Over a third of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa will be holding elections this year. Elsewhere on the continent, several peace agreements are pending. The success of the elections, along with the peace agreements, will go a long way in determining whether Africa will be able to achieve the stability that has so long eluded it.
2003 left Africa with several peace agreements ready to be signed or implemented in such countries as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ivory Coast.
One person watching the outcome of the accords is analyst John Prendergast, who is in the Washington office of the International Crisis Group. The research and advocacy organization monitors crises around the world.
"The biggest impact issue for the year 2004 will be whether the big peace deals in progress can be implemented over the coming year - including the Liberian, Congolese, Burundian and Sudanese agreements," says Mr. Prendergast. "If these go well and move forward, we will have positive impacts throughout West, Central and East Africa. If they go sour, they could pull other countries down with them and return to some of the regional conflicts we saw marking the end of the 20th century.
"And that leads to a corollary that there must be greater investment on the part of the international community in these peacekeeping operations that accompany peace agreements - the process of observing cease-fires, of building new government institutions and of supporting disarmament and reintegration are fundamentally important to the future of Africa."
Analysts say the transition from war to peace may be problematic in at least one country, Africa's third-largest nation, the Democratic Republic of Congo. A transitional government of national unity came into power there last June, ending six years of civil war. The conflict involved many of Kinshasa's neighbors - including Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe - which backed various rebel factions fighting the government of President Joseph Kabila.
Patrick Smith, the editor of the London-based newsletter Africa Confidential, says Mr. Kabila's government will be busy this year with a number of projects, including the demobilization of rebel factions and the creation of a voters' register for proposed elections in 2005. In addition, Mr. Smith says, the government will have to find a way to deal with another legacy of the civil war.
"The other issue in Congo is what is going to happen to all those contracts signed during the war to raise money quickly for arms shipments and payments to soldiers," he says. "Many of the contracts are regarded as being against the interests of the Congolese state, which has a stake in many of the mineral mining operations in Congo. And there are negotiations going on about how those war contracts can be addressed.
"There are two sorts: on the government side, particularly the contracts signed with proxies for President [Robert] Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe - like the mining deals in diamond mining center, Mbujimai, and the cobalt mining center, Lubumbashi," he says. "But also on the rebel side, several proxies for Uganda and Rwanda set up business with Congolese entities to mine gold and other minerals and to siphon this wealth out through the Congo's eastern borders. There's a concern that the rebel movements in eastern Congo, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, have turned these commercial entities into semi-Congolese entities that claim to have legal standing. But there are questions over the legitimacy of these entities."
Besides conflict resolution, 2004 is also likely to be remembered as the year millions of Africans went to the polls.
"2004 is a very historic year for African elections - there are about 16 elections due this year," says Alex Vines, an Africa analyst with the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. "That's probably a record starting in March with Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Bissau and moving on to Malawi and South Africa. The list goes on to the end of the year with Ghana, Mozambique and Sudan. Some of these elections are really important; others will retain the status quo - the elections in Mozambique in September - Joaquim Chissano must step down. So you have a new candidate, though from the [ruling] FRELIMO party, but maybe have a significant in atmosphere. Parliamentary elections and presidential ones in Guinea Bissau late in the year are important because they are about conflict resolution and transformation. 2004 South Africa is pretty predictable - the [ruling Africa National Congress] has a strong grip on politics and will likely be reelected and President Mbeki will continue to be president; [in Malawi] President Maluzui was blocked form standing for another term, and so that will be an important transition election; and the Ghana elections - people are prepared to give President Kuoffor a second term."
Analysts see little improvement this year for one intractable issue - unrest in Zimbabwe. The country has been on the verge of economic collapse, with a yearly inflation rate over 600 percent. Western nations have isolated the government of President Robert Mugabe in protest over his land reforms, which have handed over white-owned farmland to landless blacks and to government insiders. Both quiet diplomacy by Zimbabwe's neighbors and vocal criticism by the country's opposition movements and the international community have failed to halt the country's deterioration. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2005, and presidential ones three years later.
"The government of Zimbabwe is committed to a course of systematically dismantling the assets of state and expropriating them for [government cronies]. It's looting the state," says analyst John Prendergast. "They are not done yet, so you will see months ahead where they consolidate their holdings to ensure if they lose elections they can still make money. Zimbabwe is in a free fall so the real variable is where people say enough is enough. Will mass action planned by the opposition create a spark that ignites in the country? It remains to be seen. It probably depends on how desperate people are to get food, as food prices go out of reach of ordinary Zimbabwean citizens."
Analysts also see 2004 as a test for two important African projects - the 53-member African Union and the economic and political reform program for Africa, NEPAD, or New Partnership for Africa's Development. It seeks to enlist international support for development based on democratization, good governance and economic reforms.
The 53-member Africa Union, or AU, recently enacted a human rights court. It also plans a parliament and a peace and security council authorized to send in a African peace keepers in case of conflict. It also foresees a court of justice and a common African currency.
Analyst John Prendergast questions whether the AU's agenda is feasible given a lack of financial support. "These are nice ideas, but [lack of] resources and constraints will make it impossible to make all these bodies functional," he says. "So picking and choosing what really matters is crucial, limiting themselves to what they can be effective in and then making those institutions effective will be important to demonstrate. They are going to require major external support and if external actors are not convinced that this is a serious initiative and that there are real decisions over what [institutions] are realistic, then the AU could be another bloated ship that sinks off the coast."
Analyst Alex Vines will be watching to see how Africa's experiment in good governance and economic development - NEPAD - evolves. He says, this year, Ghana will be the first of 15 countries to agree to a peer review by a panel of seven eminent persons at the NEPAD secretariat in Midrand, South Africa. The panel will, among other things, determine whether a given country's finances and political system can properly manage an infusion of development money.
However, South African President Thabo Mbeki says the panel's findings will not be used to punish poor performers. Meanwhile, Namibia's prime minister has called the review "neo-colonialist" and "unworkable." He says outsiders should not link economic support to political governance.
On the other hand, Africa analysts like John Prendergast say donor nations are not likely to support NEPAD if a peer review by its members fail to clean up economic and political corruption.