AU Summit: Stuck with the past while trying to figure out the future

By Simon Allison 24 May 2013

In Addis Ababa, Africa’s leaders are gathering once again to munch on cocktail snacks and figure out solutions to the continent’s many and varied problems. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, tasked with shepherding this unruly bunch, wants them to talk about poverty alleviation, gender equality and socio-economic rights: all vital for Africa’s continued development. Chances are, however, these issues will take a backseat as conflict and pageantry once again dominate the agenda. By SIMON ALLISON.

The thing about summits – and this is a general rule that applies equally to conferences and conventions – is that they always promise so much and deliver so little. And so, as the African Union meets for its 21st Heads of State summit in Addis Ababa, we shouldn’t expect to see all that much in the way of concrete decisions or outcomes.

Especially because this particular summit is special. The African Union turns 50 this year, and is planning to celebrate in style (actually, the AU itself is only 12 years old; the half-centenary commemorates the founding of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity). At a cost of $1.27 million (R11.4 million), there will be all kinds of fun and games on offer: art exhibitions, photography exhibitions, youth forums, parades, marching bands, dances, cultural sessions, children’s acrobatic performances and even an international football match (Ethiopia versus Sudan. My money’s on the home side). Very entertaining, no doubt, but hardly conducive to hard work.

And the last few months have thrown up plenty of hard work. Let’s forget, for the moment, those grand debates about where the continent is going (the interminable “Africa Rising” versus “The Hopeless Continent” argument) and just look at a few immediate, specific problems that the African Union must deal with.

First up, as always, are the conflict situations. The war in Mali against Islamist militants has stalled, with the militants licking their wounds in their desert mountain bases and the French, Malian and West African soldiers trying to reassert their authority in cities in the north. There’s meant to be a general election in July for which the country is woefully underprepared, and the French, still the backbone of the pacifying force, want to get out before the end of the year. It’s messy, and the AU needs to guide the war’s next phase by deciding when the West African soldiers should be deployed in earnest, weighing up the benefits of going ahead with the election, and explaining who’s going to be paying for everything.

Mali’s the big one, but there are plenty more conflict-related issues to deal with: persuading Ethiopia not to abandon its positions to Al-Shabaab in Somalia; making sure the Sudans stick to their oil deal and make headway on other border issues; agreeing a strategy to work with the rogue Central African Republic government to stabilise the area.

Another major issue at the summit is going to be international justice, and what on earth to do about the International Criminal Court. This has been a contentious issue for a long time, but it receives renewed attention now that one of Africa’s presidents is now actually being tried by the court (thank you, voters of Kenya, for giving us all this headache).

Uhuru Kenyatta and his regional allies are already putting on the pressure. Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda have all submitted or seconded requests that a debate on a “unified African stance” towards the court be held at the heads of state meeting this weekend. No prizes for guessing what they will be pushing for: a termination of the charges, at best, or the transfer of the trials to an African or regional court. The debate, if it goes ahead, is likely to be rancorous.

However, an even more pressing concern for the African Union is a long-term funding crisis precipitated by a few things: the death of benefactor-in-chief Muammar Gaddafi, who along with contributing at outsize portion of the AU’s running fees also paid the member contributions of some of the smaller countries; the need to beef up its own infrastructure and recruit more and better-qualified staff, all of which costs; and a desire to escape reliance on the magnanimity of the European Union, which provides roughly half of the AU’s budget. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has been tasked with coming up with solutions, and his report – “On Alternative Sources of Funding the African Union” – is a crucial agenda item.

All these weighty topics means it is unlikely that AU Commission head Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is going to have much luck in pushing her own agenda, which is just as important even though it’s unlikely to be treated with the urgency it deserves.

Writes Liesl Louw-Voudran for the Institute for Security Studies in her preview of the summit: “The AU Commission’s new chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has vowed to take the agenda of the AU further to include socio-economic development: the fight against poverty, the empowering of women and investment by the private sector. Addressing the World Economic Forum in Cape Town earlier this month, Dlamini-Zuma, for example, spoke about the importance of agriculture and the role of the private sector in ‘ensuring a prosperous and peaceful continent’. Since taking up the position of chairperson in October last year she has also stressed the role of women in lifting Africa out of poverty. She called on women to make sure their voices were heard in defining what the AU is calling its Agenda 2063 – a strategy for Africa over the next 50 years.”

Dlamini-Zuma’s got the right idea. Africa’s future depends on tackling the issues she wants to address: poverty, development, equality, investment. In fact, these are the kinds of problems that underpin many of the conflicts which will dominate the debate at the AU summit instead – if, that is, our leaders get the chance to do any serious work in the midst of all that expensive, backward-looking pageantry. DM

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Photo: Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, chairperson of the Afican Union Commission (AUC), attends the sixth joint AU/ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance and Economic Development in Abidjan March 25, 2013. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon


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