Eager Ethiopia plays host to crisis-wracked African Union

AFP , Thursday 3 Feb 2022

Just three months ago, foreigners were fleeing Ethiopia in droves, responding to alarming security warnings from mostly Western embassies about a possible rebel advance on the capital.

Adids Ababa, Ethiopia
People walk in front of a banner set as part of the preparations in the city for hosting the 35th ordinary summit of the African Union, in the city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on February 01, 2022. AFP

This week, traffic is moving in the opposite direction, as delegations from across Africa fly in for the latest summit of the African Union this weekend -- an event the government has described as "a heavy blow to those who were professing the doomsday here".

Well over a year into a conflict ravaging the country's north, Ethiopia appears eager to host a meeting that will focus on other crises, and the AU has several on offer.

From coups to climate change to the coronavirus, the two-decade-old bloc is confronting a number of challenges which look set to weigh on its 55 member states for years to come.

It also faces the prospect of a debate over its relationship with Israel that analysts warn could become highly polarising during the two-day gathering that begins on Saturday.

The result is a fraught agenda that may distract from Ethiopia's troubles while allowing Addis Ababa, home to AU headquarters, to present itself as a strong, stable host for its neighbours.

"I think it can certainly be seen as a political win for Ethiopia," said Imogen Hooper, African Union analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a conflict-prevention organisation.

Abiy's government "has been lobbying heavily for this to take place in person, because it does give a sense of normalisation."

Cascading coups

The summit follows a spate of recent coups on the continent, the latest occurring less than two weeks ago in Burkina Faso.

On Tuesday night, Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo survived a gun attack that both the AU and the West African bloc ECOWAS denounced as a coup attempt.

The following day, addressing a meeting of foreign ministers preceding this weekend's summit for heads of state, African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat condemned a "worrying resurgence of military coups".

The AU's 15-member security body has suspended Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Sudan over their unconstitutional changes in power.

But it has not suspended Chad, where a military council took over following the death of longtime President Idriss Deby Itno on the battlefield last April.

"The AU's inconsistent response to the slew of unconstitutional changes of government has been particularly damaging," ICG said in a briefing this week.

At the summit , leaders should discuss how to be more proactive in addressing factors that give rise to coups, including terrorism-related instability and frustration over constitutional revisions that extend leaders' time in power, said Solomon Dersso, founder of the AU-focused Africa Amani think tank.

"It is only when crisis hits that we say, 'Gosh, how come this country is falling apart like this so quickly?'" Solomon said.

Disease and diplomacy

On Saturday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is slated to provide an update on Africa's response to the pandemic, nearly two years after the continent's first Covid-19 case was detected in Egypt.

As of January 26, only 11 percent of Africa's more than 1 billion people had been fully vaccinated, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

That is a far cry from the body's target of 70 percent by the end of the year.

African leaders have long spoken out against the hoarding of vaccines by rich countries, a theme likely to be repeated.

A draft agenda seen by AFP also includes a discussion of Faki's decision last year to accept Israel's accreditation at the AU.

Accredited non-African states are able to attend some conferences, access non-confidential AU documents and present statements at meetings that concern them.

Faki's move drew quick, vocal protest from powerful members including South Africa and Algeria, which argued that it flew in the face of AU statements supporting the Palestinian Territories.

Analysts say a vote on the issue could yield an unprecedented split in the bloc.

'African solutions'

Amid all this, it is doubtful the war in Ethiopia, pitting Abiy's government against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group, will get much attention.

Foreign envoys are pushing hard for a ceasefire and expanded aid access to conflict-hit areas.

But Abiy's government has dismissed criticism from the US and other Western powers as smacking of neo-imperialism.

If signs recently posted outside the Addis Ababa airport are any indication, Abiy seems poised to use this year's AU summit to shore up his pan-African bona fides.

"African solutions to African problems," reads one. "The future of Mother Africa is bright," reads another.

And a third: "To pull together is to avoid being pulled apart."

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