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Free Trade, Armed Conflict Dominate African Union Summit

Most of the sessions are being held behind closed doors at the AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa

African leaders met Saturday to discuss a slew of challenges facing the continent as UN chief Antonio Guterres urged them to do more to bring peace to conflict-hit regions.

Africa is reeling from a record drought in the Horn and deadly violence in the Sahel region and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with the two-day African Union summit aiming to address these issues and jumpstart a faltering free trade pact.

Most of the sessions are being held behind closed doors at the AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, with more than 30 presidents and prime ministers in attendance.

But eyes will be on the bloc to see if it can achieve ceasefires in the Sahel and the eastern DRC, where the M23 militia has seized swathes of territory and sparked a diplomatic row between Kinshasa and Rwanda’s government, which is accused of backing the rebels.

Guterres called for Africa to take “action for peace”, adding that the continent of 1.4 billion people faced “enormous tests… on virtually every front”.

“I am deeply concerned about the recent rise in violence by armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and the rise of terrorist groups in the Sahel and elsewhere,” he told the gathering.

“The mechanisms for peace are faltering,” the UN secretary-general warned. Nevertheless, he urged the bloc to “continue to battle for peace”.

At a mini-summit on Friday, leaders of the seven-nation East African Community pushed for all armed groups to withdraw from occupied areas in the eastern DRC by the end of next month.

Guterres met with several African leaders on Friday, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, to discuss in particular the crisis in the Congo.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, host of the summit, lauded the bloc for its role mediating a peace deal between his government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November to end a brutal two-year year in northern Ethiopia.

– Backsliding of democracy –

Junta-ruled Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, which have been suspended from the AU, cannot participate in this weekend’s summit, but have sent diplomats to Addis Ababa to lobby for readmission.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, head of the African Union Commission, told the meeting the bloc needed to come up with new strategies to counter the backsliding of democracy on the continent.

He said “sanctions imposed on member states following unconstitutional changes of government… do not seem to produce the expected results”.

“It seems necessary to reconsider the system of resistance to the unconstitutional changes in order to make it more effective,” Faki added.

The summit will also aim to accelerate implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) launched in 2020.

The deal is billed as the biggest in the world in terms of population, gathering 54 out of 55 African countries, with Eritrea the only holdout.

African nations currently trade only about 15 percent of their goods and services with each other, and the AfCFTA aims to boost that by 60 percent by 2034 by eliminating almost all tariffs.

But implementation has fallen well short of that goal, running into hurdles including disagreements over tariff reductions and border closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The African leaders are also expected to discuss the food crises rocking a continent hit hard by the worst drought in four decades and the knock-on effects of the war in Ukraine that have pushed up the cost of basic goods.

– Debt cancellation call –

Created in 2002 following the disbanding of the Organisation of African Unity, the AU comprises all 55 African countries, with a population of 1.4 billion people.

While the bloc has been credited with taking a stand against coups, it has long been criticised as ineffectual.

Kagame, who has been urging the AU to implement major changes for years, is due to present a report on the reform of the bloc’s institutions.

The Rwandan leader has called for the AU to take steps towards financial independence, with the bloc largely dependent on foreign donors.

Comoros President Azali Assoumani, leader of the small Indian Ocean archipelago of almost 900,000 people, took over the one-year rotating AU chairmanship from Senegal’s Macky Sall.

Assoumani, 64, called for a “total cancellation” of African debt in his acceptance speech, but did not elaborate on how this would be achieved.

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