It's time for an end-of-the-year look at Africa, a continent with some bright spots and some nearly intractable problems. Overall, it continues to show little progress toward solving its most serious economic and social dilemmas.
One is the lack of seeing Africa as one continent, albeit one of a billion people divided into 54 countries. In spite of the silliness of some U.S. states ostentatiously pretending to consider separation from the Union, no one can seriously question the wisdom of the 50 states sticking together, particularly in the face of whatever major failure of governance the president and the Congress may achieve by the turn of the year. Europe, despite its economic and political divisions between north and south and between its industrious and profligate states, continues to march forward toward greater economic and political unity. The European Union now stands at 27 members, with Croatia poised to join next year.
But union is not for Africa. Even its subregional organizations are in difficulty. The most promising may be the Economic Community of West African States, which has tackled with some success trouble in two of its member states, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but it is now flummoxed by the conflict in Mali, at one point one of its more thriving members.
Mali's army overthrew the country's democratically elected president this year in a coup d'etat led by a U.S.-trained officer. The north of the country then promptly seceded, installing in power first an ethnic Tuareg government and then what is allegedly an Islamic extremist movement. ECOWAS and the rump government in Bamako, the Malian capital, have agreed that the northerners should be forcefully reintegrated into the country. ECOWAS has pledged troops to bring this about if someone else -- for example, the United Nations, France or the United States -- will pay for and organize their transport, equipment, communications and other logistics. There's no thought that any of the oil-rich members of ECOWAS itself -- Nigeria, for instance -- or all of them pitching in might pick up the tab. The Malian secession thus remains for now yet another failure of African unity.
A second potentially potent subregional organization, which includes some economically successful nations, is the Southern African Development Community. Among its members are Angola, Botswana and South Africa. At the same time it has shown itself to be pathetically unable to deal with the problem of Zimbabwe, where senile despot Robert G. Mugabe, now in power for 32 years, continues to rule despite having sent his country over an enormous economic cliff. Zimbabwe's neighbors have been unwilling to take meaningful action to get rid of him, so his country remains a shambles and its population suffers massively from hunger and other miseries. Zimbabwe once enjoyed a flourishing mixed economy of agriculture, minerals and industry.
Just because Africa's 54 countries are independent does not mean they are obliged to stand away from misrule on the other side of what often are arbitrary colonial-era borders. Somalia finally got bad enough so that Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda employed troops to restore some order but also to keep the trouble there from spreading, particularly to Kenya, which hosts not only thousands of Somalis from Somalia but also a minority of Kenyan Somalis. So the concept of staying out of each other's affairs is not held sacred.
There are bright spots. Ghana just had successful democratic elections. Botswana continues to chug along happily. Mozambique's prospects improve steadily as American and Italian oil companies discover new deposits of natural gas off its shores and its civil war recedes into the past.
But then there is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose problems remain monumental. With a population estimated at 74 million spread across an area as large as the United States east of the Mississippi, it is rich with minerals, oil, timber, hydroelectric power and agriculture. The miasma there now looks poised to drive the last nail into the coffin of the prospects of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice to become President Barack Obama's second-term secretary of state.
Ms. Rice, the former head of the State Department's Africa Bureau, appears to favor giving neighboring Rwanda and its president, Paul Kagame, a free hand to meddle in and make money from the mineral resources of the Eastern Congo. One problem this poses for Ms. Rice is that Rwanda, a country of 11 million, is ruled by an ethnic minority, the Tutsis, by force. Another is that Rwanda's military interventions in the Congo have resulted in the loss of millions of lives and almost total economic, political and social collapse.
Even more significant, in terms of Ms. Rice's prospects of Senate confirmation if she is nominated to be secretary of state, is that Rwanda and Mr. Kagame were her clients at Intellibridge, a consulting firm, when the Democrats were out of office between the Clinton and Obama administrations. The Senate will want to know how much of her wealth, estimated at between $23 million and $43 million, came from her lobbying on behalf of Rwanda and other African and foreign clients.
Involvement in the Congo has rarely done anyone any good -- not King Leopold of the Belgians, not Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and neither President Mobutu Sese Seko nor his successor, President Laurent Desire Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001.
Ms. Rice may be about to join this crowd in failure.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1976).