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Elections and crisis talks at the summit

Regional security concerns, continental trade, the pandemic and its economic effects will dominate the agenda

This week the guard is changing at the African Union when it holds its summit, a mixture of face-to-face and virtual meetings, in Addis Ababa on 6-7 February.

In comes Félix Tshisekedi, President of Congo-Kinshasa, to replace South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa as chair of the AU. There will also be elections at the AU Commission, the administrative organisation that runs the headquarters in Addis Ababa and is meant to implement policies and programmes agreed by member states (AC Vol 62 No 2, A scramble for vaccines).

Chad's former foreign minister Moussa Faki Mahamat, is standing, unopposed so far, for a second term as chairman of the AU Commission. There will be election for all the other top posts in the commission, with South Africa initially putting up an unprecedented four candidates for the six commission posts. 

South Africa's Molapo Qhobela is tipped to get the Education Commission while Nigeria's Bankole Adegboyega Adeoye is tipped for the Political Affairs and Peace and Security Commission. 

Sierra Leone's David Fashole Luke is a front runner for the Economic Development, Trade, Industry and Mining Commssion, a key responsibility as the AU launches the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) with its headquarters in Accra, Ghana. South Africa's Wamkele Mene, a former top official in the country's department of trade and industry, has just started work as the first Executive Secretary of the AfCFTA (AC Vol 61 No 3, Revenues and resources are the key).

Both Tshisekedi and the new commission face a lengthening list of diplomatic headaches and security crises. In the AU's host country of Ethiopia, three issues lead the agenda, headed by the crisis in Tigray and mounting concerns by the UN humanitarian agencies about conditions there. Over the weekend (30-31 January), audio recordings were released, claiming to be from ousted President of Tigray Debretsion Gebremichael in which he vowed 'extended resistance' and accused the federal forces of raping and looting in the region.

Initiatives by Mahamat and Ramaphosa to mediate in the conflict between the Addis Ababa and Tigray region were swiftly sidelined by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Rampahosa's envoys – former presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia), Joaquim Chissano (Mozambique) and Kgalema Motlanthe (South Africa) – were allowed individual meeting with officials in Addis Ababa but any contact with Tigray officials was ruled out. 

A side-effect of the Tigray conflict and the flight of displaced people from the region into Sudan was fresh tension over the demarcation of the border with Ethiopia, and the consequent build-up of troops on both sides (AC Vol 62 No 2, Abiy risks more war).

The other AU dossier in Ethiopia is its protracted dispute with Egypt, and latterly Sudan, on the rate of filling of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile. After the failure of United States mediation under the Trump administration last March, Ramaphosa set up an AU structure for discussions which have dragged on for the past six months. It's likely that Ramaphosa's team will continue to chair those negotiations after he leaves the AU chairman's post this week.

The bombing by Al Shabaab of the Hotel Afrik in Mogadishu and a subsequent shoot-out on 31 January will keep Somalia on the agenda of the AU's Peace and Security Council. After three decades of instability, there are more questions about the role of AU and UN peacekeepers, as well as the implications of the withdrawal of US forces.

Tensions between the Mogadishu government and Kenya over the latter's ties to the regional government of Jubaland are complicating preparations for elections, initially due this month. Incumbent President Mohammed Abdullah Mohammed 'Farmajo' will face a challenge from Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and rifts with the regions in the federation and schisms within the Somali National Army.

In Central African Republic, the AU faces pressure to organise a more robust response to the crisis where UN, Rwandan troops and Russian mercenaries defend Bangui, and newly re-elected President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, from attack by insurgents and supporters of former President François Bozizé.

Two of the most tortuous diplomatic and military conflicts the AU faces are in North Africa: preparations for national elections this year in Libya and the restart of hostilities between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the future of Western Sahara. Algeria, South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana defend the position of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a member of the AU and the grid-locked UN-led mediation for a referendum in the territory.

Recognition of Morocco's claim over Western Sahara by the outgoing US administration in exchange for Rabat's recognition of Israel is prolonging the stalemate, with skirmishes around some of the border crossing points. The AU and UN are holding to their position but the incoming US administration, weighing sentiment and interests in Morocco as well as some of the AU's leading states, has declined to announce any policy changes.

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