2013: In Africa, economic growth but threads of instability

The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya was one example of how gains in prosperity in some African nations could be threatened by violence.

Jonathan Kalan/AP
A woman ran for cover as police entered the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Sept. 21 while pursuing gunmen who had opened fire.

As 2013 draws to a close, Monitor foreign correspondents look back on the global stories that had the greatest impact on the regions they cover. These stories, and the deeper trends that they reflect, are certain to remain in the headlines into the new year. We bring you tales of military posturing, democratic backsliding, and the death of a strongman. Watch this space for more in 2014. And click on the list of stories on the left hand side of this article for more year in review pieces from around the world.

To hear international observers tell it, Africa was either the most promising place on earth to live in 2013, or the least. These two conflicting visions of the continent – as a region on the mend, at last taking its place in the world, or one sinking slowly into decay – collided violently on a bright Saturday morning in September. A group of militants affiliated with the Somali terror group Al Shabab walked into the upscale Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and opened fire. When their siege finally ended four days later, more than 60 people were dead, and close to 200 more were injured.

What happened at Westgate exposed many of the complexities that lingered just outside the frame in the stories told about Africa. On one hand, a number of countries on the continent have seen rapid economic growth over the past decade, pulling many Africans for the first time into the global middle class. Kenya is one of them, averaging nearly 5 percent growth since 2009.

Westgate is the kind of stage where this new Africa is acted out: a multistory palace of Western department stores, French pastry shops, and frozen yogurt cafes frequented by wealthy Kenyans and the city's growing expatriate community. In cities like Nairobi, straining beneath the weight of rapidly rising populations and decaying public infrastructure, private shopping centers like Westgate showcase an alternate vision for the country and the continent – gleaming, ambitious, and efficient.  

But the attack was a stark reminder of the persistent uncertainty of that Africa. After all, Kenya is only a flimsy border away from Somalia, a precarious nation that has bred an increasingly desperate brand of Al Qaeda-inspired terror (which Kenya's foreign policy has helped stoke).

Even success stories like Kenya find their rise complicated by troubled political legacies. As Kenya's newly elected president, Uhuru Kenyatta, deals with the aftermath of the Westgate tragedy, he must also prepare for his own trial at the International Criminal Court, where he was indicted for crimes against humanity in connection with Kenya's 2007 election. 

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