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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 16th February 2024

Why conflict and capital should top the African Union summit agenda

Africa Confidential

When leaders gather at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa on 17-18 February, they will face the most serious test of the organisation's credibility since its foundation in 2002.

The AU is being challenged at every level: most of all on its response to conflicts in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Congo-Kinshasa, northern Mozambique and the Maghreb.

More widely, populism, election-rigging and authoritarianism are gaining ground across the continent – as they are in Asia, the Americas and Europe.

Some of the political pain is self-inflicted by predatory elites, some of it can be tracked back to heightening geopolitical rivalries in the region and the financial obstacle race with which governments must contend.

Interest rates for so many African governments are hitting ruinously risky levels as Kenya's seven-year Eurobond priced at 10.375% demonstrated this week. Servicing debt at these prices could force sweeping job cuts in the public sector, making much development spending unviable according to budget strictures.

People are taking to the streets as state spending on schools and clinics is squeezed or when one more incumbent President decides to extends their term in office.

So, the eagerness among citizens to discover how the AU leaders plan to address this daunting list of threats is wholly understandable. The response from the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa has been shrouded in secrecy but suggests a chronic lack of urgency.

Take the roster of inter-state and internal conflicts outlined above; only one or two have been earmarked for the formal agenda.

Ethiopia, the AU's host country, has blocked any discussion of its unilateral recognition of the territorial sovereignty of the breakaway state of Somaliland – much to the anger of the governments of SomaliaDjiboutiEritrea and Egypt.

Neither will there be any discussion of the Addis Ababa government's anti-insurgency campaign against dissidents in the Amhara and Oromo regions. Nor does anyone expect an acknowledgement of the man-made emergency in Tigray region where Britain's Africa Minister Andrew Mitchell says that three million people have been plunged into a state of critical food security and hunger.

There will be a formal discussion of the deadly war in Sudan at the AU's Peace and Security Council, with representatives of the rival military factions in attendance. But AU efforts at peace-making there have been supplanted by the United States and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and its allies, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

Conditions are worsening in eastern Congo-K where the well-armed M23 militia is imposing a siege on Goma, close to the Rwanda border. Congo's President Félix Tshisekedi accuses his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame of backing the M23 for financial and strategic gain: both men are due in Addis for the summit.

But few expect serious dialogue between them to resume in Addis Ababa. The prospect is not bright for South Africa's 2,900-strong intervention force sent in to combat the M23 and back a regional peace plan. That has sparked heavy criticism within South Africa, highlighting the poor state of preparedness of the country's national defence force.

To the far west in the Sahel and the coastal states, a multi-layered conflict and political crisis is unfolding. Three military-ruled states – MaliNiger and Burkina Faso – have quit the regional grouping, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and are now planning to leave the Paris-backed CFA zone.

This follows the juntas' expulsion of international intervention forces sent to help national armies to defeat insurgent jihadist forces. Most of the foreign forces left last year but insurgent attacks have increased.

None of this has helped the authority of Ecowas which had imposed sanctions against the juntas; to little effect beyond stirring up animosity.

When Senegal's President Macky Sall issued a decree postponing presidential elections due this month, another crisis was added to the Ecowas to do list. On 15 February, Senegal's Constitutional Court ruled that Sall's postponement was illegal and ordered the elections to be held as soon as possible.

This institutional resistance may have averted a political implosion in Senegal. We hear that President Sall and Nigeria's President Bola Tinubu, who currently chairs Ecowas, are due to meet on the sidelines of the AU summit this weekend.

Many of these pressing security issues are playing second fiddle to the politics in the AU's organisational management. Algeria and Morocco were rivals for the Chair of the AU –  it is the turn of North Africa to offer a candidate.

A compromise may have been found in the form of Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Cheikh el Ghazouani who could take over from outgoing Chair Comoros President Azali Assoumani at the summit. But Libya's representatives have contested this.

Another battleground is the race next year to succeed Chad's Moussa Faki Mahamat as Chairman of the AU Commission, the body's permanent administration based in Addis Ababa.

Kenya's former prime minister and veteran oppositionist Raila Odinga has already tossed his Stetson into the ring. And he has the blessing of his old rival, President William Ruto.

An effective AU which could accelerate progress on its African Continental Free Trade Area matters hugely for the continent and beyond. The AU is now a full member of the G20 and South Africa will host the organisation next year.

The world's working age population will grow by two billion between now and 2060 according to UN estimates. Some 80% of those workers will be in Africa.

Making Africa's single market work and boosting investment in technology and infrastructure is critical to the continent's – and the world's – economic prospects.