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Leaders face hard decisions about their organisation's impotence in the face of a wave of putsches and insurgencies
Vaccination campaigns, a pan-African strategy on climate change and the organisation's responses to coups and conflict will dominate the agenda at the African Union (AU) summit due on 5-6 February.
The AU has suspended four military regimes in the past year – Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sudan – for seizing power in breach of the organisation's rules. The fifth country to come under military rule in the past year was Chad, where Mahamat Idriss Déby took over after the death of his father President Idris Déby Itno.
Awkwardly for the AU Commission, its current chairperson and head of administration is Moussa Faki Mahamat, a former foreign minister to the late Chadian president. Chad has not been suspended by the AU nor does it face any other sanctions, raising questions about how fairly the organisation's rules are applied.
Senegal's President Macky Sall will take over as political head and chairperson of the AU from Congo-Kinshasa's Félix Tshisekedi this year. Another possible pressure point at the AU will be Sall's widely reported plans to change Senegal's constitution to allow him to stand for a third presidential term. In local elections on the weekend of 22-23 January, Sall's ruling coalition suffered heavy defeats, including losing the mayoralty of Dakar.
Delegations from both the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) were expected in Burkina Faso for talks on 31 January after they suspended the country from both their organisations in response to Lt Col Paul-Henri Damiba's seizure of power on 23 January.
After the discussions in Ouagadougou, Ecowas leaders are to meet on 3-4 February to announce their next steps. Few think that Damiba and his military colleagues are planning to hand back power any faster than their counterparts in Guinea and Mali who have spoken of a transition lasting several years (AC Vol 62 No 23, Meeting Moscow, battling Brussels & AC Vol 63 No 1, Not letting go & No timeline for return to civil rule).
Citing the failure of the ousted civilian governments in Mali and Burkina Faso to defeat Islamist insurgents, the new military rulers want to reorganise their countries' security systems, retiring many of the old cohort of senior officers. Negotiations with Ecowas are likely to be protracted and difficult.
The AU summit will tread delicately around the international push for a ceasefire in Ethiopia's civil war (Dispatches 5/2/21, All eyes on the African Union summit host). Prospects for some movement in AU envoy Olusegun Obasanjo's attempts to mediate between the federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) have improved, according to the latest statements from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF's Debretsion Gebremichael.
In Sudan, the AU moved swiftly to suspend the junta after Gen Abdel Fattah al Burhan seized power last October but since then its attempts to mediate between the military and civilians have been firmly rebuffed by the generals. Apart from the pro-forma condemnation of the killing by security forces of over 75 demonstrators in the last three months, the AU has had little to say about Sudan's deepening crisis.
Egyptian officials at the AU have been lobbying for the lifting of Sudan's suspension following Gen Burhan's appointment of some civilian ministers last week. One odd diplomatic twist is that Gen Burhan's junta, along with its Islamist bedfellows, has become a strong supporter of Israel's government in the hope of winning some respite from western sanctions. An Israeli delegation visited Khartoum in mid-January for closed door talks with Burhan and other top officials.
Israel has also applied for observer status at the AU, which Moussa Faki has granted even though it will generate criticism from Algeria, South Africa and others at the summit.
Despite the economic slowdown across the continent, the AU has shored up its financial position and has drawn up an overall budget of US$650 million for 2022. Members financed 72% of the organisation's budget for operations and programmes last year and aim to fund it fully. Almost all of the $279m allocated for the AU's peace support operations will come from international organisations and foreign governments.
Overshadowing many of the discussions at the summit will be the health and economic effects of the pandemic. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) has been urging member states, pharmaceutical companies and G20 economies to step up work on vaccine distribution, regional coordination and plans for local distribution. It reported that under 10% of Africans had been vaccinated by mid-January.
Another subject on the AU agenda requiring strong coordination will be its position on climate change and energy transitions ahead of the UN COP27 Climate summit at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, in November.
European diplomats at the AU meetings in Addis Ababa will be trying to drum up enthusiasm for the AU/European Union summit due in Brussels on 17-18 February. It has been billed as a grand reset of the two continents' relations and as an in-person summit (AC Vol 63 No 3, La francophonie grabs the focus & EU offers new migration deal).
EU officials are worried that too many may stay away from Brussels, inviting an unfavourable comparison with recent conferences organised by China and Russia.
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