If you just read the headlines, 2006 looked like another bad year for sub-Saharan Africa.
In Somalia, Islamists implemented a form of sharia law that empowered a 6-year-old boy to publicly stab to death the man who murdered his father.
Yet out of the media spotlight, much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa was quietly building better governments, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which uses a complex equation of annual indicators to monitor how well governments are performing in the region's 48 countries.
"The focus is quite understandably on the Somalias, the Kenyas, and the Zimbabwes, but behind the headlines, underneath all of that, a large majority of countries have seen a improvement in governance," says Hania Farhan, the foundation's director of research.
The organization's latest figures, based on data collected in 2006, points to an often overlooked phenomenon: the emergence of free and fair elections across sub-Saharan Africa.
The index measures progress in five categories – including a government's ability to establish peace and security, guarantee basic civil and human rights, oversee economic growth, and provide public services – but most the countries that scored higher marks this year did so by opening elections to competition.
Robert Rotberg, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who teamed up with Sudanese telecommunications tycoon Mo Ibrahim to design the index, attributed the change to the growth of the middle class, greater civic consciousness, greater international and national pressure on governments, and the dying off of the first generation of postcolonial leaders.
"The predominant stuff is happening inside Africa," says Mr. Rotberg. "Africans everywhere are very favorable to democratic growth because it's paid off."
Liberia won top honors for improvement. In 2006, following two decades of civil war, Liberia elected the continent's first-ever female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has since set about rebuilding the country's infrastructure and institutions.
Burundi also scored higher in 2006, the same year it signed a South Africa-brokered peace accord with the last rebel group remaining in the tiny landlocked nation, ending its 13 years of civil strife.
Uganda also posted a gain after holding its first multiparty elections in 20 years.
Nearly two-thirds of the countries in the index improved their scores from 2005, adding to recent indications of devleopment in Africa. In 2005, the World Bank in its annual report stated that Africa had "turned the corner" from poverty and debt to prosperity and wealth.
Yet some observers warn against triumphalism, and point to the new challenges ahead.
"State authoritarianism remains a very established fact in African government systems; elections are not entirely free and fair; corruption remains the order of the day," says Osaghae Eghosa, professor of political science and vice-chancelor of Nigeria's Igbinedion University. "You will find that the logical consequence of that kind of setup cannot be good governance."
As foreign donors and international investors increasingly look for fair elections, government transparency and an impartial judiciary as conditions for releasing funds, African leaders are under pressure to at least appear more democratic.