At first glance it hardly seems that 2012 was a good year for Africa. As usual, the news headlines were not calculated to prompt optimism. Renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali's descent into chaos appeared to confirm the familiar narratives of tragedy -- not to mention the continent's other continuing crises.
And yet a closer look reveals an encouraging trend: Africa is starting to confront and advance solutions to some of its most intractable problems in a way that it rarely has in the past. The African Union and sub-regional organizations are increasingly taking the lead in responding to crises, while the international community is giving them more and more of the space to do so. A few examples bear this out.
Africa's greatest success in 2012 was in Somalia, where, after years of stagnation, the African Union peacekeeping mission (consisting of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, and Kenya) turned a corner. They expelled Al-Shabab extremists from the key cities of Mogadishu and Kismayo and forced them north toward Puntland and into the bush. Though still violent, Mogadishu (shown in the photo above) is flourishing, with new businesses opening, expatriates returning and the international community increasingly engaged and investing in Somalia's future. Arguably even more importantly, Somalia made real political progress by finally ending its transitional government and installing a new government led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, whose roots are in Somali civil society and is widely well-regarded. His appointment and his initial decisions, including the selection of a streamlined cabinet, is a cause for cautious optimism, a sentiment rarely felt in Somalia in the last 20 years.
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2012 was, admittedly, a disappointing year for Sudan and newly independent South Sudan, which just can't seem to get beyond the dynamic of continual confrontation along their shared border. Yet here, too, there were surprising grounds for optimism. The highlight was a series of agreements that both countries signed in September. The agreements are designed to solve unresolved issues resulting from South Sudan's secession, most notably the sharing of oil revenues and the management of border areas. Those agreements were brokered by a team of three former African presidents from South Africa, Burundi, and Nigeria who make up the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP). The negotiations leading to the agreements were painstaking, stretching over more than two years, and at times seemingly going in endless circles. The AUHIP was criticized at various turns, but their persistence paid off, as they eventually prodded the parties to make critical compromises. Nonetheless, the agreements remain unimplemented and the bickering between Juba and Khartoum continues, with the AUHIP working to compel implementation.
Africa has also responded to the continent's latest country in crisis, Mali, though the jury is out on whether that response will produce results. 2012 has been an unmitigated disaster for Mali, which was battered by the dual shock of multiple coups in the capital and insurgent groups seizing control of vast swaths of the desert north. Slowly, the West African regional organization ECOWAS has sought to mobilize a military intervention comprised of troops from the region designed to expel extremists from northern Mali, while Burkina Faso takes the lead in trying to organize negotiations between the weak Malian government and two of the seemingly more moderate rebel groups.