AU delays tough decisions

Of all the African leaders celebrating the successful negotiation of their new-look union’s toughest diplomatic hurdle, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was the most joyful.This is hardly surprising, since his peers in the 53-nation African Union have once again let him off the hook.

The host of this week’s summit, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, was left sulkily denouncing the United States for his failure to get the presidency of the AU.

His officials named assistant secretary of state Jendayi Frazer—Washington’s former ambassador to South Africa—as the person who orchestrated the campaign against him.

The US has indeed accused al-Bashir of genocide for sponsoring the Janjaweed militia that are responsible for more than 200 000 deaths and the displacement of more than two million people in the western region of Darfur.

But it was the African leaders themselves—mostly those from the southern and western regions of the continent—who realised that making al-Bashir president would crumble the credibility of the AU, which is desperate to break the “dictators’ club” image of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity.

The issue dominated the two-day summit, strangling open debate on many other crucial issues.

Chad, on the brink of war with Sudan, has unambiguously slammed the AU for allowing al-Bashir to host the summit and for even considering him as a suitable candidate for the presidency of the union. This view is uncomfortably close to that of the Western powers, who thought better of saying anything public.

A team from Djibouti, Egypt, Bo-tswana, Tanzania, Gabon, Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso was tasked with stitching up an alternative to al-Bashir. The result of their handiwork: Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is the AU president this year, with al-Bashir set to take over the reins a year from now.

The human rights groups who joined the Darfur rebels in campaigning against al-Bashir have already started working on blocking him again next year.
Even if he does mind his Ps and Qs for a full year, the charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes will not have disappeared by then, they point out. They are by no means happy with Sassou-Nguesso either.

Interestingly, the rebel group led by pastor Frederic Bitsangou that is still making his life difficult has hailed his election as a diplomatic coup for Congo.

Sassou-Nguesso’s acceptance speech at the end, rather than the start, of proceedings was more aspiration and platitude than substance. He’d come to the gathering with something prepared. His role as a compromise candidate was being mentioned weeks ago.

First prize for the AU would have been for leaders to have grasped the nettle then, clearing the decks for the agenda on what is arguably the world’s most troubled continent.

Mugabe, who has earned a place in the dock of world public opinion alongside al-Bashir, could have expected at least the embarrassing public airing of the second damning by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

This one condemned his urban clean-up campaign that destroyed the homes of 700 000 people. It also expressed alarm at the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. Like the 2002 report blaming the ruling Zanu-PF for human rights violations, it was shelved on its first trip to the summit table.

Also shelved was the Senegalese question to leaders about what to do with Hissene Habre, who has been living in exile there since being deposed as Chad’s leader. He’s wanted in Belgium for crimes committed during his presidency.

African leaders were never going to hand him over to a country recently spotlighted as one of the most odious colonisers. They’ll take up these matters when they meet mid-year in Addis Ababa.

Denis who?

Denis Sassou-Nguesso, a 63-year-old French-trained paratrooper, says conflict resolution will be the central pillar of his presidency of the African Union. He’s never been far from conflict all his life.

Having seized power in 1979, he ran Congo-Brazzaville as a one-party state for 13 years, adopting an avowedly Marxist line. He lost an election in 1992, but seized power again five years later when the country slipped into civil war. He withstood another rebellion in 1998, and won an election in 2002.

Sassou-Nguesso is no stranger to multilateral office, having been chair of the Organisation of African Unity in 1986. He’s been at the helm of the Central African Economic Community for the past three years and takes an unashamedly market view of economics these days.—Jean-Jacques Cornish

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