Ethiopia, Jan 29 – Conflict in Africa, especially the violence of Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgents, and efforts to stem Ebola will top the agenda as African leaders gather for their annual summit this week.
While the official theme of the African Union meeting will be women’s empowerment, leaders from the 54-member bloc will once again be beset by a string of crises across the continent when they meet at the AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital on Friday and Saturday.
AU chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who has said she is “deeply horrified” at the rise of Boko Haram, has said she will use the summit to drum up “renewed collective African efforts” to tackle the Islamists.
Boko Haram are “not just a threat to some countries, it is a threat to the whole continent,” Dlamini-Zuma said this week, with pressure mounting to set up a regional five-nation force of some 3,000 troops, currently stalled amid arguments between Nigeria and its neighbours.
More than 13,000 people have been killed and more than one million made homeless by Boko Haram violence since 2009.
With over a dozen elections due to take place this year across Africa, the focus will also be on how to ensure peaceful polls. The Institute for Security Studies, an African think-tank, warns that “many of these are being held in a context that increases the risk of political violence.”
Wars in South Sudan and the Central African Republic — both nations scheduled to hold elections — as well as in Libya are also due to draw debate.
South Sudan’s warring parties are due to meet on the sidelines of the summit, in the latest push for a lasting peace deal, with six previous ceasefire commitments never holding for more than a few days — and sometime just hours — on the ground.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in more than a year of civil war, with peace talks led by the regional East African bloc IGAD due to restart on Friday.
Aid groups and the UN have both called for the release of an AU-led commission of inquiry into the bloodshed in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation.
– Mugabe at the helm –
African leaders are expected to elect Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe to the organisation’s one-year rotating chair, replacing Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
Also topping the agenda is the question of financing regional forces, amid broader debates on funding the AU, a thorny issue for the bloc, once heavily bankrolled by toppled Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi.
Leaders will vote on a report by ex-Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo on “alternative funding sources” for the grouping, although some suggestions — including taxes on airline tickets and hotel stays — are believed not to be widely supported.
African leaders will also discuss the economic recovery of countries affected by the Ebola virus, setting up a “solidarity fund” and planning a proposed African Centre for Disease Control.
AU Commissioner for Social Affairs Mustapha Sidiki Kaloko, speaking Wednesday, promised it would be operational by mid-2015.
The worst outbreak of the virus in history has seen nearly 9,000 deaths in a year — almost all in the three west African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — and sparked a major health scare worldwide.
Oxfam has called for a “massive post-Ebola Marshall Plan” for affected west African nations, referring to the United States aid package to rebuild Europe after World War II.
The question of membership to the International Criminal Court is also set to be debated.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who last month celebrated the dropping of crimes against humanity charges against him at The Hague-based ICC, will again be lobbying other leaders to push for an alternative African court that will rival what he has branded the anti-African ICC.
As leaders prepare to meet, observers say the real deals are struck on the sidelines of the talks, with past summits full of unfulfilled promises.
“The AU makes very lengthy statements and declarations with no effective follow-up or implementation. This frustrates many people,” said Solomon Dersso of the Institute for Security Studies.