WASHINGTON — A long-forgotten rock band had a brief hit in the 1980s with the song "Radio Africa," which contained the depressing refrain "I'm hearing only bad news from Radio Africa." For most of Africa's postcolonial history, that lyric has been pretty accurate. In the minds of most outsiders, Africa is synonymous with conflict, chaos, and corruption.
However, that perception may well change, given that 2006 – the 50th anniversary of the first sub-Saharan African country, Sudan, to achieve independence – has been a watershed year for the continent and one that could herald more good news to come.
Africa has a deservedly awful reputation for war, particularly civil conflict. A World Bank report notes that since 1961, 20 African countries – out of 53 in total – have experienced at least one period of civil war. This year, however, real progress is being made toward ending two apparently intractable wars in the central Africa region, arguably the continent's toughest.
The Ugandan conflict, which has been raging since 1987, was described by UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland in 2004 as the "biggest neglected humanitarian emergency in the world." The statistics are stark: In the past 20 years, more than 12,000 civilians have been killed, 2 million people displaced, 20,000 children kidnapped, and the economy of northern Uganda destroyed.
In recent weeks, however, the unthinkable has happened: A cease-fire has been negotiated between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army, and these rebels are starting to make their way to assembly points to be disarmed.
Similarly, in neighboring Burundi, where brutal ethnic conflict has killed some 300,000 people – almost all civilians – since 1993, the remaining holdout militia signed a peace deal with the government last month, paving the way to real peace.
Next door in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 4 million people have died from war-related causes since 1998, the first free elections in the country's history were held in July, with a presidential runoff set for Oct. 29. In a massive demonstration of support for the democratic process, 18 million Congolese turned out in July to peaceably cast their votes for a president and parliament. This enthusiasm for ballots over bullets is not limited to the Congo. During the past 12 months, technically successful and politically credible elections have been held in Liberia and Burundi, both countries that spent the 1990s mired in bloody violence.
Of course, cease-fires and elections are not the only measurements of progress. Significantly, Africa is struggling to address the institutional causes of its ailments. The African Union (AU), successor to the do-nothing Organization of African Unity, has taken up peacekeeping as its foremost challenge. Determined that Africa's security problems should be tackled by Africans rather than foreign powers, the union has fielded a force of 7,000 troops to try to stop the genocide in Sudan's Darfur province.
While the mission has met with mixed reviews, the mere fact that an organization representing 53 sovereign states could agree on the deployment of an intervention force in a member nation is hugely important. In addition, recognizing that African elections have too often been more drama than democracy, the AU has recently taken steps to develop its Electoral Assistance Unit. Building the capacity to conduct clean elections and support good governance will pay long-term benefits for Africa's more than 870 million inhabitants.
The stakes are equally high in the battle against economic mismanagement. Africa is notorious for bribery and extortion. According to the international watchdog group Transparency International, it's home to nine of the world's 15 most- corrupt countries. One of them, Nigeria, which has long been infamous for corruption, is doing more than most to burnish its tawdry image. Led by the head of the government's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nigeria is aggressively investigating corrupt officials, including nearly all the state governors, and in some cases, locking them up.
Much remains to be done before the rest of the world begins to take Africa seriously; there are still too many despots and not enough democracy. Nonetheless, the continent is undeniably maturing, outgrowing its colonial past, and beginning to take responsibility for its own affairs. This trend, though powerful, won't continue automatically. It needs the active encouragement and support of the international community.
• Chris Hennemeyer spent two decades supporting relief and development in sub-Saharan Africa. He is now Africa regional director at IFES, a nonprofit in Washington that specializes in democracy promotion.