Africa in 2011: The year dictators fell

A protester flashes a victory sign with his bloodied hand in Cairo on December 16 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Political change swept through North Africa in 2011

Johannesburg is emptying out fast, as the rich head to the beach and the rest to their home villages for the long holidays, and the few journalists left here - in either category - try to make sense of an unexpectedly frantic, momentous 2011 across the continent, and succumb to the usual temptation of grumbling about the state of South Africa at the end of a particularly shabby year.

The Arab revolutions may rightly have dominated the African headlines, but the issues raised on the streets of Cairo and Benghazi have also, in various local guises, helped to shape the agenda this year south of the Sahara.

From Abidjan to Juba to Lusaka to Kinshasa and beyond, this has been the year, not so much of elections but of the fraught, fragile process of trying to, or trying not to, transfer power - a banal procedure taken almost for granted (by everyone except politicians) in large chunks of the world, but still a precarious business for too much of Africa.

A few days ago I spent a long, depressing afternoon in a pavilion in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, listening to representatives from some of the continent's leading liberation parties draw a single, turgid, anachronistic conclusion from the Arab spring - it was all proof of "a new western colonial imperialism" - and lay it like a rhetorical box of chocolates at President Robert Mugabe's feet.

There remain, of course, profound issues about the behaviour of foreign powers in Africa - from climate change to trade barriers to land grabs and resource gobbling. But are there no other lessons, closer to home, to be learnt from the anguished protest of a Tunisian fruit seller?

South Africa's Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was not the only African this year to ponder whether, or simply when, the Arab Spring might start heading southwards. 

'Cynical Western meddling'

As South Africa's governing African National Congress (ANC) prepares to celebrate its centenary in 2012, how many more years can it hold on to power and, perhaps more importantly, will it accept future defeat gracefully?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Robert Mugabe condemned Nato's bombing of Libya

Maybe the Zanu-PF party's conference in Bulawayo wasn't the appropriate occasion for serious introspection from the continent's grandees. But three times this year I returned to Johannesburg from long, gruelling trips to Libya, only to see the ANC's Youth League with pictures of killed Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi on their T-shirts.

One prominent South African commentator told me all he could think of regarding Libya was "white men bombing Africa" and when I suggested that he visit Tripoli before condemning the entire uprising as a western plot he frankly admitted that he preferred his ideology untainted by mere experience.

Then there was Ivory Coast - another violent transfer of power, which also prompted accusations of cynical Western meddling. You can argue it was right to send former President Laurent Gbagbo for trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague - but was it wise? And now we have the Democratic Republic of Congo, and its bloodily predictable denouement.

At this point you may be muttering a familiar criticism against journalists in Africa - that we're too preoccupied with the negatives, and fail to notice all that's going right, despite or because of the continent's political elites.


And this has been a surprisingly good year for good news in Africa: the impressive economic growth - made all the more alluring by Europe's decline, the loser-steps-down entrenchment of democracy in places like Zambia, the security gains in Mogadishu, and the so-far relatively peaceful break-up of Sudan.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption After months of stalemate, Laurent Gbagbo was ousted from power in Ivory Coast

So yes, you have a point - and you can check out someone else's list of good news stories here.

But when it comes to progress, the lingering question remains as to whether Africa has yet reached critical mass - whether the dynamism of the business community in East Africa, for instance, or Nigeria, means long-term success is now inevitable, regardless of what the politicians do.

Too often, it seems to me, political uncertainty is still scaring away the investment - Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya spring to mind - that could and should turn the continent into the next global powerhouse.

Well, this isn't quite goodbye for the holidays from me yet, but thanks for all your comments on the blog this year. I have one more favour to ask of you.

At the end of last year I sought the advice of a wise, expensive, apocryphal sangoma in Soweto regarding the year ahead. In the interests of objectivity, I intend to look elsewhere for mystical advice about 2012 and would welcome any suggestions you have.

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