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African Union baton passes on from Rwanda to Egypt

Updated February 11, 2019

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Addis Ababa (Ethiopia): Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (second right) receives the chairmanship of the African Union from Rwandan President Paul Kagame (centre) on Sunday.—Reuters
Addis Ababa (Ethiopia): Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (second right) receives the chairmanship of the African Union from Rwandan President Paul Kagame (centre) on Sunday.—Reuters

ADDIS ABABA: Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led an active, reformist tenure as African Union chair, on Sunday passed the baton to Egypt, seen as more likely to focus on security issues than expanding the body’s powers.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi officially took over the rotating post of ceremonial head of the AU at the start of a two-day summit in Addis Ababa. The meeting highlighted the “links between the Mediterranean and Lake Victoria”, as a metaphor for sub-Saharan Africa.

“Egypt has an interest in Africa, they want to strengthen their position on the African continent and they don’t want to be seen as a country only focused on the Arab world,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies.

Kagame’s leadership of the AU focused on institutional and administrative reforms. Sisi however is expected to focus more on security, peacekeeping and post-war reconstruction, issues closely tied to the AU’s 2019 theme of “Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons”.

“The road is still long” in terms of reaching the AU’s goal of “silencing the guns” by 2020, Sisi told delegates on Sunday. He announced he would hold a “forum for peace and development” in the town of Aswan, southern Egypt, in 2019.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Saturday that peaceful elections in DR Congo, Mali and Madagascar, peace deals in South Sudan and Central African Republic and the truce between Ethiopia and Eritrea, were however signs of a “wind of hope” on the continent.

Guterres also hailed the solidarity shown in Africa, where countries house nearly a third of refugees and displaced people in the world. “Despite the continent’s own social, economic and security challenges, Africa’s governments and people have kept borders, doors and hearts open to millions in need,” he said. “Unfortunately, this example has not been followed everywhere.”

The chairmanship of the AU rotates between the five regions of the continent, and South Africa will take over from Egypt next year.

Kagame, who has been leading institutional reforms since 2016, pushed for a continent-wide import tax to fund the AU and reduce its dependence on external donors, who still pay for more than half the institution’s annual budget.

But member states have resisted both this and moves to strengthen the powers of the AU Commission, its executive organ. In November 2018, most states rejected a proposal to give the head of the AU Commission the power to name deputies and commissioners.

Egypt, like fellow regional heavyweights Nigeria and South Africa, is not keen on a powerful AU, said one African diplomat.

Cairo has “never forgotten” its suspension in 2013 after Egypt’s army deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who had in 2012 became the country’s first democratically elected president, the diplomat said.

Amnesty International expressed fears that Egypt’s chairmanship could undermine human rights in the AU. “During his time in power President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has demonstrated a shocking contempt for human rights,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty’s North Africa Campaigns Director. “Under his leadership the country has undergone a catastrophic decline in rights and freedoms,” she added.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2019