Africa comes to the party

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LAGOS, December 28 – Africa showed its potential in 2010 with a successful World Cup and economic growth, but violence and an election crisis tainted a year when a list of nations marked 50 years of independence.There are also major challenges in the year ahead, including landmark elections in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, its largest oil producer and where ballots have consistently been deeply flawed.

Fears of a return to war also hang over Ivory Coast, where an election standoff following a November ballot has led West African countries to threaten the use of force if strongman Laurent Gbagbo refuses to quit power.

There is the risk of renewed tensions in South Sudan as well, with a vote on its independence set for January 9.

But despite the bad news, progress was easy to spot in a year that saw 17 countries mark a half-century of independence.

Such progress has given some observers hope that a number of African nations may have started down a road that will see them cash in on their potential.

South Africa’s hosting of the continent’s first World Cup is at the top of the list, with the country having defied doubters and shown it is capable of pulling off such a major event.

"There’s been a swing in the international discourse about Africa," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, while discussing the World Cup.

Another encouraging sign came from what some may say is an unlikely place. Guinea, ruled for decades with an iron fist by undemocratic leaders, held an election that observers said appears to have been a significant step forward.

According to some analysts, the continent as a whole has registered progress when it comes to democratic standards.

While problems remain widespread and worrying, completely fake elections seem to be becoming a thing of the past, one observer said. Opposition parties have grown stronger and the population has become more engaged.

"Africa has actually moved out of the era in which it has make-believe elections," said Jibrin Ibrahim of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigeria.

Ivory Coast served as an example of how a country can move in reverse.

Elections there were supposed to end a decade of conflict in the country, once the most prosperous in West Africa, but instead degenerated into a standoff between Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara.

UN-backed results showed Ouattara won, but Gbagbo has rejected worldwide calls for him to yield power.

Two other high-stakes ballots will be held in early 2011.

South Sudan’s referendum is part of a 2005 peace deal which ended a two-decade civil war that cost some two million lives. Many analysts expect the south to vote to break away and split the continent’s largest nation in two.

In Nigeria, presidential, legislative and state elections are set for April.

Violence and rigging have long been part of Nigerian elections, and one of the world’s largest oil producers will be under pressure to hold a credible vote.

It comes after the death in May of president Umaru Yar’Adua, whose prolonged illness and absence from the country created a power vacuum that kept Nigeria on edge in the early part of the year.

In what may be seen as a bad sign for the months ahead, twin car bombings killed at least 12 people near Nigeria’s independence day celebrations on October 1.

A series of Christmas Eve bombs also killed dozens in the central Nigerian city of Jos.

Further north on the continent, extremist violence has also drawn concern. Al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch has claimed a series of attacks, including kidnappings of French citizens.

The continent will be hoping to ride a wave of economic growth in 2011.

Many African economies registered strong growth in 2010, particularly with the world’s emerging powers, especially China, heavily investing on a continent rich in natural resources.

But familiar problems remain, with corruption and mismanagement still major hurdles.

"The growth has not translated to job creation, poverty reduction," said Sola Oluwadare of the African Institute for Applied Economics in Nigeria. "Governments must be made accountable for the resources at their disposal."

Ghana, seen as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, began significant commercial oil production for the first time in December.

The discovery has raised hopes that it will allow the country to improve infrastructure and development, but many have warned that it could also bring the corruption that has plagued nearby Nigeria.

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