Africa's big issues for 2010

TYAZO, Rwanda — Africa tends to burst into international news whenever a new conflict starts or an old one resurges. Africans across the continent lament this crisis coverage, complaining that the positive trends and stories in Africa go unnoticed.

However in June 2010, the soccer World Cup will descend on South Africa and televisions around the globe will broadcast a country eager to present itself as a success. Many Africans hope this footage will boost the world's image of the entire continent.

Looking ahead, there are still plenty of African hot spots, however, including Sudan’s elections, piracy in Nigeria and Islamic militancy in Somalia that are sure to capture the headlines.

South Africa: In June 2010, South Africa will host the soccer World Cup and face the scrutiny of the world. After much concern over whether South Africa could pull off the necessary stadium construction to host the huge sports tournament in style, speculation now surrounds whether the event will persuade people to think about the African continent in a more positive light.

South Africa is far from representative of the continent as a whole, but it’s likely that media coverage will look at the country as such, for better or worse. Though South Africa's economy is one of the most diversified on the continent, inequality in the country is extremely high, as is unemployment. President Jacob Zuma’s political honeymoon is over, and the World Cup will not distract South Africans from demanding economic growth and job creation. Violent crime remains a serious problem and a flare up could tarnish the World Cup's glow.

Sudan: In April 2010, Sudan will hold its first elections since the end of the civil war between north and south Sudan. A lot is riding on these elections; theoretically, they should allow individuals from Darfur as well as south Sudan elect people that will represent their interests in the national government.

Sudan's reality looks much bleaker. The census to determine how many parliamentary seats each region receives was suspect; the elections have already been postponed multiple times; and Sudanese opposition parties are repressed by the ruling National Congress Party. That the elections will be far from democratic is a foregone conclusion. What remains to be seen is how detrimental they will be to overall political stability and how they will affect the 2011 referendum in which south Sudan will vote on its independence. Africa analysts have been watching Sudan with growing concern in the past two years — if it slips into crisis, it could have a detrimental effect on the rest of the region.

Piracy: 2009 was another banner year for piracy off the coast of Somalia. In 2010, hijackings in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates will continue, but it’s also likely there will be a spike in piracy off Nigeria's Atlantic coast.

Overshadowed by the hyperactive pirates in the Gulf of Aden, Nigerian piracy has been quietly on the rise for several years. However, it’s difficult to know how large this increase actually is. The International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center, the global authority on piracy attacks, believes that Nigerian piracy is seriously underreported. With continued unrest in the Niger Delta, unsafe coastal waters will make Nigeria even more unattractive to multinational oil companies. Increased instability in Africa’s most populous country will not go unnoticed in the United States, and could prompt the young U.S. Africa Command to assist in patrolling Nigerian waters.

Somalia: Africa’s longest-running failed state will remain a diplomatic headache for the United States and one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. There are rumors that Al Shabaab, the militant Islamic youth organization that has recruited Somali youth from Minnesota, has upped its ties with Al Qaeda. Whether this is true or not (the evidence is vague) almost doesn’t matter.

The United States has a history of ill-advised actions in Somalia, from backing warlords to supporting an Ethiopian invasion in 2006 that routed the one group who had briefly brought stability to the country — the moderate Islamic Courts Union. Now, the United States has few constructive policy options and Al Shabaab has started making threats to attack targets outside Somalia.

Agriculture/food security: The Obama administration’s biggest Africa policy initiative thus far is a food security and agriculture project that was first announced at the G8 summit in July 2009. Since then, the administration has been consulting with a variety of African stakeholders — from the World Bank to USAID to African governments — on the composition of the policy. 2010 should see more concrete details emerge on this food security initiative that could become as significant to Obama’s Africa policy as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was to George W. Bush’s Africa policy.