The phrase "African solutions to African problems" has long been more of an aspiration than reality. But things may be changing. The violent stand-off in Ivory Coast between two rivals, both of whom claim to be president, has prompted Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, to produce its own response.
Three presidents from countries in the region arrived in the capital, Abidjan, yesterday, threatening to use force if Laurent Ggagbo does not cede power to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of recent elections there.
Coming days will show whether this ultimatum has any teeth. But the fact that it has been delivered at all represents a welcome break from the past, when African crises were all too often left to the United Nations or to the former European colonial power to sort out. The era of such external interventions has passed. Tony Blair's dispatch of troops to Sierra Leone in 2000 will almost certainly be recalled as the last time that Britain relied on its own military muscle to sort out the internal affairs of an African country. The continent now has to take charge of itself, and is doing so, if the mission to Abidjan is any yardstick.
But there is a caveat. Both factions in Ivory Coast have expressed openness to regional mediation, which is why Ecowas has gone in. But Africa has plenty of sitting tyrants who have expressed no such desire for external mediation and who in consequence are left undisturbed. None of Zimbabwe's neighbours has applied any real pressure on the appalling regime of Robert Mugabe who remains coddled and protected by South Africa above all.
Another test of Africa's willingness to take control of its own destiny looms in Sudan, where a referendum in early January is expected to result in the Christian south voting to secede from the Muslim north. Two of Sudan's neighbours, Egypt and Kenya, have called for this probable split to be managed peacefully. Here, as in Sudan, we await hard evidence that a new sense of continental responsibility has taken root.
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