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For Africa, 2008 a year to forget

Across the continent, rigged elections, ethnic violence, and failed power-sharing pacts hand Africa significant challenges to tackle in 2009.

By Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers / January 2, 2009


How bad was it for Africa in 2008? The highlight of the year for most of the continent just might have been the election of a half-Kenyan to lead a nation thousands of miles away.

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President-elect Barack Obama's triumph in the US raised Africa's hopes – no small feat in a year that saw rigged elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe, virtually no progress toward ending the mass suffering in Darfur, political and social upheaval in South Africa, and – just when you thought some places had hit bottom – even more chaos and bloodshed in Congo and Somalia.

Throughout Africa, 2008 was a year to forget. For all the hope embodied in the arrival of a new year, and of Mr. Obama himself, however, 2009 brings no obvious solutions for any of Africa's most intractable problems.

Asked what should be Obama's and the world's priorities for the continent in 2009, Francois Grignon, a veteran analyst and now Africa director for the International Crisis Group research agency, sighed.

"The whole of Africa, really, remains at the top of the list," he says.

The reversals are especially disheartening to Africans because the continent had been moving steadily, if unspectacularly, toward peace and stability during the past decade. Wars are on the wane, the African Union has asserted itself as a regional diplomatic and peacekeeping force, economies are growing, and some countries can boast of a nascent middle class.

Experts, however, say 2008 was marked by missed chances to find durable solutions in the continent's trouble spots.

It started in Kenya, where weeks of pressure from the US and other nations following a disputed election forced President Mwai Kibaki to share power with his political opposition. The arrangement ended two months of ethnically driven violence in the once-stable nation.

Once world attention faded, however, the new government failed to bring anyone responsible for the attacks – including police officers and some political elites – to justice. Deep-seated grievances over land and economic inequities remained unresolved and are likely to boil over in the next election, if not earlier, Mr. Grignon says.

"It's not like because of the crisis . . . the Kenyan political system has collapsed. But there is unfinished business," Grignon says, adding, "It was a whole year of wasted opportunities.

"In 2009 we have to try to get some more positive results. Otherwise, we have a number of situations that could unravel."

In Somalia, the headline-grabbing raids by offshore pirates and the less flashy – though no less noteworthy – gains of Islamist insurgents on land epitomized the total failure of a UN-backed interim government, despite the muscle of thousands of Ethiopian troops occupying the country.

Against all odds, Somalis have hope. Dec. 29 brought the resignation of the reviled warlord-turned-president Abdullahi Yusuf, who US officials and many Somalis had blamed for blocking a fledgling peace process. If Somalia's ever-fractious political leaders can shore up their government by winning the support of moderate Islamists, a country that's been in freefall since 1991 might see a better 2009.