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.
"The resignation of Abdullahi Yusuf and the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia provide a window of hope," says John Prendergast, co-chair of the Enough Project, an antigenocide advocacy group.
In Congo, President Joseph Kabila – barely two years removed from the first free election in his country's history – faced a formidable threat in Laurent Nkunda, a renegade army general whose well-trained guerrillas seized chunks of the mineral-rich east in September and October.
The onslaught revived fears of a new, multinational war in central Africa, especially after a UN report in December documented links between Mr. Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, and the Tutsi-led government in neighboring Rwanda, another one of Africa's supposedly stable nations.
Although Congo remains on a knife's edge, Nkunda halted his advance in order to negotiate with Mr. Kabila, which some analysts say was emblematic of a trend toward resolving conflicts diplomatically rather than by the gun.
"Even though there has been violence, it has been universally condemned and political parties have worked harder than they used to have done to find political solutions rather than settling their differences in the bush," says Tom Cargill, an Africa expert at the Chatham House, a British policy research organization.
It's harder to find anything good to say about Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe, one of Africa's longest-serving leaders, unleashed a campaign of devastating violence against political opponents to win re-election. He's rejected worldwide calls for his resignation while a cholera epidemic rages through his country.
A power-sharing arrangement between Mugabe and his opponents has been "an abject failure," Mr. Prendergast says, because outside countries are unable to stop a man who seems determined to keep his almost three-decade grip no matter the cost.
The world had more leverage, but was no more successful, in Sudan, where 2008 saw no movement toward a peace deal in the western Darfur region and no change in the miserable lives of nearly 3 million people living in refugee camps there. A UN-led peace process launched at the end of 2007 in Libya fell apart almost immediately, and the International Criminal Court's decision to charge Sudanese President Omar al Bashir with genocide in Darfur seemed only to embolden Mr. Bashir, whose Arab and African allies soon came to his defense.
Worse, a hard-won 2005 peace agreement that ended a separate, and far deadlier 21-year civil war between northern and southern Sudan continued to miss critical deadlines as analysts warned that it could fall apart altogether.
"(The year) 2008 was marked by a crushing international failure to deal with Africa's biggest crises," Prendergast says. "Much more must be done in 2009 to arrest the mounting death tolls on our watch."
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