- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

DAKAR, Senegal — It was a year that saw peace deals signed in some of Africa’s worst wars, South Africa finally promising to treat AIDS, and the United States stepping up its search in Africa for terrorists — and oil.

One of the continent’s pariahs — Liberia’s Charles Taylor, the warlord-president behind conflicts that killed a quarter-million people — fled. Another, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, made clear he was staying put.

And it was Africa’s one-man rulers, not any of the growing class of democrats, who best framed some of the themes of 2003 — and some of the concerns for 2004.

Mr. Taylor waved a white hankie in farewell as fellow West African leaders whisked him into exile after 14 years of regional war-making. “I will be back,” he insisted, repeatedly, with a smile, and Liberians and international leaders worried.

Mr. Mugabe shrugged off his southern African country’s status as a British Commonwealth outcast with growing political and economic troubles. Pressured by the Commonwealth to make human rights reforms, his government quit the bloc of Britain and its former colonies instead.

“It’s quits, and quits it will be,” Mr. Mugabe’s regime said defiantly.

Probably more crucially for Zimbabwe, the International Monetary Fund started formally severing ties with the Mugabe government over its repeated refusal to reform a collapsing economy and pay its debts.

2003 saw Africa move toward peace on some of its worst wars — in Liberia, Sudan and Congo, conflicts that all told have claimed more than 5 million lives through hunger and disease as well as combat.

Angola began one of the largest refugee-repatriation efforts in the United Nations’ history, bringing home some of the estimated 5 million people who fled more than two decades of civil war, which ended in April 2002.

Bucking the trend toward peace, Ivory Coast’s government-controlled south and rebel-held north plunged into civil war. An internationally brokered power-sharing government helped end the fighting in what used to West Africa’s most stable and developed nation. But at year’s end, the loyalist side appeared bent on reopening the war.

The global war on terrorism intensified in Africa.

U.S. officials warned of terrorist threats in Kenya in particular, citing what authorities said was an active al Qaeda cell. Since 1998, terrorists have been blamed for three attacks in Kenya — lethal bombings of a U.S. embassy and a resort hotel and a failed missile attack on an Israeli airliner.

The United States and Europe beefed up their military presence in the East African nation of Djibouti, base for 1,800 U.S. personnel and nearly 3,000 French. NATO warships patrolled offshore, part of a Horn of Africa joint task force.

Across the continent, the hunt was for oil — sought by a world looking for alternatives to Mideast suppliers.

West African drilling boasted a world-leading 50 percent strike rate, and companies from Europe, China and the United States rushed in. Analysts predicted the United States would draw a quarter of its oil from West Africa by 2015.

Oil exploration boomed in tiny Equatorial Guinea, complete with Texas-accented roustabouts. Discoveries of vast offshore reserves had oil companies courting a pariah family regime, once known for crucifying its opponents.

An announcement on Equatorial Guinea state radio made clear just what kind of oil allies the West and Asia were making. Announcers solemnly declared President Teodoro Obiang “like God” and “in permanent touch with the Almighty” — urging a cowed and impoverished populace not to challenge his two-decade rule.

In two of Africa’s more-developed nations, democracies took the test of presidential elections. They were generally seen as passing.

In Kenya, opposition figure Mwai Kibaki took over the presidency after ousting the party that had ruled Kenya for 39 years. It was the kind of peaceful and democratic transfer of power never taken for granted in Africa.

Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, saw President Olusegun Obasanjo win re-election in that country’s first successful civilian-run election. Military coups had aborted most previous votes.

And after years of pressure, South Africa finally approved a plan to provide free AIDS treatment to all who need it by 2005. The move offered the first hope for its 5.3 million citizens infected with HIV.

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