KAMPALA — The Ugandan capital, Kampala, is being spruced up for the Commonwealth Conference in November. Queen Elizabeth II is expected to attend. Children can now go to school without fear; the road-blocks and gun-men have disappeared from the streets.

For the moment, at least, it is peaceful in East Africa.

There is a truce between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army and ongoing talks between the two parties augur a peaceful solution to the war in the north of the country that has been waged for 20 years. Nowadays only 5,000 children sleep on the streets, in contrast to the 40,000 at the peak of the conflict. The challenge now is rehabilitation and reconstruction, to which the World Bank has committed US$100. So far 110,000 ex-combatants, displaced persons and abductees have benefited.

Burundi also held democratic elections last year. A peace deal has been signed between the president and the Palipehutu rebel group. The country now seems stable. Rwanda is definitely on the mend after the genocidal nightmare of 12 years ago. The people's courts, the gacaca, by enabling people to voice their fears and tragedies, have helped in the healing process.

Elections were recently held in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the first for 40 years and the first multi-party ever. The loser, Jean Pierre Bemba, conceded defeat with little trouble. Eastern Congo too is no longer the no-go conflict area it was a few years ago, even though Rwandan rebels who took part in the genocide, and LRA rebels and their leaders, still wander freely in the vast jungle.

Is a new wind of change blowing over this part of Africa, with its huge mineral wealth and rich agricultural land, which has known only blood-letting, refugees and devastation, especially over the last 20 years? The optimists say Yes. Even the most sceptical here admit that there are signs of hope.

In December an unprecedented conference took place in Nairobi, organised by the United Nations, and attended by the presidents of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Burundi and DRC Congo, and the prime ministers of Somalia (the transitional government, not the Islamic Courts Union) and Rwanda. It was a follow-up to the first heads of state and governments meeting held in Tanzania two years ago, which issued the Dar es Salaam Declaration on Peace, Security and Democracy.

An historic pact was signed. It is not perfect, as it lacks at present an adequate enforcement mechanism, but it is comprehensive and has been undertaken with a seriousness of purpose by a group of leaders who seem determined to make it work. The pact touches on four main areas: peace and security; democracy and good governance; economic development and regional integrity; and cooperation on humanitarian and social issues.

A regional centre will be established to promote human rights and civic education through research and training. Member countries will cooperate in infrastructure development and fight the illegal exploitation of natural resources — in an area which has some of the greatest mineral wealth in the world, and which has been among the major causes of the unrest.

And measures will be put in place to protect women and children from sexual and other forms of violence, and to ensure the repatriation and recovery of the property of displaced persons.

President Museveni of Uganda summed up the magnitude of the challenge when he said that the region had to transform itself from a peasant society to an industrialised one with skilled workers like those in Europe. If there is peace, this can come about — and fairly soon.

Upmost in the minds of some leaders was territorial integrity. One of the protocols reads that no member country should harbour armed or insurgent groups engaged in armed conflict, violence or subversion against the government of another state. Member states agreed to renounce any form of threats or use of force as a means of settling disputes, and refrain from violating each other's territory. An armed attack against one would be considered an attack against all, and the others would be required to come to his defence.

The new regional secretariat will be based in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi which, together with neighbouring Rwanda, was admitted to the East African Community of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, only a few days before the conference. This is another welcome development, since Burundi and Rwanda are Francophone while other countries in the region are English-speaking, and drive on the left-hand side of the road. Except for parts of Uganda, Swahili is generally understood and could become one of the official working languages of the member states.

Does this mean a gradual break with historic ties, less cultural and economic dependence on France, Britain and Belgium, and a greater regional interdependence, even a regional identity, now that suspicions and old enmities are disappearing?

Much still has to be done. Peace and democracy cannot come to eastern Congo and parts of northern Uganda until the humanitarian crises are solved. This will require time and money. As an example, as of the middle of last year, there were nearly a million children were in refugee camps in northern Uganda. The worst place to be a child, according to the same report, is nearby Darfur, where there seems to be no quick solution, and where things are not getting any better.

All in all, however, things are looking good. In January 2007, the Egyptian government will host a meeting for the 10 countries bordering the Nile and its source, Lake Victoria, to hammer out a treaty on the use of the Nile's waters. Since 1929, the water was reserved to Egypt and Sudan for irrigation and electricity; other countries had to go cap in hand to Egypt. Now countries such as Tanzania especially, which borders on half of Lake Victoria, will stand to gain.

The 20th Century brought many calamities, man-made and natural, to this part of Africa. The 21st Century could introduce better ways of dealing with the natural ones — and with good will, determination, organisation and cooperation, devise improved solutions to the human ones too.

Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet's African contributing editor.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.