The most important polls in terms of the number of voters will be those in Algeria and South Africa, two economic powerhouses located on the northern and southern extremities of the continent. Analysts also see 2004 as a test for two important African projects - the 53-member African Union and the economic and political reform programme for Africa, Nepad, or New Partnership for Africa's Development. It seeks to enlist international support for development based on democratisation, good governance and economic reforms. The transition from war to peace may be problematic for some - including Africa's third-largest nation, the Democratic Republic of Congo. A transitional government of national unity came into power there last June, ending six years of civil war. In nations such as Malawi, Cameroon, Ghana, Mozambique and Namibia, the polls will see many veteran rulers stepping down indicating that things are changing in a continent where democracy has always taken a back seat.
In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999, is considered to be assured of returning to power with an opinion poll predicting that his ruling African National Congress will get more than 60 per cent of the vote. Elections due at the end of the year in Mozambique will also be significant as President Joachim Chissano, who has led the country since 1986, has announced his intention to retire. Namibia too will have a new leader at the end of the year after being led by Sam Nujoma since independence in 1990. Mainly desert Niger will hold presidential and legislative elections which will mark the first time that an elected leader, Mamadou Tandja, has ended his term in a climate of stability. Zimbabwe has been on the verge of economic collapse with a yearly inflation rate over 600 per cent. Western nations have isolated the government of President Robert Mugabe in protest over his land reforms, which have handed over white-owned farmland to landless blacks and to government insiders. Analysts say unrest in Zimbabwe is likely to continue. This year world will be watching to see how Africa's experiment in good governance and economic development evolves making democratic institutions effective for the people.
Earlier, Sheikh Mohamed ordered the release of more than 1,000 inmates for the occasion
Based on previous COP climate summits, here's how events are expected to unfold on the ground