African Union holds summit amid crises over coups and COVID-19

Heads of state gathered Saturday at the African Union headquarters to kick off a two-day summit as the continent reels from a spate of military coups and the coronavirus pandemic.

The summit also comes as the 55-member bloc faces pressure to push for a ceasefire in host country Ethiopia, where a 15-month war has killed thousands of people and, the UN says, driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.

Four member states have been suspended by the AU’s Peace and Security Council since mid-2021 because of unconstitutional changes of government, most recently Burkina Faso, where soldiers ousted President Roch Marc Christian Kabore last month.

Addressing African foreign ministers this week, AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat denounced a “worrying resurgence of military coups”.

But the AU has been accused of an inconsistent response to the putsches, notably by not suspending Chad after a military council took over following the death of longtime President Idriss Deby Itno on the battlefield last April.

The two-day summit should discuss how to be more proactive in addressing factors that give rise to coups, including terrorism-related instability and frustration over constitutional revisions that extend leaders’ time in power, said Solomon Dersso, founder of the AU-focused Amani Africa think tank.

“It is only when crisis hits that we say, ‘Gosh, how come this country is falling apart like this so quickly?’” Solomon said.

On Saturday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to provide an update on Africa’s response to the pandemic, nearly two years after the continent’s first Covid-19 case was detected in Egypt.

As of January 26, only 11 percent of Africa’s more than one billion people had been fully vaccinated, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

A draft agenda seen by AFP also includes a discussion of Faki’s decision last year to accept Israel’s accreditation at the AU.

Faki’s move drew quick, vocal protest from powerful members including South Africa and Algeria, which argued that it flew in the face of AU statements supporting the Palestinian Territories.

Analysts say a vote on the issue could yield an unprecedented split in the bloc.

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether and how leaders will address the war in Ethiopia, which pits Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government against fighters from the northern Tigray region.

The fact that Ethiopia hosts the AU makes any intervention by the bloc especially delicate, and Faki waited until last August — nine months after fighting began — to appoint Olusegun Obasanjo as a special envoy tasked with trying to broker a ceasefire.

Ethiopia has also held a seat on the Peace and Security Council, though it failed in a bid to stay on the 15-member body this week, diplomats said.

“AU member states should not ignore the serious crimes committed by all warring parties, including federal government forces, in Ethiopia’s conflict,” Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Friday.(AFP)