​Africa for optimists: 2017 in review

It’s easy to get beaten down by negative headlines, and there are more than enough of those to go around. But look carefully and 2017 has given Africa Editor Simon Allison plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Africa’s future.

West Africa’s democratic renaissance

There are two reasons to be excited about the exit into exile of long-term Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh in January.

The first is obvious: after voting him out in an election, one that even Jammeh failed to rig, Gambians were finally rid of the man who had ruled the Gambia as his personal fiefdom for 23 years. The wild celebrations in the streets of Banjul were a national catharsis, and his successor Adama Barrow has already begun the difficult task of rebuilding the nation — albeit slowly.

The second is the remarkable regional effort to uphold the result of that election. After initially conceding defeat, Jammeh changed his mind, and tried to cling to power. The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) wouldn’t let him. Several heads of state flew into Banjul to persuade him to step down. A swiftly-assembled regional military force gathered on the The Gambia’s borders to make it clear that he would not be allowed to defy his country’s democratic will.

No other African regional bloc would have taken such swift or decisive action. But of the ten Ecowas member state, eight heads of state – now, after Jammeh’s departure, nine – were once opposition leaders themselves, and came to power via peaceful transitions. The bodes well for the region’s democratic future.

READ MORE: West Africa slays its dinosaurs

Something is still going right in Somaliland

When analysts and policymakers discuss successful models for African development, the example of Somaliland rarely comes up. It should.

In an unstable region, Somaliland has somehow managed to keep the peace for the last quarter of a century. It has achieved modest but consistent economic growth. It has built a democracy where elections are held regularly – if not always on time – and power is peacefully transferred.

Its most recent election, in November, was the most sophisticated ever held on the African continent, employing iris recognition technology to prevent voter fraud.

Somaliland has achieved all this despite – or, perhaps, because of — its failure to be recognised as an independent nation. According to the international community, Somaliland is still a part of Somalia proper, and should answer to the government in Mogadishu, even though the territory has been ruling itself since 1991 — and doing so with a far greater degree of success that any Mogadishu-based government has achieved in that time.

Maybe it is time to talk about recognising Somaliland, and to learn from its achievements.

READ MORE: Somaliland finally heads to the polls

Home-grown justice in the DRC

Earlier this month in a courtroom in Bukavu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a military tribunal handed down life sentences to 11 men convicted of raping children – described in the judgment as a “crime against humanity”. At the same time, the tribunal awarded compensation of $5 000 each to the people they had raped (although it’s unclear who is actually going to pay them).

This was a landmark judgment in the DRC — even if it is a very small step in a country with extraordinarily high levels of rape and sexual assault. “This was necessary. The victims have been waiting. It’s a strong signal to anyone who would contemplate this kind of offense,” said Charles Cubaka Cicura, a lawyer for the victims, speaking to Reuters.

Maman Sidikou, the head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, Monusco, said that the “unprecedented trial and the ruling constitute a major advance in the fight against impunity for sexual violence.” He added that this was “an encouraging sign for the numerous victims of sexual violence and other grave rights transgressions”, showing that “nobody is above the law.”

Given the struggles of the International Criminal Court is having in establishing its legitimacy in Africa, the willingness of local courts to tackle war crimes and crimes against humanity is going to be crucial in the fight against impunity. The DRC has shown how it might be done.

Bye bye Bob

Some things in life are certain. Death, taxes, and President Robert Mugabe.

So long had he ruled, so entrenched was his power, that it was simply unthinkable to imagine a Zimbabwe without him in charge. Even in the death throes of his regime, as soldiers surrounded his Harare residence, it seemed inconceivable that he would not pull yet another rabbit out of yet another hat, and find a way to stay on in power.

Even now, with Emmerson Mnangagwa installed in State House, it feels unnatural to utter the words: “Robert Mugabe, former president.”

Of course, Mugabe’s exit does not in itself guarantee reform or positive change in Zimbabwe. But it does send the strongest possible message to those who would follow in his footsteps, both within Zimbabwe and elsewhere: if even Mugabe can fall, then so can you.

READ MORE: Finally, the people are free to farm and fish at ‘Gracelands’

READ MORE: After Mugabe, what next

READ MORE: Mugabe’s final offer: I’ll trade Grace for power

Conflict claims fewer lives

A cursory glance through news headlines suggests that conflict in Africa is more widespread than ever. That may be true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

For one thing, we are measuring conflict much more accurately than ever before, with initiatives like the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project giving us a real-time picture of political violence on the African continent.

For another, the conflict is claiming far fewer lives. “Political violence in Africa is rising and it is more complex than before. But it is significantly less deadly than in previous decades, according to a number of conflict data sources,” said Ciara Aucoin, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.

Not feeling so hopeful? Click here for the other side of the coin in our ‘Africa for pessimists: 2017 in review’.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.

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