(This article has also been published at The Conversation in a subsequently updated version.)

The death last night of Nelson Mandela serves as a reminder of the enormous potential of African leaders to bring positive and lasting change to the continent. It is a reminder also of the obligations that African leaders have towards their own countries and citizens.

Almost all of these leaders, as heads of state and government, alongside senior representatives of international organisations, are expected to attend the Elysee Summit for Peace and Security in Africa which begins today in Paris.

Hosted by president Francois Hollande, the summit also reflects France’s continuing and increasing importance in Africa’s politics. With a majority of attendees from non-Francophone countries, the summit also indicates that the French role in Africa has extended beyond its former colonies, such as recently evidenced in Mali and the Central African Republic, although it remains prominent there.

The challenges for the continent are massive, and it would be unrealistic to expect the Elysee Summit to craft solutions to tackle them all. African countries are frequently associated with a lack of development, poor governance, and violent conflict-phenomena that are clearly connected in one way or another, but with unclear general patterns of causality. The trends, however, are very clear:

  • According to recent World Bank data, Africa remains the continent with the highest poverty rate in the world (almost half the population lives on $1.25 per day or less) and the lowest human development indicators (one in 16 children dying before they are five years old).
  • The 2013 Freedom House Report, has four out of the nine countries on the lowest possible score for political rights and civil liberties located in Africa: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, and Sudan. Meanwhile, data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset indicates a significant increase in 2011 and 2012 in the number of violent incidents (especially fighting between regular and irregular forces and violence against civilians).

Unsurprisingly, there is significant overlap between these various rankings. The Failed States Index, for example, which relies on a range of measurements, including data on development, governance and violent conflict, lists seven African countries among its top ten in 2013, including all of the top five, confirming a relatively persistent trend since 2005.

Somalia (except in 2006) and Sudan have never been out of the top five least stable states. Other countries, the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad, have never left the top ten of the Failed States Index since 2005. Another country conspicuously present in the top ten since 2007 is the Central African Republic, having moved up rapidly from 20 in 2005 to 13 in 2006. Today, the country is at the brink of genocidal violence, and the latest UN Security Council resolution) has given French and African Union troops a robust mandate for military action. Today, there is not a single country in Africa that is classified as stable, let alone sustainable.

Lack of development, poor governance, and violent conflict over time become mutually reinforcing and self-sustaining trends. Poverty and lack of public services, and self-serving elites fuel grievances. In the absence of any real opportunity for democratic change, violence often becomes the only means available to people who are otherwise permanently excluded from political and economic opportunities.

Confronting incumbent regimes and threatening existing patterns of patronage prompts state repression and inter-communal violence. Crises do not always evolve in that exact same linear sequence, but eventually protracted conflicts emerge in which cause and effect become indistinguishable, in which there are no “good guys” left, and in which civilians bear the brunt of violence and the consequences of economic destruction and social devastation.

So, what of the Elysee Summit, then? A single two-day summit is unlikely to cure the complex and intertwined ills of an entire continent, so we must have realistic expectations. The fact that the summit is taking place at all and that it has attracted significant African and international buy-in is already a success in itself. If nothing else, it demonstrates that the world has not forgotten Africa. But the summit must not be allowed to be simply a talking shop, where problems are named, but no solutions are identified.

The time where summits like this are merely another iteration of a long-standing blame game and finger-pointing exercise, singling out neo/colonialism as the most convenient scapegoat for all the continent’s problems should be over. The Elysee Summit is a real opportunity for African leaders to live up to their “African solutions for African problems” motto, and for their international partners to enable them to craft and implement effective and sustainable such solutions. Rather than looking to a distant history, contemporary solutions need to be found. As Mandela once put it: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

The widespread lack of peace and security is not the only problems that Africa faces, but they are at the heart of them: development and good governance cannot thrive in situations of violence and instability. As such, the very theme of the summit-Peace and Security in Africa-is very aptly chosen. It is a reflection of the challenges for Africa, as well as of the concerns and self-interests of its international partners. This may not be the best combination of motives, but it is one that may yet provide an opportunity for better and more effective security cooperation within and beyond Africa. The best way not to squander this opportunity is a constructive and open dialogue that begins at the summit, and that continues afterwards and is followed through with concrete actions. Given the sheer scale of problems Africa faces, this will be a long and arduous journey that begins with a focus on peace and security and does not lose sight of economic development and improved governance.

What is required from African leaders today is the same kind of vision, skill, and determination that Nelson Mandela had and that was crucial in overcoming apartheid in South Africa. The challenges that today’s African leaders face are no smaller than that which confronted Mandela. Rising to these challenges and overcoming them would mean to fulfil Mandela’s powerful and enduring legacy.