My top ten African news for the year 2009

After the season to be merry, dine with the family, open your Christmas gifts, (and having a break from updating the blog) ‘tis now the season to make lists and summaries of the best of 2009 and of all relevant things that happened during the year. This is therefore not a very original post, but I thought I’d make my own little contribution to this end of year fashion, by pointing out what I consider to be ten of the most interesting, revealing or exciting news and developments that have taken place in sub-Saharan Africa this year.
I know they are not all there, but I hope all that are there, are worth it. The list is also based on my interests and biased towards politics and specially stuff I have written here before, but still. In any case, if you think I have missed something you think to be crucial, or you thing something I have included does not does not deserve to be there, please comment!!
And a happy 2010 to all of you!!

1. Economic crisis
In Africa, like all other regions of the world, most headlines through the year have been dominated by the global recesion, and the policy responses to it. During 2009 the coverage has shifted from pointing out that as a financial crisis the current predicamend would not affect Africa, no realising that this was a full blown economic crisis which threatened the continent’s economic growth. It is now agreed that Africa has been affected in a number of ways: declining commodity prices, lower level of remittances, less tourism, and a reduction in private capital flows… All of which has slowed down economic growth from an average 6.4% to 1% i GDP. In this interview,Shanta Deverajan Chief World Bank economist for Africa, gives his opinion on what the prospects are for the continent. Also interesting is that it appears that oil exporters and middle-income countries will be more severely affected, whilst smaller economies may have a quicker recovery.

2. Obama- effect?
Headlines during the first part of the year were also dominated by Barack Obama’s election – and how it was celebrated accross the continent. Soon analysis centred on how the new president would change US policy towards Africa, which by the way, was the continent where G.W. Bush’s reputation was held on highest esteem. Thus Obama’s speech in Ghana on June 11th – and the US presidency choice of this country over Nigeria – seemed to give the impression that the US’s committment to “lifting up successful models” of democracy and engouraging good governance would result in a new democratic wave. Reality could not have been more different, with coups and instability plaguing Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry, and undemocratic election securing the continuity of Teodoro Obiang and Bongo’s son in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon among others. Also, the presence of new external actors (i.e. China) accross the continent constitutes a powerful reality check regarding where external interests in the continent really lay – as did the Secretary of State’s seven nation tour in August. Furthermore, even if the US did have a strong commitment to democracy and good governance, it is not certain that it may have the power to do so. Alex de Waal writes here of the four reasons why the US is losing influence in Sudan, some of which are applicable to other parts of Africa.

3. National (Dis)Unity Governments
As blogged before, here, the appearance of National Unity Governments – and their promotion from the international community in diverse countries accross the continent: Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Madagascar… constitutes in my opinion, an interesting process. This solutions appears to as a suitable solution for political crises on the continent, but it is however full of risks. Often the dominant party or leader seeks to marginalise the ex-oposition, now part of the government, and these arrangements can become simple cover-ups for continued undemocratic rule (this is why the oposition in Guinea has vehemently rejected this option). Nevertheless their increasing “popularity”, may signal that multi-party fundamentalists are tempering their positions as they encounter a much less welcoming enviroment in the continent.

4. Energy resources
Oil continues to be by far the most important piece on the quest for energy sources, and oil exporting countries like Angola, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea are able to sustain their questionable regimes thank to the income generated by it. But, and as blogged also before, renewable energies – especially solar-powered in the Sahel region and Western Africa, with the support of Senegal, is also gaining strength despite the failure of the talks in Copenhagen.

5. Transport infrastructures boost
Communication and transpor is key for economic development, not only to guarantee import and export to outside continent but also for internal African trade (with stands at unsustainably low levels – around 3%), as this recent post points out. This, together with China’s increasing involvement on the continent, has prompted an increased interest on the construction and refurbishment of African trasport infrastructes. Also briefly blogged here before.

6. International aid re-thought
A number of different factors: from the economic crisis, to the appearance of China as a serious investment and trade partner, to the contributions by African scholars and economists like Dambisa Moyo (whose book Dead Aid has been one of the biggest talking points this year), have contributed to making the international community re-think, or at least consider under a different light, some of the pitfalls, contradictions and problems of the international aid system which has been in place over the past four decades without visible benefits.

7. Regional integration
The prescription from international bodies like the World Bank, IMF or the African Union, for more eficient economic and political development passes through the encouragement of increased regional integration. These processes have received a boost in the Eastern part of the continent with the signing of the East African Community (EAC) Common Market Protocol last November. Also, In West Africa, regional body ECOWAS stepped up its commitment to democracy by refusing to recognise Niger president Mamadou Tandja following the end of his term on December 22. Niger had already been suspended from membership after Tandja had dissolved Parliament and the Constitutional court and called for a referendum when his third term was refused. Nevertheless Regional integration still faces numerous problems, from gaining leverage vs. international actors, to make a significant impact on the lives of their citizens.

8. Diverging paths for Nigeria and South Africa
While many academics maintain that regional integration needs a regional hegemon, other see a risk in excessive dependency. In any case it is certain that the state of giants like Nigeria in West Africa and South Africa in Southern Africa, has a crucial impact on their neighbours wellbeing. And these two countries have followed divergin courses. While South Africa is still plagued by serious problems: crime, social inequality, 2009 has proved to be a momentous year, with the election of Jacob Zuma showing that democracy in the country has matured through the rejection of Mbeki and the appearance of a new party, the Congress of the People (CoPe). Also the preparations for 2010 are progressing at a good speed, and all points out the World Cup will be a success. For its part Nigeria is still embattled with numerous corruption scandals, the Niger Delat conflict is still raging, a damning Amnesty International report has exposed the “shocking levels of unlawful killings” by the police, etc. And most recently, and perhaps most worring, President Yar’dua’s absence from the country (he’s receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia) is encouraging internal fighting and rumours of plotting against his authority.

9. Internet and the ICTs
One of the most interesting developments on the continent through 2009 has been the growth and spread of new technologies and tools, which have placed African countries among the leading ones in the use of these tools, for example in mobile phone journalism. Platforms and tools developed by Africans and with Africa in mind, like Maneno, and initiatives like BarCamp Africa will no doubt play a leading role in 2010 and the following years in continuing this spread of ICTs to new segments of the population.

10. African civil society
No doubt as a result of the processes pointed out above, and especially the spread of the internet and of new technologies, African activists and civil society have enjoyed a much greater impact and visibility on the international arena. Thus, it seems civil society actions designed for Africa, but planned mainly outside the continent (like the much criticised Save Darfur Campaign) have given way to actions whichhave their origins in different African countries. Thus the protests against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, the solidarity with Abahali baseMjondolo, the prize given to René Ngongo or the campaign of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance before COP-15, have all received deserved international attention but originate in groups based on the ground.

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