2011 Reflections: Africa rises, taking charge of its affairs

Seven Monitor correspondents reflect on the world's hotspots. In this installment, Scott Baldauf says Africa showed signs of both the willingness and ability to solve their own problems in 2011.

African Union
A Ugandan soldier serving with the African Union mission in Somalia stands near an armored fighting vehicle in Mogadishu in early December.

With its famines, wars, and corrupt leaders, Africa was called "hopeless" by The Economist magazine in 2000.

Today, demand for Africa's natural resources, combined with stronger political leadership and growing entrepreneurship, make Africa a rare bright point in the global economy.

Certainly there are plenty of trouble signs in a continent that has 54 countries, many of them landlocked and desperately poor. Too many countries are ruled by authoritarian men. Many are saddled with punishing debt, unemployment, and undereducated youths. Some, like Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Ivory Coast, experience bouts of violence when tight electoral contests are disputed.

But this year brought new signs that Africans can solve – and are solving – their own problems.

The African Union is taking an increasingly independent stand on how to solve African problems, and some of Africa's stronger economic and military nations appear to be borrowing a few lines from America's Monroe Doctrine, indicating that Western "interference" in Africa is no longer welcome.

South Africa has long taken an independent path on foreign policy – voting against the Libya intervention, for instance – and keeping its distance from richer US and European partners as it grows closer to fellow emerging-market countries Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRICs). And South Africa is increasingly seeking a role as regional mediator, although its attempt this year to arrange a political settlement after Ivory Coast's disputed election was rendered meaningless by a French-backed military escalation.

Even Kenya, which has never used its troops in a war against a neighbor, moved soldiers into neighboring Somalia in mid-October after a series of kidnappings and attacks on Kenyan soil by the Somalia-based Islamist militia Al Shabab. Kenyan troops are now part of a three-pronged attack on Al Shabab, joining Ethiopian troops in the west, and Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers supporting the Somali government in Mogadishu.

Perhaps most promising of all, though, is the fact that Africa is beginning to diversify itself from its traditional resource-based economy.

Increasingly, entrepreneurs are setting up service businesses, including mobile application software centers in Nairobi, Kenya, for example. Access to the Internet is giving citizens the knowledge and confidence to speak out, as seen in citizen protests in Malawi, Ivory Coast, and Swaziland this year.

"Africa rising" – the Economist's moniker a decade later – isn't just an economic phenomenon; it's political and social, too.

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