Lions on the Prowl

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Adam Davy / Press Association / AP

Global triumph Cameroon fans root for their team at last year's World Cup in South Africa

When you catch it on the TV news or in a headline on the international pages, Ivory Coast looks like another African mess. The country's President, Laurent Gbagbo, postpones elections for five years, and when he finally holds one and the result goes against him, he refuses to stand down and barricades the winner in a hotel in the capital. Close to 200 people are killed in violence between the two sides. How depressing, you think. How sadly African. And you'll move on.

But look a little longer. What would you expect? International condemnation? Maybe sanctions? U.N. peacekeepers? French paratroopers? Then look at what is happening. The moment the standoff occurred, in late November, former South African President Thabo Mbeki flew in to mediate. In late December the Presidents of Sierra Leone, Benin and Cape Verde arrived to try to broker a deal on behalf of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This month the Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, acting as an envoy for the African Union, made another attempt. Meanwhile ECOWAS army chiefs of staff held a two-day meeting in Mali to plan how to remove Gbagbo by force.

It is an ugly situation and one that may well get worse. But when the global elite meet in Davos, they might take a moment, stop thinking about China and the European sovereign debt crisis and the democratic sclerosis in the U.S., and think about the continent that often gets left out when great matters of globalization are discussed.

Africa is addressing Africa's problems. Mbeki flew into Abidjan from Khartoum, where he was mediating between northern and southern Sudan in the run-up to the referendum on southern independence. Despite more than half a century of civil war, that passed off remarkably peacefully. Nigeria is preparing for a general election in April, in which the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, is being challenged by the country's former anticorruption czar, Nuhu Ribadu, who only a year ago was fleeing Nigeria in fear for his life. In Congo last year, it took an invading Rwandan army one month to crush an insurgency by a rebel militia and arrest its commander, Laurent Nkunda; U.N. peacekeepers, by contrast, had failed to keep any such thing and have been asked by the Congolese government, which invited the Rwandans in, to leave.

You can see this new mood in other areas too. After falling for years, Africa's economic growth has averaged 2.3% since 1994 and is rising steadily. In 2010, the IMF says, it reached 5%; in 2011, it will be 5.5%, and management consultancies spent last year falling over one another in their zeal to identify new lions — or leopards, cheetahs, gazelles, whatever — among its rising corporate champions. In a January report on global economic prospects, the World Bank noted that "for global investors, several countries in the region represent relatively untapped large and rapidly growing markets ... Multinationals are increasingly recognizing Africa's potential." Buoyed by their recent success, more Africans are also demanding an end to aid. Humanitarian emergencies aside, they say, it disempowers and humiliates and is often wasteful, corrupt and counterproductive.

It isn't just in comparison with its past that Africa is doing well. It's in comparison with the feted stars of the new economy. Contrast the triumph of the soccer World Cup, held six months ago in the supposed crime and AIDS zone of South Africa, with the far smaller but disastrously managed Commonwealth Games, staged three months later in India. Africans do, and note there are more poor people in that one country than in the whole of their continent.

Africa faces huge challenges. It cannot yet feed all of its own. Health and education are still poor, and the infrastructure across much of Africa is miserable. Plenty of blood still flows, most worryingly in Somalia and across the Sahel in West Africa, where separate groups of jihadists are launching attacks beyond their borders.

But Africa's bright year was real, as are its bright prospects. They remind us of a fundamental truth. The benefits of globalization, long something of a conviction at Davos, will mean something — really mean something — when they are extended not just to Asia but to everyone. Economists have singled out Asia's development stars for what is now almost a full generation. But the test of whether we have a new economic and moral dispensation will come when those in the poorest continent can look at the richest countries and think, One day we will all live in the same world. The best news from 2010: that is not a ridiculous dream.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 31, 2011 issue of TIME Magazine Asia.