Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was a main draw at an African Union’s heads of state meeting despite coming into the summit on the back of a major international controversy following the jailing of Al-Jazeera journalists last week.
Sisi is on his first foreign trip following his landslide election in May on the back of his pledge to stabilise Egypt including through taking a hardline stance on militants who have in recent months carried out a string of deadly attacks in the country.
The retired field marshal was quick to address the terrorism threat that has stalked the summit in Equatorial Guinea, which is themed as addressing agriculture and food security.
“Africa is threatened by cross-border terrorism,” said Sisi, who took to the podium to thunderous applause as he marked his country’s comeback to continental politics.
“This common threat demands that we reinforce our cooperation,” he added, calling on his peers to “firmly face up to this plague to preserve the dignity of our people and economies.”
Egypt was suspended from the AU bloc after Sisi toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi while he was army chief last July.
He had earlier made a stop in Algeria on his way to Malabo, where he met with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, another leader elected this year on the back of anti-militant credentials.
“The purpose of my visit to Algeria is to reach a shared vision of common interests and challenges facing the two countries and the region,” Algerian official media quoted the ex-army chief as saying.
“The two countries need to work together on a number of issues,” he added, citing the problem of “terrorism… (which requires) a coordination of positions.”
Algeria and Egypt both share long borders with Libya, which has been gripped by deadly violence since the NATO-backed ouster of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 that scattered weapons across the Sahara region and has provided refuge for jihadists.
Overshadow growth agenda
The growing terror wave in Africa has threatened to overshadow other issues at the summit, as the dozens of heads of state meeting at the plush summit complex in the resort city of Sipopo until Friday are finding out.
The AU’s last mid-year high-level summit took place 2013 in the Ethiopian Addis Ababa, where the organisation is headquartered, to a celebratory tone as the 54-member bloc marked its 50th birthday.
There, the AU unveiled its flagship Agenda 2063 development blueprint, which identifies several areas that would bring wide-reaching pan-African change over the next years.
As such, secretariat head Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma would have preferred to have her hands full with implementing her anchor four-year strategic plan, or more routine issues such as 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.
While the familiar theme of conflict is in the summit’s background following the conflagration in South Sudan, the newest headache now seems to be the rising threat of a particularly violent streak of terrorism across the continent, and which accounted for the absence of key leaders such as those of Kenya and Nigeria.
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, 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.
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 UN recently fingered Libya as a major supplier of weapons to “non-state actors” in a slew of other African countries.
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 growing focus has been the regional coordination of counter-terrorism measures, but an African diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity to news agency AFP admitted this was still in its infancy.
“Co-ordination between states is slow because they aren’t all on the same wavelength. Some countries don’t realise that the security question affects them too, or prefer to avoid turning their back to jihadists.”
The summit in Malabo will look to amend among others a protocol of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights that would grant sitting leaders immunity from prosecution over serious crimes, while also debating the continent’s growing illicit financial flows problem.
But against the terrorism backdrop, Dlamini-Zuma will certainly do well to keep the AU’s development agenda visible in Malabo.