Several African countries made notable progress towards good governance this year, and there is reason to be optimistic that this trend should continue.

Nevertheless, as governance crises persist in Zimbabwe and the Horn of Africa, and as Chinese investors make fewer demands on African countries to respect democratic principles, optimism on the future of good governance in Africa should be tempered with caution.

The overriding trend over the year was towards democratic and peaceful changes of political leadership. During the year, 22 African countries held elections that were predominantly peaceful and declared “free and fair”.

Notably, Sierra Leone’s presidential election saw an opposition leader carry 55% of a national vote that, while affected by violence, was widely considered legitimate.

Results of Nigeria’s state and presidential elections in May, on the other hand, were broadly contested. Widespread irregularities in the management of polling stations, reports of intimidation of the opposition and allegations of electoral fraud raised doubt about the results. However, Nigeria’s elections stand as the exception.

Granted, elections alone no longer represent evidence of good governance. In recognition of this, the African Union developed the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) in 2002. Under peer review, states voluntarily agree to an assessment of their compliance with international standards of political, economic and corporate governance, and socioeconomic development. Algeria and SA produced peer review reports this year, joining Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda, which are implementing recommendations made through the process. Benin, Mozambique and Uganda are expected to complete the process next year.

Two former African heads of state, Charles Taylor of Liberia and Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, had legal proceedings initiated against them; Taylor for human rights violations and Chiluba for corruption. Mozambique’s former head of state, Joaquim Chissano, on the other hand, received a sizeable award in recognition of his contribution to good governance from the London-based Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

As these and other initiatives to promote governance bore fruit, other crises persisted, notably in Zimbabwe. Hyperinflationary conditions worsened alongside high unemployment and widespread poverty. Although modest progress was made towards building consensus between the ruling Zanu (PF) and the opposition Movement of Democratic Change in the second half, the status quo is likely to persist in the coming year.

As the country heads towards elections in March, only modest change can be expected to the political governance of the country and leadership.

Looking ahead into next year, the quality of governance in Africa could depend on the extent to which foreign investors require good political governance as a precondition for conducting business.

Chinese investors, in particular, have been willing to grant developmental and financial assistance with little regard to governance and human rights records, removing the incentive for African countries to comply with standards of good governance. Sudan, in particular, continued to be the greatest recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment despite a continuing governance crisis in its western Darfur region.

Nevertheless, the scales seem to be tipping towards improved governance in several African countries.

While standards of governance vary from country to country, there seems to be reason to be optimistic.

More African governments appear to be willing to open themselves to scrutiny and to create more transparent political systems. Perceptions in some parts of Africa seem to mirror this optimism.

Seven in 10 respondents from African countries, including Nigeria and Ghana, were confident their governments were creating effective means of tackling corruption and promoting good governance, according to a survey released in early December by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International and polling agency Gallup .

However, African governments will require civil society groups that are willing to engage constructively and call for reform if good governance is to be secured in the long term.

The success of campaigns to broaden anti-retroviral drug distribution in SA and to block constitutional reform allowing a presidential third term in Zambia provide potent cases in point. In both instances, policy reform heavily rested on citizens’ willingness to challenge government policy and call for better governance.

Furthermore, as some foreign investors pay less attention to democratic records, African leaders may need to be slightly skeptical of the long-term sustainability of such investment. For their own sakes, African governments need to reinforce existing efforts to improve governance in the absence of foreign investor incentives to comply.

On balance, a clear trend towards better governance is detectable. Let us hope that in the new year this trend will continue.