Can Africa solve African problems?

From conflicts in Sudan, Congo, and Ivory Coast to a boom in Internet use, smooth elections in several countries, and a fresh focus on women and AIDS, the headlines in 2004 gave cause for celebration - and concern. For 2005, one theme stands out: Africa tackling its problems without much outside help.

Conflict in Congo

It's a sobering statistic: 1,000 people are dying each day in eastern Congo, a vast nation in the heart of Africa. And in the past six years of fighting, 3.8 million people have died, according to the International Rescue Committee.

At the outset of 2005, a breakaway military faction is fighting government forces and some 180,000 civilians have fled into the jungle, according to reports. Meanwhile, neighboring Rwanda has dispatched troops into the Central African giant, citing concerns that unfriendly forces in eastern Congo could threaten it. Rwanda is also prospecting for valuable assets like diamonds and gold. Will Congo's turmoil escalate into a broader conflict?

What to watch:

• For the past decade, international donors have poured money into Rwanda - in part because of lingering guilt over inaction during its 1994 genocide. Some say it's time to stop aid flows to Rwanda to punish it for its Congo incursions. Already, Sweden is withholding one-third of its aid.

• The UN recently added 5,900 peacekeepers to its 10,000-strong force in eastern Congo. Long accused of inaction, the UN force has grown stronger recently, engaging some of the rebel groups. Can the force stay neutral amid complicated factional fighting? And will the UN expand its mandate or increase its peacekeeping force?

• Will Congo pull off elections in June? If so, young President Joseph Kabila, who's leading a transitional government, might be able to consolidate power and establish control over the chaotic eastern region. This could enable him to rein in anti-Rwanda elements, thus decreasing tensions with Congo's neighbor.

Two chances for peace in Sudan

The new year could quickly see a major boost for peace in one of Africa's most-troubled nations.

A 20-year conflict in Sudan may finally be ending. The two sides - the northern Muslim government and southern rebels - say they'll sign a final peace deal Jan. 9. If they do, and if they carry it out, the deal could also be a template for solving Sudan's other major conflict - the one in its Darfur province, where the US says genocide has occurred.

The deal could even help end a related 18-year insurgency in neighboring Uganda.

But even with a north-south deal in hand, Darfur is a major challenge. Arab militias continue to rape and kill civilians. Some 2.3 million people are displaced - double the number six months ago. About 70,000 are dead. Aid workers and food convoys have been attacked.

Some groups, including Save the Child-ren UK, have quit the country. "Darfur is deteriorating," says International Crisis Group analyst John Prendergast.

Whether the world can reverse this trend, he and others say, depends on the UN, the US, and the African Union, which is deploying 3,300 troops there.

What to watch:

• If a north-south deal is signed, will Sudan's government be willing to strike a similar pact with Darfur rebels?

• The US has been the major diplomatic force behind the world's response to Darfur. But America's two biggest Darfur advocates - Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Ambassador John Danforth - have resigned. Will their successors build on their commitment?

First signals will come this month during Senate confirmation hearings for Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice.

• Will a UN commission find that genocide happened in Darfur? If so, stalled discussions about further pressuring Sudan's government are likely to be revived. A report is expected this month.

Zimbabwe's power play

Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections, slated for March, will be a major test of whether the once-vibrant nation can halt its economic and political deterioration - and of the continent's commitment to African solutions for African problems.

Zimbabwe was one of the region's strongest economies through the mid-1990s - and a major food exporter. Now its official inflation rate is 150 percent, although that's down from around 900 percent earlier last year. Its increasingly dictatorial president, Robert Mugabe, has trained violent youth militias and passed laws that suppress or eliminate opposition parties, the press, and civil society.

But Mr. Mugabe has agreed to abide by election standards laid out by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a group of 14 nations that promotes good governance. SADC, as well as South Africa, and Mugabe himself, will be under pressure to ensure the norms are followed. If not, it could be an embarrassing setback for African efforts to improve the continent's international image.

One early indicator:

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change says it will decide this month whether to contest - or pull out of - the elections.

African movies coming to America

This may be the year of African movies coming to a cineplex near you. It could even be a big year for Africa at the Oscars. "Hotel Rwanda," starring Don Cheadle ("Ocean's 12"), is getting strong Oscar buzz for his role as hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who saved hundreds of people during Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

"Red Dust" stars Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry") in the fictional tale of a US lawyer tackling a murder - and the legacy of the apartheid regime - in South Africa.

"Yesterday" is South Africa's official entry in the foreign-film category at the Academy Awards. It's the story of a mother with AIDS who's trying to ensure her daughter gets a good education - even after the mother is gone. It's the first feature-length film in the South African language of Zulu - and one of the first major films from Africa to tackle the issue of AIDS.

What to watch:

Your local cinema and the Oscars on Feb. 27. Also, in 2006, expect the film version of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom." Already cast for the leading role: Morgan Freeman.

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