JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — As the new year begins, Africa - so often besieged by wars - is seeing a period of growing peace.
For the first time in five years, no major wars are roiling the continent, even if low-level conflicts still smolder. A deal to end Sudan's civil war - Africa's longest - could be struck this month. And peace processes are pushing ahead in Liberia, Burundi, Ivory Coast, and Congo.
Perhaps it's just a lull between storms. Yet observers see fundamental shifts that may create an era of relative calm for Africa's 800 million people.
The biggest new force is Africans themselves. Led by South Africa, there's growing desire to arm-twist warriors into laying down their weapons. Also, outside powers, including the United States, are more engaged. They may be motivated by antiterror fears, need for oil, or guilt for inaction during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, but they're increasingly supporting Africa's peaceful impulses.
"The continent as a whole has asserted a good bit more activism about putting conflicts to rest - and has turned down the flames of its active wars," says Ross Herbert, Africa Research Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.
South Africa's role is key. In the late 1990s, President Thabo Mbeki and other South Africans "looked around and realized the continent was sliding into the abyss, and that if they didn't do something dramatic they'd find themselves surrounded" by decay, says Stephen Morrison, head of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. So they helped jump-start peace talks in Burundi and Congo. South Africa now has 2,500 troops in Burundi. Nigeria has played a similar role in West Africa.
The moves are good for peacemakers' economies, too. South Africa invests about $1 billion - and has exports of $3 billion - a year into the rest of Africa, says Alan Gelb, chief Africa economist at the World Bank in Washington. Nurturing peace protects and expands economic activity. Indeed, in the past two years or so, as African economies have become more intertwined, "Leaders have recognized that without action to stop conflict in Africa they're going to suffer economically," says Dr. Gelb.
Outside powers are key as well. "There is a longer-term trend of the West reengaging in Africa," says Mr. Herbert. The US sent a small contingent to Liberia earlier this year to help separate rebels and the government, who had been fighting for years. When Sierra Leone exploded in 2000, British troops intervened successfully. And French soldiers are still in the volatile Ivory Coast.
There's also clearly a self-interested agenda. In the post-9/11 world, the US sees chaotic African countries as potential terrorism incubators. It's also eyeing Africa's growing oil exports. Sudan symbolizes the many reasons for America's new engagement in Africa.
The United Nations has also played a bigger role in Africa as its role in large global conflicts wanes. In Iraq, Kosovo, East Timor, and elsewhere the UN was sidelined at first in favor of a lead player like the US, Britain, or Australia, notes Morrison. Meanwhile, "Africa has, in very short order, become the central zone for UN peacekeeping," he says. The world body has more than 30,000 troops in Africa and just 12,000 in the rest of the world. Its biggest global mission will soon be Liberia.
Not that Eden has been created here. Even amid peace treaties, peacekeepers, and power-sharing governments, atrocities continue. "Away from the eyes of journalists and cameras, the nastiness carries on," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. Eastern Congo is a prime example.
Several conflicts could also escalate this year. Observers point to Ethiopia/Eritrea tensions and a growing guerrilla war in western Sudan, which wouldn't be covered by a north-south peace deal.
And even if they don't explode, many problems still exist - lack of food, the AIDS crisis, ethnic repression, and more. Without addressing those, says Mr. Cornwell, "We're likely to have a situation of no war, but no peace either."
A deal to end Africa's longest-running war - which has killed up to 2 million people - could be signed as early as next week. Sudan's Muslim government and southern Christian and animist rebels have been fighting since 1983. The US, among others, is now pushing hard for peace.
A major reason: terrorism. Sudan once harbored Osama bin Laden and is still on America's list of terrorism sponsors. But it has cooperated with the US since 9/11. To reward its cooperation, and prevent it from being a terrorist breeding ground, Western donors have pledged up to $1 billion in aid if peace is forged.
As well, if peace holds, Sudan could produce up to 500,000 barrels of oil a day by 2005. The government and rebels have agreed to share oil revenues as part of the peace deal. Also, US Christian conservatives like the Rev. Franklin Graham have prodded President Bush to resolve the conflict and prevent more mistreatment of Christians by the Muslim government.
In coming months, the UN peacekeeping force in Liberia may grow to 15,000 soldiers, becoming the largest team of UN troops. It symbolizes the UN's big commitment to Liberia - and Africa. Still, the UN controls only about a third of Liberia in the wake of the West African nation's 14-year civil war, which killed some 300,000 people. Rebel groups control the rest.
This week, however, UN troops did set up their first base in rebel-held territory. Efforts last month to disarm rebels by paying them $75 for their guns went haywire. The UN didn't have enough cash to pay the 8,000 who showed up. Rebels rioted.
Meanwhile, the UN and US will host a conference in February to raise up to $500 million for reconstruction. Former President Charles Taylor is in exile in Nigeria. A UN-backed war-crimes tribunal has indicted him. The US is offering a $2 million reward for his delivery to the tribunal.
The costs of Burundi's 10-year, ethnically charged civil war have been steep. Some 300,000 people have been killed in this central African nation the size of Massachusetts. Gross domestic product shrunk 20 percent, making Burundi the world's third-poorest country. Now a fragile peace process has begun. On Nov. 16, the largest rebel group agreed to lay down arms and take up top posts in the government.
Much of the peace impetus has come from neighbors, especially South Africa. Former President Nelson Mandela once led negotiations. His successor, Mr. Mbeki, is now pushing hard. The African Union deployed its first-ever peacekeepers there - 2,500 mostly South African soldiers.
But tensions continue. The 2,000-strong National Liberation Forces rebel group refuses to negotiate and often attacks the capital. Pope John Paul II's peace emissary was killed on Monday in an apparent assassination.
In this giant central African nation - which is nearly as big as Alaska and Texas combined - a political peace is taking hold in the western capital, while low-level fighting and terrorizing of civilians continues in remote eastern regions.
Congo's five-year war involved at least six other African nations - and led to some 3 million deaths. Then a power-sharing government was formed June 30. Democratic elections are slated for 2005 and would be the first since independence from Belgium in 1960.
Meanwhile, in resource-rich eastern Congo, rebels reportedly continue to operate, perhaps with support from Rwanda and Uganda. Civilians are reportedly killed, raped, or tortured regularly. But an aggressive UN peacekeeping force is making headway in subduing rebel forces.
In a sign of growing trust between former warring factions, rebel leaders and government officials in this West African nation are moving heavy weapons away from the central frontline that divides this former French colony, where war broke out in 1999 after a failed coup attempt. Last week rebels also said they will rejoin the power-sharing government, which they've boycotted since September because of disagreements with President Laurent Gbabgo. The UN is expected to decide this month whether to launch a peacekeeping mission in this country of 16 million. Some 4,000 French and 1,200 African troops are now enforcing the cease-fire in the world's largest cocoa exporter. Neighboring leaders have pushed hard for peace, because Ivory Coast's main port, Abidjan, is the largest in West Africa and a major regional economic hub.