A model of peace for a troubled continent

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At last a note of cheer for Africa at the end of this bleak opening to the new millennium. This was supposed to have been "the year of Africa", and "the dawn of an African renaissance". The reality behind those silly sound-bites has been very different: a succession of dreadful acts of both God and man, ranging from floods in Mozambique and chaos in Zimbabwe to an ever-spreading Aids epidemic, coup and turmoil in the Ivory Coast, and civil wars in the Sudan and the Congo, destabilising the entire mid-section of the continent.

At last a note of cheer for Africa at the end of this bleak opening to the new millennium. This was supposed to have been "the year of Africa", and "the dawn of an African renaissance". The reality behind those silly sound-bites has been very different: a succession of dreadful acts of both God and man, ranging from floods in Mozambique and chaos in Zimbabwe to an ever-spreading Aids epidemic, coup and turmoil in the Ivory Coast, and civil wars in the Sudan and the Congo, destabilising the entire mid-section of the continent.

Yesterday, however, brought happier news with the signature in Algiers of a peace treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea, whose two-and-a-half year war in one of the poorest regions of the world has cost tens of thousands of lives, for scant gain to either party and - to the outsider at least - even less reason.

It was a conflict about national pride and disputed 19th-century borders between two countries that had divorced amicably as recently as 1993. The fighting in the Congo has at least a logic, as a struggle for control of huge mineral and natural resources; in the Horn of Africa all that was at stake was a swathe of semi-desert. War of any kind is bad enough; the fact that this one was taking place even as Ethiopia was demanding international aid to cope with drought and famine made it doubly obscene.

Agreement in Algiers, even in the presence of Africa's most important leaders, presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, does not resolve every problem. Mapping an accepted frontier would be a delicate enough task even in an atmosphere not soured by mutual suspicion. Issues involving massive civilian displacements and compensation must be settled before fully normal relations between the two neighbours can resume.

But the deal contains elements that should serve as a model for the continent. With a ceasefire in place, there is a chance to prove that a United Nations peacekeeping operation in Africa can work. And for once an African war has not been a fight to the death. As the war progressed, land-locked Ethiopia gained the upper hand and must have been tempted to go for broke and establish a corridor to the Red Sea. Instead, it has settled for less; now neither side (or both) can claim victory.

Little can be done about acts of God. But were that spirit of compromise to spread to the Congo, Zimbabwe and elsewhere, Africa's man-made trouble spots would look less forbidding.

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