingly in a recent satiric novel, The Catapillas, Those Ungrateful Ones, by the Ivory Coast writer Venance Konan, a bitter commentary from a country racked by civil war and government misdeeds.

Voices are regularly raised against the continued use of the African Franc, which is seen as a humiliating adjunct of European money. It carries a guarantee of a fixed rate against the euro, but requires that the ex-colonies keep half of their currency assets in the Paris Treasury.

Weakness of institutions

Then there is the reliance on heavy inflows of foreign aid, which equalled a quarter to nearly a third of government spending in countries like Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Mali in 2008, according to figures compiled by a World Bank economist, Mamadou Ndione. In Niger, a leading member of parliament said that aid routinely accounted for over half of the budgets passed by himself and his colleagues.

Against the weakness of institutions like parliaments stand the voices of African intellectuals and other civil-society activists, who have mobilised throughout the region for reform.

In Niger, there were mass protests last year against the rollback of democracy by the former president, Mamadou Tandja. In Guinea, demonstrators — and the violent suppression of them — ultimately led to the military junta's transfer of power to civilian leadership this year. — New York Times News Service

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