ADDIS ABABA, Jan 28 – Conflict and humanitarian crises rather than growing economies and development top the agenda for African leaders this week, as they meet for a summit of the continental bloc.
War in Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan are key priorities, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said, ahead of the two-day African Union meeting that opens Thursday.
The controversial role on the continent of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is also expected to be addressed.
“The fact that these humanitarian tragedies are unfolding in the two countries at a time when we are talking about ‘African renaissance’ must be painful to all of us,” Tedros added, speaking at a ministerial-level meeting on Monday.
“Unless we find (an) urgent solution, the situation in these two countries will have serious implications for peace and security in the region, and indeed the whole continent,” he added.
Ethiopia, hosting the 54-member meeting of the AU in Addis Ababa, is also current head of the bloc’s rotating chair.
The meeting’s official theme is “agriculture and food security”, but nations will be bogged down yet again trying to resolve conflict in fellow member states.
South Sudan’s warring parties signed a fragile ceasefire last week, but clashes between government and rebels continue, with thousands killed and over 800,000 forced from their homes in bloodshed that has now lasted for six weeks.
Peace talks led by the regional East African bloc IGAD adjourned after last week’s ceasefire deal, with mediators calling for the AU to play a greater role in the peace process.
“One of the issues for the AU this week is to add some clarity to exactly what its role will be,” said Phil Clark, politics lecturer at London’s SOAS University.
“Pressure might need to be coming from an organ within the AU,” said Jason Mosley, from Britain’s Chatham House think tank.
The unfolding humanitarian disaster in CAR, where a 5,200-strong AU force is deployed alongside 1,600 French soldiers, will also dominate talks.
CAR descended into chaos ten months ago after rebels overthrew the government, sparking sectarian violence that has uprooted a million people out of a population of 4.6 million.
Peter J. Pham, director of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council, said the AU’s slow response to the crisis in CAR points to a deeper institutional weakness when it comes to rapidly evolving conflicts.
“For all the talk – we’ve had it for well over a decade – about an African standby force, the fact is that when emergencies come up, it starts all over again, there is no standby force,” he said, referring to AU’s plans for an on-call peacekeeping force, which has yet to materialise.
“There’s very little concrete action being done,” he added.
Clark said the AU faces criticism in its response to crises, especially in South Sudan and CAR.
“There’s a lot of concern at the moment that the AU isn’t showing sufficient leadership in resolving these types of conflicts,” he said. “So I think it’s those issues that are going to loom large.”
Heads of state will gather at the gleaming Chinese-built AU headquarters Thursday and Friday, which comes eight months after the bloc marked its 50th anniversary in May.
Leaders are also expected to focus on “Agenda 2063”, a 50-year roadmap for the AU that has been a major pre-occupation for the head of its executive council, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
But Mosley pointed out that while long-term planning and development schemes are important, the AU cannot ignore ongoing conflict.
He suggested recent rhetoric of a “rising continent” had glossed over major problems.
“The whole ‘Africa Rising’ thing was a bit of a swing too far, away from ‘Africa is a continent that’s continuing in crisis’,” said Mosley, adding that development and peace and security issues should be tackled together.
Member states are also expected to discuss the AU’s relationship with the ICC court, after a special summit on the topic last year.
The AU has accused the court of unfairly targeting Africans and has said sitting heads of state should not be tried, including Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The one-year rotating chair of the AU, currently led by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, will also be replaced. Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is tipped to take the post.