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Ghana at 50 Looks Back With Pride and Pain

Lasers lit the sky and an actor relived the emotional moment 50 years ago when independence leader Kwame Nkrumah declared Ghana "free forever" to kick off celebrations Tuesday in the first sub-Saharan African nation to break from Europe.

The laser show and re-enactment were highlights of events that started at midnight Monday for the people of this West African nation and visitors who included celebrities and heads of state. The schedule Tuesday included a mass yell, in remembrance of the whoop with which Nkrumah ended his speech on March 6, 1957.

While crowds in the national colors of red, yellow, green and black and traditional kente cloth were exuberant Tuesday, the anniversary also has prompted sober soul searching.

Ghana has been mired in political repression, military dictatorship and poverty, as have many of the nations that followed it to independence. Hopes, though, were raised in 2000 when Ghana saw its first peaceful and democratic changeover of government.

"To realize Nkrumah's dream, we need to be constantly asking the question: `Are we really free?"" Nicole Amateifio, a university student who joined celebrations outside Nkrumah's mausoleum early Tuesday. "Fifty years ago we got freedom and independence, but we are still not really deciding the issues for ourselves. I still think there's too much influence on our policies from abroad."

Nkrumah, independent Ghana's first leader, dreamed of pan-African power that would free blacks from reliance on whites.

Today, President John Kufuor would be happy to see the country leap the gap from poor to middle class, while the urban poor dream of a steady job and coming home to running water and electric lights. The gap between hopes and reality is felt across the continent.

"We young Africans are trying to figure out how and when our time will come for us to make a difference in our own way." said Segun Olagunju, a 24-year-old development worker from Nigeria who came to Ghana for the independence celebrations.

Modern day Ghana was part of the Gold Coast that soon became the Slave Coast as Portuguese and Danes set up trading posts there in the 1400s.

Britain gradually colonized what became its Gold Coast colony in the 1800s, putting down successive rebellions until finally defeating the Ashanti kingdom in 1902.

When Nkrumah began pressing for independence, Britain was demoralized by its loss of the Suez Canal and gave in without a fight.

In his famous independence declaration, Nkrumah declared: "Today, there is a new African in the world, and that new African is ready to fight his own battle and show that after all the black man is capable of managing his own affairs."

It was just the first gust in what British leader Harold MacMillan called the "wind of change" that saw dozens of African nations freed from British, French, Portuguese and Spanish colonizers over the following two decades.

Nkrumah embarked on massive industrialization, opening numerous state-owned factories. He also introduced free education and health care.

But his projects and widespread corruption nearly bankrupted the nation and, facing opposition, he became paranoid and dictatorial, imprisoning opponents. He declared Ghana a one-party state, arguing political pluralism divided the populace on tribal lines.

In 1966 he was overthrown in a military coup — just the second of scores to come over the years in Africa. Nkrumah died in exile in Romania in 1972. His body was flown home to be buried in his home village, and in 1992 has was reburied with military honors in the capital, at the park where he declared Ghana's independence from Britain.

After the coup that toppled Nkrumah, Ghanaians found the soldiers no better governors than the politicians. By the 1980s, savvy visitors to Ghana brought along everything they needed, including toilet paper, knowing little would be on the markets here.

Democracy was restored by Rawlings, the instigator of two coups in 1979 and 1981, who organized and won elections in 1992 and again in 1996 when he defeated Kufuor. Limited by the constitution to two terms, he handed power over to Kufuor, victor of the 2000 polls.

Rawlings liberalized the economy and a painfully slow but gradual improvement ensued.

According to the World Bank, the number of Ghanaians living below the poverty line has dropped from more than half the population in 1990 to about 37 percent today.