AU summit: Opening ceremony casts light on debts, conflicts, climate change

By Jaysim Hanspal

Posted on Sunday, 19 February 2023 14:20
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses the opening of the 36th Ordinary session of the Assembly of the African Union at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia February 18, 2023. REUTERS

The opening ceremony of the 36th ordinary session of the AU assembly saw heads of state and officials tackle grave topics, including multiple economic challenges and political instability across Africa.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the AU Commission, addressed the harsh conditions that many African nations face as a result of the pandemic and the strains that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put on the continent.

“Our conference is marked by geopolitical conflicts and unforeseen consequences for Africa, [with] excruciating debt burden and energy crisis will lead to burdening costs,” Faki said, stressing that mutual aid is a necessity for moving forward economically.

Alleviating debt is a significant goal for the incoming chair, as Comoros President Azali Assoumani drew attention to the huge number standing in the way of progress in Africa – $1trn required to pay off the entire debt of the continent.

He says he plans to actively mobilise the UN’s recent $150m fund from which many African countries are expected to benefit. The Democratic Republic of Congo will receive $23m and Sudan $20m. Aid operations in Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger will each get $10m.

“This leaves us to look for draconian methods of alleviating debt. Why are we not progressing despite our natural resources? We have not broken out of this vicious cycle of dependency,” said Faki.

Tigray war aftermath

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also made his first appearance on Saturday to raucous applause. He addressed the recent truce that has deescalated the “costly conflict” in the Tigray region, which has led to the deaths of as many as 600,000 people and displaced millions of Ethiopians.

In his address, Abiy quoted former Emperor Halie Selassie: “His Imperial Majesty acknowledged that future disputes among African countries were only natural. But, he also advised that, when disputes arise, the effort to resolve them ‘must be confined to this continent and quarantined from the contamination of non-African interference’,” he said.

Abiy, conversely, was recently on a tour of European capitals in an attempt to rehabilitate Ethiopia’s international image and raise funding to repair the damage inflicted by the Tigray war.

His plan for African self-reliance includes a permanent seat on the UN security council and opening an African Union continental media house to combat Africa’s “typical unpopular portrayal in the media”.

More conflicts, terrorism

President Macky Sall of Senegal made his final address as AU chair, handing over responsibility, and a tiny gavel, to the Comoros leader. Sall’s departure from the AU is sparking rumours that he will be taking a step up on the international stage at the UN.

He said this year’s summit offered “a historical opportunity to close the door to African conflicts and open the door to African solutions”.

Sall also raised the issue of unconstitutional transitions of power, an increasingly common occurrence in Africa, as a barrier to development on the continent.

Among the current pressing challenges has been the de-escalation of the M23 conflict in DRC. Sources speaking to The Africa Report on the condition of anonymity say that talks between DRC and Rwanda had not been particularly successful.

Combatting terrorism across the continent – in Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, and the Lake Chad region – is also a priority at this year’s summit.

Whilst countries like Kenya and Angola appear to be facilitating bilateral meetings this week, Faki spoke out against the inaction he feels has become a normality amongst the 55-member organisation.

“The countries that are confronted with terrorism are left to fend for themselves with indifference. People are chanting where is the brotherhood? Where is the solidarity?”

Climate change

As well as a focus on the capitalisation of resources, climate change is also becoming a higher priority for the AU, particularly with an island nation, extremely vulnerable to the consequences, at the helm.

“Although Africa is only responsible for about three per cent of emissions, it affects the life of our citizens [disproportionately]. The AU should continue to make itself heard as it did during the COP27,” Assoumani said.

Sall added that “a population of almost 1.3 billion, with multiple types of resources, [we] cannot be left behind”.

Abiy talked at length about his disillusionment with the current attitude towards environmental issues, stating that climate change talks are “hardly ever backed up with action”.

“Not all of our problems are problems of our own making – Africa’s contribution to climate change is insignificant but it [is] affecting us most harshly,” he said.

Afro-Arab free trade

An interesting development of this year’s summit also appears to be the Afro-arab relationship.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Secretary-General of the League of the Arab States announced an African Union project to develop Afro-Arab free trade, bolstered by the presence of non-member Arab states such as gas-rich Qatar in Saturday’s sessions.

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