Crises and opportunities in Africa

New Europe Under the theme ‘Towards Greater Unity and Integration through Shared Values’, the 16th Summit of the African Union gathered heads of state in Addis Ababa earlier this week. Whilst taking one step forward by increasing the relevance of the Summit as a continental diplomatic forum, the AU took two steps back with its failure to resolve the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire and the confirmation of the highly undesirable President Teodoro Obiang from Equatorial Guinea as new AU chairman.

Ghana led the rallying cry for ‘Greater Unity and Integration’, but this is far from realistic at a time when the continent is welcoming a new state. South Sudan proves that new borders and separation can be a way out of a decades-long conflict, and raises new challenges for the AU. Alpha Conde from Guinea Conakry was applauded when he took the floor, showing that democratic values and orderly transitions are very welcomed in Africa. Overall, the Summit was afforded a higher profile than usual. Attended by diplomats fully aware of the urgency of some of the issues facing the African continent, it included discussions on Tunis and Sudan.

The Summit also benefited from the absence of Gaddafi, a regular nuisance for many AU members and an ongoing embarrassment for the institutional discourse on democratic values.

However, the AU failed to reach a unanimous, stronger decision over Cote d’Ivoire. Despite the AU’s attempts to lead the international community’s position to remove Laurent Gbagbo from power, internal division over the use of force has now made this a non-option. During the Summit, the AU’s Peace and Security Council set up a new panel with the presidents of Mauritania, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Chad, together with the heads of the AU Commission and of ECOWAS. It is supposed to come up with a binding solution within one month, which only hands more time to the Gbagbo camp. The naming of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang – who came to power after a coup back in 1979 and whose regime has a proven track-record of human rights violations – as AU chairman is also a major drawback. His appointment contradicts the principles of an institution that vows to defend and foster democratic values.

The European Union has been supporting the AU’s efforts to become a credible and capable partner on the continent, and has committed more than 2 billion euros over the period 2007-2013 to EU-Africa relations. As much of this money is channelled through the AU, the institution’s increased recognition is good news for the EU’s principle of Africa ‘for and by Africans’. However, the EU had no relevant strategic positioning or criticism regarding the AU’s inability to deal with Cote d’Ivoire or its counterproductive appointment of a dictator as chairperson.

During the Summit, Africans could hear French president Sarkozy as chair of the G-20 speak about taxes for international financial transactions and about an African permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Mr. Van Rompuy, who attended the Africa-EU Summit last November, was not in Addis Ababa, and neither was Baroness Ashton. EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs was the visible face of the EU, framing Africa again as a ‘development partner’.

A more strategic EU positioning beyond development aid would have been welcome. One only wishes that he, Mr. Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton are exchanging information and coordinating EU action so as to increase its significance. But in his press conference after the Summit, Commissioner Piebalgs only confirmed the EU’s support to Sarkozy’s suggestions, giving protagonism to member states. The EU press release entitled ‘Commissioner Piebalgs at the African Union Summit to push for more stability […]’ was also particularly awkward against the backdrop of events in Egypt. The African Union is struggling to promote democracy, but so is the European Union.

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