"A path is made by walking," so an old proverb states. Africa, in the 50 years since most countries won independence, has walked a path toward stability and prosperity now appreciated by millions on our continent through increased life expectancy and the opportunities work and education bring. Yet sometimes is it difficult to feel or appreciate a journey of progress while it is happening. It is far easier to look back on success and forget how great a journey has been.
Last week, Ghana received the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization award for meeting Millennium Development Goals on decreasing hunger and undernourishment two years before the 2015 deadline, one of only 18 countries to have done so. This success has been one made by a journey of sure and steady progress, requiring determination and small steps. But the satisfaction of reaching this goal is perhaps telling of the history — and development — of Africa in the 21st century.
Fifty years ago, African nations with their newly won independence were boldly charting their own course in the world, with brave and visionary leaders leading countries blossoming with art, literature and hope for the future, and the electricity of a continent shaking off its oppression. This was a continent expecting giant leaps forward. Yet only 10 years later, Africa was sliding into long "lost decades" of economic stagnation, hunger and self-made oppression.
Africa's challenges have been man-made. Yet rarely is something all bad. There are always pockets of light to be found during periods of darkness. It is during those lost decades and the long journey back to democracy across Africa and in my own Ghana that many of my generation found themselves and their voice. In hindsight, these tumultuous times were when Africans came of age, and realized the future would be hard-won. This long journey of small steps, and sometimes of reverses, makes our current success so much more satisfying.
What is now so crucial is the continuation of Africa's positive progress, and this means planning ahead for how we meet the challenges affecting Africa's future. This means managing increased investment in the interests of our people and ensuring we protect and nurture our hard-won democratic and judicial advances. This will need, however, a step-change in the approach of African leaders, ensuring the opportunities of today do not lead to more lost decades with hopes squandered for the short-term gains of a few. Africa needs a blueprint for the present that guides the development of our future.
We need to make sure that all investment comes with the question: How will this help improve the lives of all our people, not just an elite, and build through continuity of Africa's success? We must make sure jobs are being created for the people who need them now. We must provide education and training so that tomorrow's workforce will possess the necessary skills.
Structural provisions should be made so that our people, honest hardworking citizens, can also have a stake in industry. Otherwise, all of this will merely be this century's version of the scramble for Africa.
We must also ensure that investment is transparent, and this means increasing the rights of our citizens to criticize and question. Ghana's press is some of the freest in the world — indeed sometimes I am surprised to hear about what I have been accused of saying or doing. Yet as intrusive as a free press can be, it is the mark of a robust society that questions can be asked and transparency expected of leaders who govern and of those who seek to do so. It is the pressure valve of an open society. Politicians who seek to muzzle the press are imposing themselves on their own people and subjecting them to the doctrine that leaders rule, not govern only through a mandate granted by the will of their citizens.
Just as important is the need to continue settling our differences in court rather than in the streets. In Kenya this year, and Sierra Leone last year, parties that challenged the election results did so through nothing more dangerous than the lawyer's pen. Unsuccessful bids to overturn results through the courthouse were not continued on the streets when rulings were unfavorable to the applicants. This is progress, and demonstrates the maturing of the democratic roots from which Africa now grows.
Yet ultimately, the future direction of Africa is dependent on our leaders seeking homegrown solutions to our challenges, and that our efforts remain focused on delivering development, not on finding reasons why things cannot be done. There is much about the past African nations have to complain about — borders that cut across ethnic lines, the game of geopolitical chess the continent was subjected to during colonialism and the Cold War — but to continue to dwell on these matters does nothing to address the challenges of the present.
Many African leaders who railed against the West failed to feed their people and develop their nations. This strategy will work no more successfully now than it did over the past 50 years during the very time Africans were witness to other post-independence countries forging ahead. Instead, we need to accept the past, as hard for some as that may be, and move on from it. That's why we must ensure Africa's future is based on a blueprint that is African-made, and our path to the future is walked with the knowledge that free speech, transparency, equitable investment and the rule of law are the nourishment on which everything else grows.
John Dramani Mahama is the president of Ghana and author of "My First Coup d'Etat: Memories from the Lost Decades of Africa" (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012).