Democracy Lab

What Africa Did Right in 2012

Africans are getting better at finding their own solutions to African problems.

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.

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.

The intervention plans have been widely criticized for their lack of detail and focus on military rather than political processes, and tensions are emerging between ECOWAS and the African Union. Any intervention remains at a minimum months away, and Burkina Faso's negotiators have not made any breakthroughs. But even though Africa's response to the Malian crisis has been unconvincing, the fact that Africa is in the lead on both military planning and political negotiations represents a welcome departure from the past.

These examples paint a mixed picture of the efficacy of African efforts to solve regional problems. But what's noteworthy is that such efforts are happening at all. It was not long ago that outsiders reflexively took the lead in responding to African crises -- indeed, it was only in 2011 that France intervened, under a UN mandate, in the civil war in Cote D'Ivoire -- leaving little space for African-led processes. Such external interventions could still happen again if the stakes are high enough (for example, if extremist groups establish a beachhead in Africa that presents a legitimate threat to Europe or the US). External interventions may produce quicker results than African-led efforts, but they deprive Africa of opportunities to develop its capacity to respond, and in a resource-constrained world such an approach is increasingly untenable.

To be sure, none of these African-led interventions is solely African, and all benefit from some form of outside (primarily western) support. The African Union mission in Somalia is bankrolled by the West. The United States and others have been strong supporters of the AUHIP, prodding the negotiating parties when additional political weight and influence is required and providing technical expertise to the mediators. If an intervention in Mali materializes, the west will surely be asked to foot a large portion of the bill (the European Union has already approved a military training mission to Mali). This type of inside-outside partnership and capacity-building should be encouraged, and the international community should increasingly allow African institutions, such as the African Union, the space to lead.

Skeptics will note that there are other parts of the continent in crisis to which the African response has been tepid, if not absent entirely. Africa has never taken much leadership in responding to the DRC's endless wars, in part because so many African states are directly involved in them (most recently, neighboring Rwanda and Uganda have been implicated in violence in eastern DRC). The African Union remains silent concerning its member states that continue to be led by autocratic, kleptocratic regimes (though to its credit, the African Union has recently suspended several member states whose governments where changed through coups). African voices are rarely heard on the alarming deterioration of security in Nigeria or even the slow decline of the country with the continent's strongest economy, South Africa.

But Africa, and the African Union in particular, are in the midst of an evolution, and it will take some time. Events in 2012 are a clear indication that Africa is increasingly in the lead and finding its voice when responding to its many crises. This evolution should be encouraged, and the international community should be patient and supportive (which is not the same as disengaged or disinterested) while providing the necessary financial, technical, and political support. This formula doesn't always produce rapid results. The African Union mission in Somalia was bogged down for years before its recent success, after all, and some efforts, such as the hunt for Joseph Kony, have yet to yield any results at all. In 2013, African crisis response efforts will be severely tested in DRC and Mali, as well as in Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. But if the past year is any indication, Africa will continue to progress toward making "African solutions to African problems" not just a catchy slogan, but a reality as well.

STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Pirates of the Guinean

How West Africa is replacing Somalia as the new pirate lair.

Early on the morning of Oct. 6, 14 pirates boarded a Panamax-size tanker off the coast of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and took its 24 crew members hostage. The pirates then sailed to the coast of Nigeria, where they offloaded close to 2,500 metric tons of gasoline and sold other onboard treasures. Just one month earlier, another band of pirates had damaged the West African Gas Pipeline off the coast of Lomé, Togo, suspending fuel deliveries to Benin, Togo, and Ghana.

This kind of maritime piracy one normally associates with Somalia or the Niger Delta (where five Indian sailors were abducted on December 17) but crime on the high seas is now commonplace throughout the Gulf of Guinea -- the immense body of water between Gabon and Liberia. And with piracy gradually declining off the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Guinea is rapidly becoming the world's most dangerous body of water. Between January and September of this year, pirates have attacked 42 vessels and taken 168 crew members hostage -- four of whom ended up dead.

Pirates began targeting ships in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the 1980s. These attacks were generally close to shore and in the form of armed robberies, with theft of not only oil but crew valuables and thousands of dollars in cash. In the last three years, however, attacks have grown more frequent and more violent, and they are occurring farther off the coast. Tankers are the target of choice for today's pirates, both because of their high value and because stationary ship-to-ship oil transfers make them vulnerable as they are linked by pipe.

The rash of attacks has spread from Nigerian waters to Benin, Togo, Ghana, and now Ivory Coast. Even Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea have been hit by well-planned sea raids led by highly organized gangs.

At the same time, the gangs have grown more daring, targeting the presidential palace in Equatorial Guinea in 2009 and pulling off a series of deadly bank robberies in Cameroonian coastal cities in 2011. Increasingly, criminal groups are recruiting local fishermen, who are best able to navigate the waters of the Gulf of Guinea. Lured by the prospect of easy money and facing competition from foreign vessels, many fishermen have sold their boats to pirates or turned to piracy themselves.

And the tide is rising. The region is beset by grinding poverty, political upheaval, and community grievances that stem from perceived injustices in the oil industry. Add to this the development of new offshore oil fields, oil contraband, illegal fishing, and rampant corruption, and you have a volatile mix.

Ineffective governance has also done its part to facilitate the rise of lawlessness on the seas. The countries that line the Gulf of Guinea have so far failed to cooperate in fighting the pirate threat. A border dispute over the Bakassi peninsula divided Nigeria and Cameroon for decades, and although it was recently settled, its legacy of distrust hampers genuine security cooperation between the two countries. Other states have been reluctant to fill the void, leaving the Gulf of Guinea largely unregulated and without an adequate maritime police force.

Each day, the Gulf of Guinea ships 1.5 million barrels of its oil to the United States, as well as 1 million to Europe, 850,000 to China, and 330,000 to India -- altogether, 40 percent of Europe's oil imports and 29 percent of the United States'. The high stakes -- as well as the severity of the problem -- have not gone unnoticed. For example, the Gulf of Guinea Commission recently organized a conference on the issue, stating that it is "worried by the increasing number and the geographic expansion of pirate attacks and armed robberies at sea." The secretary-general of the Economic Community of Central African States agreed that maritime insecurity now extends to the whole region, from "Côte d'Ivoire to Angola."

In the short term, the problem makes trade more costly. In the long term, the result can be far worse: It compromises the region's economic development and the stability of coastal states.

With the support of their trading partners and the private sector, coastal states have started to build navies and coast guards and to deepen security cooperation. In September 2011, Benin and Nigeria launched "Prosperity," an anti-pirate operation. Likewise, Cameroonian authorities have deployed a special unit to patrol the waters off the Bakassi peninsula. The private sector is also stepping up ship security with defensive equipment and armed guards, while the regional organizations in charge of peace and security, ECOWAS and ECCAS, are formulating strategies to combat piracy.

So far, however, this flurry of activity has been uncoordinated, meaning that it will at best serve as a deterrent. To eradicate piracy, states will need to engineer cooperative policing strategies that enable them to tackle the transnational nature of the problem.

More troubling still is that these stopgap measures leave the root causes of maritime insecurity unaddressed. Just as the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Aden resulted from the collapse of the Somali state, the rise of crime in the Gulf of Guinea is due mainly to poor governance of the regional economy. Piracy and the regional trade in contraband oil are closely linked, and most of the Gulf of Guinea states have been unable to develop legitimate commerce in their maritime zones. Today in Benin, for example, contraband oil represents 95 percent of national consumption -- up from 5 percent in 2000.

Governments in the region should not just prioritize policing of their waters. They must seek to institutionalize regional cooperation and develop their coasts. Strengthening maritime law enforcement should go hand in hand with boosting job creation along the coast. In the Gulf of Guinea, the fight against piracy must be waged on land if it is to be won at sea.

SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images