It’s not easy to discuss Africa as a single entity.

The massive continent is as diverse as it is vast, home to bustling metropolises and tribal villages; poverty-stricken failed states and high-income democracies; wild savannahs, lush jungles and arid deserts. There are thousands of languages and hundreds of religious sects -- and no surprise, with a total population exceeding 1 billion.

But it is not only geography that binds these myriad states together. For the past several hundred years, a great many African societies have shared at least the broad strokes of an unhappy history. Burdened by colonialism, conflict and corruption, the continent today suffers from severe underdevelopment, widespread poverty and chronic food insecurity.

But it’s not all bad news -- far from it. Things are changing for Africa as it realizes its great potential to become the next major player on the world stage. Africa is a new frontier in the search for renewable energy. It is a new battleground for some of the world’s biggest economic superpowers. It is a place where ecological decline is being sharply felt and proactively addressed. It is an emerging theater of great importance in the global war on terror.

Outlined here are five of the biggest trends and events that have put Africa in the headlines this year, and will continue to do so as the world spins on.

Energy in Africa: A Problem with Potential

The world needs more energy, and the African continent is full of it.

Old-fashioned resources are everywhere -- especially oil. The 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy from BP found that the continent had 132.4 billion barrels of proved reserves at the end of 2011; coal and natural gas are also in abundant supply.

But underdeveloped infrastructure has kept these resources from reaching the people who need them the most. Only about one-fourth of the population of the sub-Saharan African region has regular access to electricity.

In order to address long-term issues like population growth and climate change, renewable energy resources will have to be a part of the equation. Hydropower, for instance, could cover the entire continent’s electricity needs if properly harnessed and utilized. Solar power is another area of major potential. A massive photovoltaic panel installation got under way in Ghana this year -- it will be the continent’s biggest, and could set a precedent for similar projects elsewhere.

For underdeveloped African communities, alternative energy projects are often cost-prohibitive. But prices are falling as technology advances, and economies on the continent are generally getting stronger.  There is, furthermore, a small silver lining to Africa’s endemic underdevelopment: Alternative energy initiatives can start from scratch in many cases, skipping the retrofitting that industrialized states will have to undergo in order to modernize.

Africa is already starting to see the ill effects of global climate change, so it has great incentive to get serious about alternative energy resources. And that’s something that will benefit not only the continent, but the entire world.

A Major Partner Across The Pond …

In order to make progress on big-picture plans like meeting energy demands, scores of developing countries in Africa still need a lot of help. And in 2012 as in years past, the United States was the primary aid donor for sub-Saharan countries. Total U.S. aid dispersed in sub-Saharan Africa this year was around $7 billion.

With that much money on the table, the United States is inextricably involved in many African successes -- and failures. It often falls to Washington to play a leading diplomatic role in addressing Africa’s many conflicts, and that support is often complemented by a U.S. military presence in the region under the auspices of the U.S. Africa Command, or Africom.

Washington is home to a wealth of advocacy organizations, like the Enough Project, a human rights organization that focuses on Africa. Ashley Benner, a policy expert there, explains that conflict resolution has been an especially important issue this year.

“I think it’s very clear that the United States is a critical partner for Africa,” she said. “It’s critical that the U.S. continues to play a supportive role for the governments of developing countries in Africa.”

The American role in Africa became clear just this November, when rebel forces in the volatile Democratic Republic of the Congo seized the eastern city of Goma, and the United States faced pressure to cut back aid to suspected abettors of violence in the region, most notably Rwanda.

Meanwhile, the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda has extended into the lawless reaches of Sudan and the Central African Republic. Labor strikes have erupted into violence in South Africa, home to the continent’s largest economy. Militant jihadists have strengthened their organizations in the north.

American funding and support are often integral to solving problems like these -- but other world powers have different ideas about how best to engage on the continent.

… And Another In The Far East

Chinese investments in Africa have positively exploded over the past few years, spurred largely by the Asian powerhouse’s insatiable need for more energy resources -- China currently imports about one-third of its oil from the continent. Conversely, Africa has provided new markets for Chinese products, and trade between China and Africa will exceed $200 billion this year.

As China steps up its presence, the West is getting antsy. The African continent has become a battleground of sorts between two different approaches -- the West, led by the United States, complements foreign investment with official developmental assistance to African governments. China’s aims, on the other hand, seems more commercial and less focused on humanitarian issues.

These two approaches are often framed as competing ideologies, and each has its vehement critics. Some accuse the West of infringing on the sovereignty of African governments by using aid as a reward; others accuse China of forging less-than-desirable partnerships with questionable characters -- including dictators and corrupt executives -- in order to turn a profit.

But in reality, the differences between China and the West aren’t quite so stark.

“Both the West and China have aid programs in Africa, and both have investment and commercial relationships,” explains Deborah Brautigam, director of the international development program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

“The U.S., for example, imports more commodities from Africa than China does, and our investments in natural resources are far above China's. As for aid, it's not a zero-sum game. The West is focused more on social aid, and China is focused more on infrastructure. These are both needed.”

New Theater for an Old War

One of the most important developments in Africa this year had little to do with economics and everything to do with security.

The Sahel, a band of semi-arid land that hugs the southern reaches of the Sahara Desert, has for years been home to a loosely organized jihadist organization called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. But this year, the militants -- who have yet to perpetrate an attack on Western soil -- have gained new strength, quickly turning Africa into a new frontier in the global war on terror.

AQIM was born of a militant Islamist movement that met defeat in the Algerian Civil War of 1991-2002. It linked up with al-Qaeda over the next several years and forged connections with other militant groups in the region, including Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al-Shabab. Kidnapping seems to be AQIM’s main source of income, though drug trafficking and arms smuggling have also been lucrative.

This was AQIM’s most successful year yet. Two recent developments have strengthened the organization: the 2011 uprising in Libya and the collapse of the government in the country of Mali.

In 2011, many Sahelian jihadists fought on the losing side in Libya’s popular revolution, typically as mercenaries. The regime of Moammar Gadhafi armed them well. And after Tripoli fell to the protesters, the militants kept their guns.

So when a military coup overthrew the government of Mali in March of this year, AQIM members and allied militants seized their opening. They swept into the country’s northern territory -- an area the size of France -- and set up shop, imposing a harsh version of Shariah, or Islamic law, upon civilians there and running training camps for new recruits.

The West is growing increasingly worried about AQIM’s growing capabilities. The U.N. Security Council recently approved a plan to send 3,300 African troops into Mali sometime next year; the United States and Europe are expected to help fund and plan the risky mission.

Don’t Forget the Animals

Humans weren’t the only ones facing new threats this year -- 2012 was rough for African wildlife, too.

“Africa of course has huge development issues to deal with, but losing its natural heritage – its wildlife – sets into effect a whole cycle of ecological decline,” says Richard Carroll, the vice president of the World Wildlife Federation’s Africa Program.

Rhinos are killed for their horns, which are popular in Asian markets because they are mistakenly believed to have medicinal qualities. Over 600 have been killed this year alone in South Africa, which is home to most of the global rhino population.

Elephants are slaughtered for their tusks, since ivory has always been a lucrative black-market product -- but new demand has worsened the problem considerably this year, resulting in the deaths of thousands of pachyderms.

Lions are also victims of illegal hunting, but they are endangered more by overcrowding on a rapidly shrinking savannah. Their African population has shrunk by an estimated two-thirds over the last half century.

These alarming trends have major implications for Africa’s people. Poaching, for instance, encourages black market activities and tends to enrich criminal networks -- it’s a national security issue. And environmental decline of any sort can have major effects on micro-economies in poorer countries, where sustenance farming is essential and ecological stability is key.

And that’s exactly why world leaders are starting to pay closer attention to the problem.

“Internationally, there has been real political engagement at very high levels,” said Carroll, adding that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her likely successor, John Kerry, have made wildlife preservation a key talking point in recent months.

“And we have great engagement from government leaders in Africa. They’re taking a regional, collaborative approach country-by-country to really step up their efforts in wildlife conservation.”