TOPICS : Africa’s watershed year of progress

A long-forgotten rock band had a brief hit in the 1980s with the song “Radio Africa,” which contained the depressing refrain “I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa.” For most of Africa’s post-colonial history, that lyric has been pretty accurate.

In the minds of most outsiders, Africa is synonymous with conflict, chaos, and corruption. However, that perception may well change, given that 2006 — the 50th anniversary of the first sub-Saharan African country, Sudan, to achieve independence — has been a watershed year for the continent and one that could herald more good news to come.

Africa has a deservedly awful reputation for war, particularly civil conflict. A World Bank report notes that since 1961, 20 African countries have experienced at least one period of civil war. This year, however, real progress is being made toward ending two apparently intractable wars in the central Africa region, arguably the continent’s toughest. The Ugandan conflict, which has been raging since 1987, was described by UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland in 2004 as the “biggest neglected humanitarian emergency in the world.” The statistics are stark: In the past 20 years, more than 12,000 civilians have been killed, 2 million people displaced, 20,000 children kidnapped, and the economy of northern Uganda destroyed. In recent weeks, however, a ceasefire has been negotiated between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Similarly, in neighbouring Burundi, where brutal ethnic conflict has killed some 300,000 people — almost all civilians — since 1993, the remaining holdout militia signed a peace deal with the government last month, paving the way to real peace.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 4 million people have died since 1998, the first free elections in the country’s history were held in July. In a massive pro-democratic demonstration, 18 million Congolese turned out in July to cast their votes for a president and parliament. This enthusiasm for ballots over bullets is not limited to Congo. During the past 12 months, technically successful and politically credible elections have been held in Liberia and Burundi, both countries that spent the 1990s mired in bloody violence. The stakes are equally high in the battle against economic mismanagement.

Countries like Nigeria, which has long been infamous for corruption, is doing more than most to burnish its image. Nigeria is aggressively investigating corrupt officials and in some cases, locking them up. Much remains to be done before the rest of the world begins to take Africa seriously; there are still too many despots and not enough democracy. Nonetheless, the continent is undeniably maturing, outgrowing its colonial past, and beginning to take responsibility for its own affairs. This trend, though powerful, won’t continue automatically. It needs the active encouragement and support of the international community. — The Christian Science Monitor