Plus ça change. The problems of modern Africa are, in many ways, the same problems that have stalked the continent for much of the past half-century – stubbornly high levels of disease, poverty, corruption and conflict continue in many corners of the continent. Such is the view from afar. But it is only partly true. Look a little closer and a more nuanced take is that things are changing, and very often for the better.

Democracy's March

Not that long ago, the Big Man – the all-powerful ruler, the president for life, the untouchable overlord with friends in Western capitals – was a peculiarly African phenomenon. A few relics remain, it is true, and the world's four longest ruling (non-royal) leaders are in Africa. But Paul Biya (in power in Cameroon since 1975) is facing increasing protests at home, Teodoro Obiang Nguema (Equatorial Guinea, 1979) has retreated to a new capital deep in the rainforest, and Angola's José Eduardo dos Santos (1979) has announced plans to step down in 2018. Even Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe, 1980) seems a spent force with most discussion centring on who will succeed him. The new reality is perhaps better summed up by what happened in The Gambia in early 2017. When Yahya Jammeh, who once promised to rule for a billion years, tried to cling to power after his unexpected election loss, he was forced from power when Senegalese troops organised by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) moved in. That it was other African states that made sure he went confirms just how much the world has changed.

Conservation Fights Back

The environmental issues facing Africa make for pretty grim reading. Deserts are on the march, water scarcity is a problem almost everywhere, and habitat destruction and growing human populations are sending numerous signature African species – lions, cheetahs, elephants and mountain gorillas – hurtling towards extinction. But conservationists (and some governments) are fighting back. In Gabon, the setting aside of more than 10% of the country for national parks more than a decade ago has transformed the outlook for a whole raft of species. In East and Southern Africa, conservationists have teamed up with local communities and large landowners to build a future in which growing numbers of people, livestock and wildlife can coexist; the Lion Guardians program (www.lionguardians.org) in southern Kenya is one, while the proliferation of private conservancies is leading conservation in whole new directions. Tourism, too, is an industry where innovations are happening – operators such as Great Plains Conservation, Wilderness Safaris and &Beyond have led the way in putting clever conservation programs at the heart of everything they do.

War Without End

Despite all of the positive news coming out of Africa, there are some wars that just won't go away. Libya's disintegration continues to ripple out across the Sahara and Sahel – much of the Sahara has become lawless, flooded with guns and with men who are eager to use them. France and the United Nations may have stopped the insurgent march on Bamako in Mali, but chronic instability and regular attacks by Islamist and Tuareg rebels continue to plague the region. Most of Mali, eastern Mauritania, northern Niger, much of Tunisia and southern Algeria are all effectively no-go areas, while the ripples on occasion reach capitals further south with attacks on targets in Ouagadougou, Bamako and Grand Bassam in recent years. Elsewhere, Central African Republic, Somalia and South Sudan seem hell-bent on self-destruction. The rise of Boko Haram has devastated local communities in northern Nigeria and Cameroon. There are few beacons of light from such places, but it was not that long ago that peace seemed an impossible dream in Mozambique or that white rule would ever end in South Africa. Hope springs eternal.

Resource Rich?

Africa could be one of the richest places on earth. But oil in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, and diamonds in Sierra Leone, have done little to improve the lives of ordinary Africans. Nigeria seems perennially at war with itself and living standards are too often appalling for what is Africa's largest oil producer. In Equatorial Guinea, fabulous oil riches have propped up a brutal dictatorship whose members enjoy great wealth while too many ordinary Equatorial Guineans live as they always have: in abject poverty. It's much the same story further south in Angola. But things are improving on a number of fronts. Sierra Leone became a byword for Africa's resource curse in the 1990s with a vicious war and it remains an economic basket case, but the country is, at least, once again at peace. On paper Equatorial Guinea has a per-capita income higher than its former colonial ruler, Spain. And Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Republic of Congo have some of the highest adult female literacy rates on the continent. Best of all, diamond-rich Botswana, Namibia and South Africa enjoy living standards and peaceful, democratic political systems that show it really can be done.