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Sub-Saharan Africa 2013: Striving to Be a More Perfect Continent

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Sub-Saharan Africa (SSAfrica) today is not your mother's Africa. It is a region that continues to undergo for the most part positive political and economic changes. Many more of its 48 countries are embracing democratic change, holding free and fair elections, and moving forward as key players on the global stage. This does not diminish the serious political and security challenges that remain in certain parts of the region. But every world region has tough issues today, including the U.S., as we grapple with some key economic and social upheavals. However, we do not swipe our entire nation with a negative cloth because of these transformative processes, but see working on these issues as part of our efforts "to strive be a more perfect nation."

Thus, sub-Saharan is doing the same thing -- striving to be a "more perfect continent." Major transformation does take hard work and can also take time. Thus, we should have that same kind of perspective when it comes to SSAfrica. Many nations are moving forward on economic growth in a fairer manner, engaging transparently, globally and with realistic expectations.

Most Americans focus primarily on the negative, but Today's Africa requires a more balanced view, a more balanced lens about the positives as well as the challenges such as the need for more immediate quality of life improvement for the average African as highlighted at numerous World Economic Forums (WEF), including at the 2013 session.

President Obama's upcoming trip to the region on June 26, where he will visit three key African countries -- Tanzania, South Africa, and Senegal -- will show this more balanced lens that we all need to embrace when thinking about this vast, diverse, and strategic continent. Political and economic changes are the order of the day for most of SSAfrica even though there are challenges. Again, the point is: look at each country as its own world, and understand their political, security and economic differences.

Political Pluses:

So what are the political pluses or the "value-chain" contributions that are going on in the region and impacting the global community? (Value-chain in this context means the progress that each African country makes has a positive global political and economic ripple effect.) They are less far and few in-between than you might think. There are a number of countries that have made democracy, transparency, and free and fair elections the order of the day. In April, President Obama hosted presidents from four of these nations -- Sierra Leone, Cape Verde, Malawi, and Senegal -- at the White House because of the huge democratic transitions that have taken place in their countries, particularly Sierra Leone. If you remember it was not too long ago that Sierra Leone was best known for its conflict diamond war, racked with brutal human rights atrocities and child soldiers. Today, Sierra Leone has had two back-to-back free and fair elections, and life there is now marked with both improved economic and social development.

Further political pluses have been seen throughout the region from 2010-2012 onward as many nations continue to become of age with some 11 holding transformative presidential elections in this time period. Nations ranging from Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Madagascar, Niger, Nigeria, and Liberia to Senegal, the Seychelles, Republic of Somalia and (chosen by a Federal Parliament) and Zambia have all done so. Kenya's April 2013 elections, although serious post-election ethnic tensions prevail, had results that were eventually declared free and fair, despite President Kenyatta having an indictment cloud hanging over him by the International Criminal Court on violence from the country's last election. Each friendly nation of Kenya's, however, will have to determine how it will handle engaging with President Kenyatta. Others like Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique have been on the right democratic tracks now for decades.

There were of course those countries which held elections during that same time period that still face uphill on moving from a closed governance framework to more open election processes (e.g. Angola, Cameroon, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe will hold elections sometime late fall 2013 and early reports are things will continue not bode well there). There are others such as the Democratic Republic of Congo that continues to face ethnic violence, and insecurity, humanitarian, and human rights challenges.

The Economic Pluses

On to the economic news: Here are some key areas of the economic pluses in the SSAfrica region:

Positive Economic & GDP Growth Rates for many countries;
Increase Foreign Direct Investment (FDI);
Increase in establishment of Africa-focused Equity Funds & Investments; and
Reset of Capital Markets in the region (i.e. Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Namibia and Rwanda, were up 33 percent in local currency terms.)

Yes, we have all heard it: Of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world today, seven of those are in sub-Saharan Africa. Botswana, for example, has maintained a double-digit growth rate for the last 10 years; Ghana is still projected to be the in the region for 2013 at 8 percent; Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Angola, and Zambia enjoyed high single digit growth in 2012.

In sum, these positive economic indicators definitely call for a different look at Africa in 2013: In a phrase: it is a multi-dimensional region with both positive stories, and challenges.

The Other Side of the Coin: The Challenges

Despite the political and economic news noted above, and real changes on the democracy and governance front for a number of Africa countries; there are Challenges that need realpolitik analyses and solutions. The old public diplomacy tool about building "mutual understanding" (which is a not a do-as-I-say-discussion, but a real dialogue) between and among disparate groups about contentious issues needs to come back in vogue.

There are a few issues that still hover over the region such a few more nations still need to embrace the range of democracy pillars (transparency, good governance, respect for human rights, access to good education and health care, poverty reduction, etc.), and adding to these is the specter of what is being called "Jihadism" which has taken hold in several Sahel countries. But even this "catch phrase" is imperfect and does not taken into account the home-grown issues and clash of world view aspects of the various groups and subgroups across the Sahel. Again, the issues are multi-dimensional, and solutions may need to be as well. We hear a lot about a regional approach, but may what we need are country-specific approaches in a regional context.

*NB: Varying figures estimate that females make up 48-50 percent of the continent-wide population