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African Union summit

THE contest to be the next leader of the African Union, pitting a regional political and economic powerhouse, South Africa, against the small west African country of Gabon, has galvanised the AU summit.

The race between Jean Ping, who is seeking a second term, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the South African home affairs minister and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, has eclipsed the theme of this year’s summit, intra-African trade.

The two-day summit officially opens on Sunday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, although preliminary talks are already in train. It will be the first without Muammar Qadhafi but the first with the full participation of the new Libyan and Egyptian authorities.

The fight to lead the AU has gripped Africa-watchers. Ping has backing from francophone west Africa and Nigeria, while Dlamini-Zuma, who could become arguably Africa’s most powerful woman, has support from southern Africa, including Angola. According to the Times Live website in South Africa, a dedicated team led by Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the minister of international relations, has been crisscrossing the continent lobbying for Dlamini-Zuma.

“This is a fascinating development which breaks an informal agreement that the big countries do not put forward names for the AU. The outcome is impossible to predict,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, the London-based international affairs thinktank. “South Africa may be positioning itself for a bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.”

South Africa’s role in the AU is likely to grow even if Dlamini-Zuma fails to clinch the AU’s top job, with some of the organisation’s other big players, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, preoccupied with the fallout from the Arab Spring. Although the AU is often criticised for being ineffectual, Vines considered such criticism unfair. “The AU can play a constructive role in mediation efforts in Guinea and Ivory Coast, even though its intervention in Libya was unsuccessful,” he said.

The summit, which will be attended by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, will also see the official opening of a new AU headquarters, with its 20-storey main office building, a 2,505-capacity conference centre in the shape of giant flying saucer and a second conference building with 32 conference rooms.

The HQ, built by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation and funded by China at a cost of $200m, is a symbol writ large of Beijing’s trade and diplomatic offensive in Africa. President Hu Jintao will be in Addis this week to officially hand over the new building to African leaders.

Peace and security will be on the agenda against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis in east Africa, a looming crisis in the Sahel, and rising tension between Sudan and South Sudan, which is also beset by internal strife.

Such conflicts make it no easier to boost intra-Africa trade. Trade within the continent grew from $48bn in 2005 to $76bn in 2009, according to the 2011 African Development Bank’s annual effectiveness review, but continues to be hamstrung by cumbersome regulations and poor infrastructure.

Most African exports are still sent to markets in industrialised countries, with only 10 to 12 per cent bound to other African nations. This is less than half the level in other emerging markets. — The Guardian, London

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