5 African Countries to Watch in 2014

These countries can make a big difference for the continent this year.

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Woman sell produce at a local market in the town of Gagnoa, Ivory Coast, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010. Rival parties in Ivory Coast traded accusations of voter intimidation, violence and fraud on Monday, as the world's leading cocoa producer awaited results from the country's first presidential election in a decade.

As African reporting goes, most eyes in 2014 will likely be on the major economic powers such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, or on the crises that continue to spring up on the continent, primarily in Central Africa and South Sudan. However, there are several other nations that are worth watching as they may be harbingers of Africa's future development. Here are five countries that can make a big difference for the continent in 2014 under the right conditions and circumstances.

Mozambique: One of the world's largest reservoirs of natural gas, as well as oil reserves, has been discovered off the coast of Mozambique. The discovery has enormous implications not only for Mozambique but also southern and eastern Africa. In the reserves is enough gas to cover southern Africa's power needs for generations; this has the potential to make the country as rich as those on the Arabian peninsula. The key will be how well the nation's leaders use the reserves for the benefit of its population. Mozambique remains in some ways, as it has since its civil war, a divided nation. The ruling party is largely in the south and the minority party has its strength in the north, where (of course) the energy reserves have been discovered.

Furthermore, there is growing concern in Mozambique that all business runs through the office of the president. Already there has been disquiet in the north. How well President Armando Guebuza and his successor manage the process will determine whether Mozambique prospers or finds itself in another form of civil war or strife. Wealth distribution and job fulfillment will be a major factor in the stability of the nation. Mozambique also has significant potential as an agriculture producer for the region and beyond, and its tourism opportunities, with a magnificent coast and beaches, and vast wildlife reserves have barely been touched.

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Namibia: By itself, Namibia is a large nation with a very small population. Its population density is one of the lowest in the world. However, it has what many countries lack: sufficient transportation infrastructure to move goods easily through the country and to neighboring countries, especially to South Africa and Angola. Its port in Walvis Bay has the potential to cut ocean shipping times between the Americas and Africa by at least a week. It could be one of the most important ports in Africa.

Rail and roads from Walvis Bay can also reduce costs of shipping to Angola, where goods are often log-jammed in the Luanda port for weeks. Those shippers wishing to reach the markets of Johannesburg and Pretoria can save at least a week of time by going through Namibia rather than continuing the ocean journey to Cape Town and Durban. If Walvis Bay can develop as a major shipping hub for land and sea transportation needs, the nation will benefit economically.

Namibia is a stable nation politically and Prime Minister Hage Geingob is planning to run for president in the next election. He has proven to be far-sighted and is committed to economic development of the nation. In addition to Walvis Bay, Namibia has some of the finest wildlife preserves in the world and its Skeleton Coast is largely undeveloped for tourism. It is a nation with largely untapped potential with an infrastructure capable of absorbing growth.

One of its primary problems, however, is, like nearly all nations in Africa, a lack of power. The nation is currently only meeting approximately 50 percent of its power needs. It has been dependent upon the South African grid for its power, and as the need for power has grown in South Africa, the flow to Namibia has been reduced. One of the highest priorities in Namibia is now to develop a more independent power source. It is a nation ready for the assistance of U.S. power companies, particularly those that deal with smaller scale power plants.

Zambia: Although Zambia is landlocked, its development has been noteworthy. Once almost solely dependent on mining for its economy, the nation is beginning to develop its agriculture and benefit from its tourism potential beyond only Victoria Falls, one of the most spectacular tourism destinations in Africa. Its national park system is underutilized but excellent, and its business climate is one of the best in the region. Zambia has also benefited as the host country for the largest economic regional community in Africa, the Common Market of East and Southern Africa.

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One hopes that the development of Zambia will be a model for the regional community it hosts. Zambia can serve as a stable anchor to the region as well as a model for well-planned development. The Zambian plan includes developing its capital as a business hub for corporate regional headquarters. There has also been discussion of making Lusaka a headquarters for insurance companies.

Its greatest needs are power and a continuing stable political leadership committed to the spread of wealth throughout the country. Zambia has experienced some disquiet related to Chinese investment in the economy and the treatment of Zambian workers by Chinese employers. This will likely continue to be an issue that requires careful political management and wisdom.

Cote d'Ivoire: Once the jewel of West Africa, the nation is recovering from a disastrous civil war. It remains a fragile peace. If Cote d'Ivoire is successful in rebuilding its economy, it has the potential to rise again, and perhaps at a faster rate than any other nation in West Africa. So much will depend on the next election and the wisdom of those chosen to govern.

But economically it has many things now going for it. Oil reserves have been discovered and energy companies are taking a great interest in the nation. The African Development Bank, once a major anchor of stability and credibility for the country before the civil war, is returning its headquarters from Tunisia, and will rebuild in Cote d'Ivoire. Its presence will also draw other financial companies and banks back to Cote d'Ivoire, possibly making it a financial hub for the region (or at least the significant Francophone sub-region) and other parts of Africa.

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Cote d'Ivoire is also the largest producer of cocoa. The world's continuing love for all things chocolate will make Cote d'Ivoire an important agricultural hub for many of the world's cocoa companies, such as Cadbury's, ADM, Cargill, Hershey's and many others. Because cocoa trees require shade, the cocoa industry will develop hand in hand with other tree crops such as palm oil and betel nuts. The World Cocoa Foundation has some of its most important research projects in Cote d'Ivoire.

How Cote d'Ivoire fares will have major impact on its neighbors, including Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana. Two of Cote d'Ivoire's biggest needs are power and great transparency in government and business dealings.

Rwanda: I note this nation as one to watch in 2014 because of its potential influence on political and economic events in one of the more volatile regions in Africa. Rwanda has one of the most far-thinking national development planning systems in Africa, largely through the Rwanda Development Board. It has a national plan for development. It is attempting to become a regional service hub. It is also developing its agriculture base and its base as a center for tourism, particularly related to the mountain gorillas. With its hills and mountains, mile for mile Rwanda is one of the most beautiful countries in Africa and the world. Its people are generally among the more optimistic, especially given its tragic history.

The Achilles' heel for Rwanda continues to be its inability to come to grips with its history. Discussion of the past seems to be still very difficult. Political opponents of President Paul Kagame have met untimely ends. The president believes that Rwanda still requires a strongman as much as a strong leader. The question may be whether he can become less a strong man and more a peacemaker and conciliator. Rwanda's credibility as a service center will be linked to its ability to create a more peaceful regional climate.

Stephen Hayes is CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

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