African Union summit backed peace in Libya, chose new leaders, vowed coronavirus action

Bassem Aly , Monday 8 Feb 2021

Biden addressed the AU summit, saying the US 'is committed to rebuilding our partnerships around the world and re-engaging with international institutions like the African Union'

AU summit
File Photo: A general view shows the headquarters of the African Union (AU) building in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, taken on January 29, 2017. REUTERS

This week, the African Union (AU) held its 34th assembly, a meeting that was held virtually as is the case with many diplomatic equivalents around the world in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

The summit, which took place on Saturday and Sunday, included announcements about the AU’s foreign policy stances and actions on several issues, including Libya’s peace process, selection of new leaders and — most importantly — COVID-19.  

New appointments 

The assembly saw the re-election of Moussa Faki, Chad's former prime minister, as the chairperson of the AU Commission for a new four-year term. 

"Deeply humbled by the overwhelming and historic vote of confidence by AU member states by voting 51 out of 55 to extend my mandate at the helm of the AU Commission for another 4 years. My congratulations to @mnsanzabaganwa who was elected as deputy chairperson. Together we WILL," Faki tweeted on Saturday. 

Monique Nsanzabaganwa is a Rwandan economist who had held multiple ministerial positions.

The AU’s executive council also elected Nigeria’s Bankole Adeoye as head of political affairs, peace and security; Angola’s Josefa Sacko as head of agriculture, rural development, blue economy and sustainable development; Zambia’s Albert Muchanga as head of economic development, trade, industry, and mining; and Egypt’s Amany Abu Zeid as head of infrastructure and energy. 

Elections for the positions of commissioner health, humanitarian affairs and social development and commissioner education, science, technology and innovation were postponed, though no official explanation was provided on this matter. 

Libya’s peace process 

On the same day of his re-election, Faki welcomed the election of a transitional government in Libya by the UN-backed Libyan Political Dialogue Front (LPDF). Faki stressed that the AU supports “the brotherly people of Libya in their quest towards peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction.” 

Mohamed Younis Menfi, a diplomat, was elected as the head of Libya’s three-member Presidential Council, while Abdul-Hamid Mohamed Dbeibah won the race for the premiership. The transitional authorities in Libya will be responsible for leading the country and ending divisions ahead of the national elections slated for 24 December. 

The Libyan peace process commenced after a ceasefire was declared last August by the rival authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk to end a six-year split. Rounds of peace talks in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Switzerland have been held since to discuss peace arrangements.

So far, in addition to electing interim officials, the Libyan parties agreed to hold elections in December, develop "criteria, transparent mechanisms, and objectives" for key power positions, work on the release of all prisoners, protect oil and gas facilities and completely resume production and export activities.

Supporting African states against COVID-19

A lengthy statement was issued during the summit about the coronavirus, stressing the AU's commitment “to strengthen the collective response to the crisis, marshalling resources for the benefit of all, and striving to ensure that no country is left behind.” Based on a call by Cyril Ramaphosa, the AU’s outgoing chairperson and South African president, member states stood for a minute of silence for the victims of COVID-19. 

The new AU chairperson, DR Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi said the pan-African organisation will consolidate its initiatives in the fight against the virus and the prevention of other diseases. Tshisekedi also called for “drawing the lessons of the pandemic, in addition to strengthening health systems, the time has come to invest more in education and scientific research.”

Tshisekedi stated that the AU seeks to "strengthen peace and security; pursue the operationalisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area; promote a renaissance of African culture, arts and heritage; combat climate change; accelerate integrative projects, including the construction of the Inga Dam."

According to World Health Organisation figures, 47 African countries have been affected by the coronavirus, with cumulative cases reaching 2,634,075. The death toll is approaching 25,000. 

Amany El-Taweel, an expert on Africa at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, believes that the AU — although it acted quickly to stop the spread of the infection — faces many virus-related challenges, including logistical problems and the lack of vaccines. 

El-Taweel added that other regional organisations, such as the European Union, have similar challenges amid the inability of pharmaceutical companies to meet the growing international demand for vaccines. 

“This affected the way Europe is handling the crisis,” she argued. 

International support 

Ahead of the summit, the AU received the support of regional and international actors. The ninth general cooperation meeting between the AU and the Arab League took place on 1 February to tackle "the importance of continuing to strengthen and develop this partnership to serve the strategic common goals of the two organisations”. 

The two sides agreed to intensify support of the Libyan parties “on the path to peaceful settlement of the Liban crisis, on all fronts,” to Sudan in terms of its transitional phase, and to Somalia “in laying the foundations of security and stability.”

"They also reviewed the overall situation in the Horn of Africa, and the need to encourage cooperation, integration, and good neighbour efforts in the region, and exchanged views in this regard on developments on the borders between Sudan and Ethiopia, the progress of the Renaissance Dam negotiations, supported by the African Union, between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and the settlement of differences between Somalia and Kenya," read an AU statement issued on 4 February. 

Meanwhile, in a sign of positive relations with Washington, US President Joe Biden addressed the summit by saying that his administration “is committed to rebuilding our partnerships around the world and re-engaging with international institutions like the African Union.”

Biden called for partnering with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to “advance health security” and investe “more in global health — defeating COVID-19, and working to prevent, detect, and respond to future public health crises.” 

Harry Broadman, an ex-chief of staff for the US president's Council of Economic Advisors (1990-1991), said he hopes that the members of the Biden administration “who have responsibility for US policy towards Africa are focusing on ways the US can help the continent deal as effectively as possible to mitigate the severe impacts of COVID-19.

“How the AU responds to ensure the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and coordination of economic relief from the crisis are truly continent-wide undertakings that will be an important early test of the extent to which African leaders and the continent’s population believe in integrated approaches to problem-solving as epitomised by the African Continental Free Trade Area ,” concluded Broadman, currently chair of the emerging markets practice at Berkeley Research Group.

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