Leaders fight fires: A year is a very long time for the African Union

Sisi’s show will mark Egypt’s return after an AU suspension, but he comes in on the back of the jailing of Al-Jazeera journalists.

So much can change in a year in Africa, as the dozens of heads of state meeting at Malabo’s plush summit complex in the resort city of Sipopo until Friday are finding out.

The African Union’s last mid-year high-level summit took place 2013 in the Ethiopian Addis Ababa, where the organisation is headquartered, and the tone was celebratory, as the 54-member bloc marked its 50th birthday.

There, the AU unveiled its flagship Agenda 2063 development blueprint, which identifies a raft of areas that will bring wide-reaching pan-African change over the next years. There were drums, flashing lights, and colourful dancers.

As such, secretariat head Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma would have preferred to have her hands full with implementing the anchor four-year strategic plan, or be more focused on debating the cash-strapped organisation’s 2015 budget, or taking stock of the clutch of elections held on the continent over the last year including in regional powerhouses Egypt, South Africa and Algeria.

But the main themes of the Malabo summit, which are listed in as agriculture and food security, and climate change, could be overshadowed by the familiar and old issue of conflict, and the not-so-familiar one of terrorism.

Since the Addis Ababa meeting, in less than a year, new conflicts have sprouted in areas such as South Sudan, or deepened in others such as the Central African Republic and Libya.

The newest headache now seems to be the rising threat of a particularly violent streak of terrorism across the continent, and which will account for the absence of key leaders such as those of Kenya and Nigeria.

Resurgent militants
Militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda have been on the resurgence in North, West and East Africa in the last one year, stepping up attacks, moving to new theatres and creating new havens, in a wave that analysts say poses existential threats to several African states.

President Goodluck Jonathan, already a man under huge pressure, has had to cut short his trip to Equatorial Guinea after yet another bomb on Wednesday claimed 21 lives at a shopping centre in the capital Abuja.

Suspicion fell on Boko Haram Islamist extremists, who have attacked Abuja twice in the last two months, killing close to 100 people, and made swathes of north-eastern Nigeria, where they are seeking to create an Islamic state, no-go zones.

The Boko Haram threat, which has even spawned speculation of a military coup in Africa’s largest country by population and economy, came to international prominence in April when over 200 girls were kidnapped by the militants. The majority remain in captivity, at an unknown location. 

Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta is grappling with the threat of another Islamist group, the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab, which has claimed two attacks at the country’s coast, harming the lifeline tourism industry. 

Kenyatta has said the latest attack, that claimed at least 60 lives, was politically motivated, adding to existing concerns about growing insecurity in East Africa’s largest economy.

Threatens countries
Al-Shabaab also threatens other countries in the region, specifically those that have contributed troops to Amisom—the 22,000 strong AU force fighting it in Somalia.

On Thursday it attacked an AU base in Somalia, killing two soldiers from Djibouti, which has contributed its troops and is host to French and America military bases.

The threat of terrorism to the continent’s growth blueprint and the attendant ‘Africa Rising’ optimism has certainly alarmed the bloc. 

“Unless we work with the governments to stem this tide, we are all vulnerable because terrorism, extremism and intolerance endanger Africa’s march towards prosperity, peace and integration,” AU commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement.

The extremist threat has seen the leaders of Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria recently elected on the back of their credentials in fighting militants, with many coming from Libya, which is struggling to assert control over its authority. The UN fingered Libya as a major supplier of weapons to “non-state actors” in a slew of other African countries.

The bloc is also having to deal with the fallout from South Sudan, where the mediation effort over the civil war that started in December has struggled to gain traction. 

Thousands have been killed and at least 1.5 million displaced by the conflict in the continent’s youngest country. The UN says more than seven million South Sudanese are at risk of hunger and famine, nearly 70% of the country’s estimated population. 

Cash crunch
The AU’s mediation effort is through the eight-country Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which is also struggling with major funding challenges. “Despite the general positive trajectory [about the African economy], we remain deeply concerned about the situations in Central African Republic, and South Sudan; the massive loss of life, the scourge of sexual violence, and the damage inflicted on the populations of these countries,” Dlamini-Zuma added. 

Away from the regional security challenges, Malabo will also welcome Egypt back following an AU suspension. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be a main draw, but he comes in on the back of a major international controversy following the jailing of Al-Jazeera journalists last week.

Among other notable absentees are Zambia’s Michael Sata, around whom health concerns have swirled. His political seniors Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, who have also had to bat away speculations over their health, will however be attending.

A curious absentee will be Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. The summit in Malabo will look to amend a protocol of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights that would grant sitting leaders immunity from prosecution over serious crimes. 

Bashir is indicted by the International Criminal Court on, among other counts, genocide.

Against such a backdrop, Dlamini-Zuma will certainly do well to keep the AU’s development agenda visible in Malabo. 



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