In 2011, democracy faces a major test as some of Africa's biggest countries hold polls. Madagascar, Nigeria, and perhaps Zimbabwe will allow voters to choose their leaders. In the case of Sudan, citizens will decide whether their country should remain unified or split in two.
In the Jan. 9 Sudanese referendum, citizens of the southern part of the country will choose whether to remain a part of a unified Sudan or seek independence. More than 3 million southern Sudanese, or more than 80 percent of the region's eligible voters, registered to vote. Most experts predict southerners will opt for secession, continuing a legacy of distrust after a 20-year civil war.
The vote is intended as part of a comprehensive peace agreement to be a final step in putting the civil war to rest, but it has the potential to unleash violence. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for human rights crimes and genocide during the Darfur conflict, has hinted that he might not accept the poll results if the south votes to secede. About 85 percent of the oil that Sudan produces comes from the south.
Presidential elections will be held in a number of countries, including Nigeria in April, a country that remains a major oil producer despite an insurgency in its oil region. Some of the countries holding elections are still emerging from conflict, including Liberia (October), the Democratic Republic of Congo (November), Chad (May), and Madagascar (July). Peaceful, credible elections could propel each of these countries toward normalization and greater prosperity for their citizens. Violence would do the reverse.
Human rights and justice is another major theme. The ICC continues to pursue cases of human rights violations against top African politicians. The trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor has already had a chastening effect on many African leaders, although perhaps not the one that was intended. President Bashir has evaded an ICC arrest warrant for his role in the war crimes in Darfur. Six prominent Kenyans charged for sparking postelection violence in the 2007 elections are scheduled to be put on trial in 2011 at the court's headquarters at The Hague.
Africa's natural resources will continue to hold the attention of global investors. Agriculture, in particular, is likely to draw more investment in a growing move to turn Africa into the world's breadbasket.