Clearly, no continent faces quite so many challenges as Africa.
AIDS, hunger, regional disputes, civil war, terrorism, drought, mass migrations and abject poverty have kept most of the Dark Continent on the verge of social and political collapse for more than a century.
And while Africa is blessed with rich natural resources (including 30 percent of the world’s newly discovered crude reserves, as well as vast amounts of diamonds, salt, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite and silver) and fertile plains for farming, years of colonization and political mismanagement have kept these riches from being adequately harnessed for the African peoples’ benefit.
But while the woes of Africa are hardly going to be resolved in the course of a single year — or even a single decade — there is hope that 2017 will usher in an age of new leadership, regional integration, conflict resolution and democratic governance that could help set the continent on a path toward stability.
One significant ray of hope was last month’s peaceful (albeit begrudged) transfer of power in the little landlocked nation of Gambia.
The country’s long-term military autocrat Yahra Jammeh had held elections in December and lost.
His immediate response: invalidate the elections and ignore the results.
But while the international community and United Nations were ready to shrug off the incident as just another example of dysfunctional African politics, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said “not so fast,” and pressured Jammeh to step down and take asylum overseas.
On Jan. 19, the new, duly elected Adama Barrow was sworn into office.
What this all boils down to is the fact that the countries of Africa are now monitoring themselves and making each other comply with democratic norms and the rule of law.
This peer pressure to follow internationally accepted standards of political fairness and responsible governance set a much-needed precedence for other countries across the continent, and it sent a clear message to current and future dictators that their old tyrannical policies of “might is right” are no longer acceptable.
There are also promising signs of hope in other parts of Africa.
Angola’s longtime sovereign José Eduardo dos Santos (who is expected to extend his 38-year rule in polls this August, but who continues to be battered by his country’s economic decline and ongoing civil strife) has promised to step down next year and hold new elections.
And in Nigeria, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari is making major strides against Boko Haram and the country’s notorious corruption.
Granted, tensions and social unrest continue in much of Africa.
In Mozambique, the armed conflict between Maputo and the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo) is now in its fourth years and still going strong.
The tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho has been torn to shreds by fractious disputes and Nigeria — once the economic powerhouse of Central African economic stability — is now drifting into recession for the first time in 25 years.
South Sudan constitutes a political basket case where reports of mass atrocities are the daily bread, and neighboring Somalia and Sudan are not much better off.
The greatest hope lies in North Africa, where, despite the social and economic repercussions of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, economic and political development are still moving forward through regional cooperation and leadership.
The growing economic and political influence of Russia and China in Africa cannot be denied, but there are also regional leaders who will no doubt play a key role in their move toward social restructuring of the continent.
The ambitious and necessarily heavy-handed Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has already exhibited an exceptional level of diplomacy savvy and global statesmanship in his efforts to help mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is stepping up as a major voice at the African table.
The private-sector think tank McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) once famously described the potential and progress of African economies as “lions on the move.”
Now, it looks like Africa’s lions are once again on the prowl.
If Gambia is any indication of things to come, the Dark Continent may soon be on the path to roaring its way into modern international relevance in the global political and economic jungles.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]