President Félix Tshisekedi took over the chairmanship of the African Union (AU) in an unusual context, to say the least. Due to the ongoing pandemic, he was the only head of state to travel to Addis Ababa on 6 February for the virtual summit.
It was therefore in an almost empty room, alone in front of a camera, that the Congolese president said he wished to put himself at the service of an “Africa of peoples.” He also expressed to his peers his desire “to get [the] organisation, with all [their] help, out of the conference rooms, hard drives of [their] computers and the well-organised files of [their] secretariats.”
Pandemic and insecurity
Tshisekedi’s programme may seem ambitious given the numerous and complex obstacles he faces.
On the health front, it is due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences which have largely slowed the continent’s growth and even contributed to plunging some countries into recession. This despite the fact that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is still in its infancy.
Postponed to January 2021 due to the health crisis, establishing AfCFTA may require removing many regulatory and political obstacles. While the AU states (with the exception of Eritrea) have signed the agreement, not all have ratified it yet. The DRC did not approve it until the end of January, after a heated debate in the Assembly.
The security situation is also delicate. In addition to the chronic instability in eastern DRC, the AU – of which Tshisekedi is the chairman for the next 12 months – is increasingly called upon to intervene in many thorny issues.
On the Sahel front, Tshisekedi states that not only do “the daughters and sons of Africa fall every day under the barbarity of terrorism,” but there is also the ongoing crisis in English-speaking Cameroon.
READ MORE Sahel: What to look out for in 2021
In Tigray, there is a military offensive between the Ethiopian government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Lastly, in Central Africa, “the peace and stability of elected institutions are [being] severely tested [by] rebellions and armed groups.”
Will Tshisekedi, who has promised to use his position as head of the AU to “silence the weapons” and to “protect Africans against and eradicate epidemic diseases”, really be able to achieve his goals?
While at the national level he emerged strengthened from his wrestling match with Joseph Kabila, the head of state has been overseeing the continental initiatives spearheaded by former AU chairman, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. The Congolese president has surrounded himself with many advisers and experts in order to carry out these initiatives.
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Faced with Covid-19, “President Tshisekedi’s strategy is simple,” Bestine Kazadi tells us. “We will take joint action, and Africa will stand together to demand the vaccine,” she says. Appointed special adviser in charge of regional cooperation and integration in March 2019, she is one of Tshisekedi’s most important staff members at the AU.
Designated the focal point of the head of state’s office, Kazadi coordinates the work of the experts charged with assisting the new AU president. “According to the experts, at least 1.5 billion doses will be needed to vaccinate 60% of the population, and thus achieve herd immunity. And President Tshisekedi is working hard to achieve this,” she says, referring to the head of state’s efforts to strengthen the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC Africa).
“A man of peace, dialogue and cohesion”
Another priority for Tshisekedi is resolving security and political crises. With regards to this, Kazadi affirms that the president, “a man of peace, dialogue and cohesion”, will “use his know-how to bring everyone together.” Tshisekedi has in fact sent a delegation to Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt in order to try to reach an agreement on the Renaissance dam, which is poisoning relations between these three countries.
The Congolese head of state has detailed the “nine pillars” of his “vision” for the AU. These include ensuring peace and security; AfCFTA; “promoting a renaissance of African culture, arts and heritage”; fighting climate change; speeding up construction of the great Inga dam; and fighting Covid-19. He now has 12 months to turn his words into actions.
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