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.
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.