AU Summit preview: It would be foolish to expect any major changes

AU Summit preview: It would be foolish to expect any major changes

Yes, we know that African Union summits aren’t exactly high-grade entertainment. Often, they’re not even particularly newsworthy. But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore what happens in Addis Ababa this week. Here’s what to expect. By SIMON ALLISON in Addis Ababa.

The more things change at the top, the more they stay the same. Farewell, Robert Mugabe. The Zimbabwean president’s year as chairperson of the African Union has expired, mercifully, and few will mourn his absence from the top job. Except Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper, of course: “Under President Mugabe’s chairmanship, Africa returned to source. And the senior statesman did not disappoint as he has laid the requisite foundation for the continent’s holistic independence,” it crowed.

In fact, Mugabe’s tenure caused more trouble than it was worth. Even though the role is largely ceremonial, Mugabe’s appointment caused all sorts of diplomatic headaches for the AU with international partners who simply cannot afford to be seen getting too close to him. Mugabe’s absence was a condition of Barack Obama’s speech at AU headquarters in July, for example, which created tension between Zimbabwe and the AU Commission whose job it was to disinvite him. And talk in Addis Ababa suggests that the reason the new German-funded Peace and Security Council building has yet to be completed, is because Angela Merkel could not risk shaking hands with Mugabe.

Not that Mugabe’s replacement will necessarily be an improvement. All accounts suggest that Chad’s Idriss Deby is up next. He’s another old-fashioned president-for-life, with 26 years in charge of his country, and his rule has been characterised by brutal repression and serial human rights abuses. Not to mention that his vast military machine has often played a negative role in regional conflicts in Darfur, Libya and the Central African Republic. It doesn’t have to be this way. Africa these days boasts plenty of more progressive heads of state that would do a much better job of representing a changing continent to the world, and they should really be taking centre stage.

Dlamini-Zuma’s fate in the balance

South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s term as chairperson of the AU Commission – the souped-up secretariat that is supposed to implement and enforce AU decisions – expires midway through 2016. The next summit in Kigali will anoint her successor, or give her another four years in charge in Addis Ababa. At this summit, expect to see plenty of jockeying, and behind-the-scenes debate over which it is to be. If the choice was hers, Dlamini-Zuma would almost certainly choose to return home to South Africa. She never really wanted the job in the first place, and has not enjoyed her tenure much. But ultimately, Jacob Zuma will make the decision about whether she will stand for office again. As a contender to succeed him, the President may not want her back, and might not be willing to give up the continental clout that she gives South Africa.

But even if she were to stand, her re-election would be far from automatic. Prior to her appointment, which was bulldozed through by South Africa, the commission chair was always from a smaller country – a deliberate policy to try and minimise the influence of the continental superpowers. There’s a lobby, led by Mozambique, to reinstate this policy, but it’s more likely that another superpower will try to get their own candidate elected. Right now, there are whispers that Algeria’s current foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, who has plenty of AU experience, is the favourite to replace Dlamini-Zuma.

All new Peace and Security Council

Due to a scheduling quirk, all the terms of all 15 members of the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) expire this year. At this summit, a new PSC must be elected. There will be some familiar names, most obviously Nigeria, which has de facto permanent member status (each region selects three countries to represent it, and Nigeria’s influence in west Africa is such that its selection is guaranteed).

South Africa is currently a member, and has said it will not necessarily look to serve again – although, given the country’s extensive military commitments on the continent, it would probably be a sensible idea. Other factors come into play, however. The PSC is the AU’s most important institution, with the power to authorise sanctions and military action, and the politicking for these influential seats will be intense. But as the PSC Report explains: “The PSC elections could be the object of some give and take in the run-up to the crucial election of the commissioners later this year. Certain powerful countries could, for example, choose not to serve on the PSC if they get a strong position in the AU Commission. These AU Commission elections are based on the same regional principles, with regional economic communities traditionally proposing candidates for the two prominent positions of the AU Commission – chairperson and deputy chairperson.”

Will Burundi agree to a peacekeeping mission?

Things are not looking good in Burundi, where sporadic conflict between rebels and government is becoming more regular. Predictions of a civil war are not far from coming true. The AU has been unusually strong on Burundi, although has struggled to back up its condemnations of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s power-grab with concrete action. Late last year, the PSC rubber-stamped a proposal to send a peacekeeping mission to Burundi, which would see African soldiers put in place to prevent the violence spiralling further out of control. It’s a good suggestion, with several key problems: first, Burundi said it will not accept troops; second, no African countries are rushing to contribute troops, and third, who will pay for the operation?

The major goal of this summit will be to persuade Burundi to change its mind and accept the peacekeeping mission. If their acceptance is forthcoming, then it shouldn’t be too hard to sort out the other financial and logistical problems. Failing that, diplomats are hoping to use the threat of the peacekeeping mission as a bargaining chip to persuade Burundi to return to the negotiating table.

Another grand entrance from Bashir

Yes, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir will be attending this AU Summit. Unlike last time in South Africa, where his appearance broke all kinds of international and domestic laws, Bashir knows he is safe in Ethiopia, which is not a member of the International Criminal Court and therefore has no obligation to arrest him. Top of Bashir’s agenda this time round is to push for the AU to support the lifting of economic sanctions against Sudan, which were imposed by the USA in 1997 and strengthened in 2007. These sanctions came about in response to some of the crimes for which Bashir is wanted in The Hague.

How to fix Amisom?

Security has been tightened ahead of this AU Summit. Unofficially, journalists were told that this is in response to a threat from Al Shabaab, the Somali militant group. Al Shabaab has a lot of reasons to be angry at the AU. Most importantly, it’s the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) which has put Al Shabaab on the back foot in recent years, forcing them to give up much of their territory. However, progress has stalled in recent years, and a new report showed that some Amisom elements were in fact cooperating with Al Shabaab to manage lucrative sugar and charcoal smuggling rings. A recent attack on a Kenyan-run Amisom base showed that Al Shabaab remains a potent fighting force – and that Amisom, in its current iteration, is failing to protect itself, let alone further stabilise the country. Concerned parties at this AU Summit will discuss ways to restructure Amisom to make it less vulnerable, and better able to fulfil its mandate. Something needs to change, or the AU’s flagship peacekeeping project risks ending in spectacular failure. DM

Photo: Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (L) reacts next to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma during the opening of the 25th African Union summit in Johannesburg, June 14, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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