African Union holds summit amid crises over coups and COVID

The two-day summit in Addis Ababa will address six coups or attempted coups over the past 18 months and low vaccination rates.

People walk in front of a banner featuring African leaders
People walk in front of a banner displayed as part of the preparations for hosting the 35th summit of the African Union in the city of Addis Ababa [Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

Heads of state have gathered at the African Union headquarters to kick off a two-day summit as the continent reels from a spate of military coups and the coronavirus pandemic.

The summit starting on Saturday also comes as the 55-member bloc faces pressure to push for a ceasefire in host country Ethiopia, where a 15-month war has killed thousands of people and, the United Nations says, driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.

The bloc, formed 20 years ago to promote international cooperation and harmonise member states’ policies, has struggled to address six coups or attempted coups in Africa over the past 18 months, and the power grabs are high on the summit agenda.

Four member states have been suspended by the AU’s Peace and Security Council since mid-2021 because of unconstitutional changes of government, most recently Burkina Faso where soldiers overthrew President Roch Marc Christian Kabore last month.

Heads of state from continental heavyweight Nigeria, new AU chair Senegal and Kenya are due to attend, although absentees will include some major figures, like Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.

Addressing African foreign ministers this week, AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat denounced a “worrying resurgence of military coups”.

But the AU has been accused of an inconsistent response to the takeovers, notably by not suspending Chad after a military council took over following the death of longtime President Idriss Deby Itno on the battlefield last April.

Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow said elections have become problematic for many African countries.

“The diplomats who are gathered here tell us there are structural problems, and that many African countries and African leaders have adopted elections just as a calendar item that is done every five years,” he said, speaking from Addis Ababa.

“There is very little scrutiny of the credibility of false elections, and that is where they say the problem lies.”

The two-day summit should discuss how to be more proactive in addressing factors that give rise to coups, including instability related to armed groups and frustration over constitutional revisions that extend leaders’ time in power, Solomon Dersso, founder of the AU-focused Amani Africa think-tank, told the AFP news agency.

“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 expected 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 one billion people had been fully vaccinated, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Adow said despite a significant rise in the number of vaccines being donated to the continent, one of the main problems is with the rollout scheme.

“There are more and more donors bringing in the vaccines, but there is no rollout,” he said.

“There’s also a pushback from some parts of countries where people feel like they do not need these vaccines. A lot of education is needed, [to counter the] desensitisation of people on the benefits of the vaccines.”

There are calls from some of the countries to try to peg vaccinations to government subsidiaries, he added.

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

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.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh on Saturday urged the African Union to withdraw Israel’s observer status.

“Israel should never be rewarded for its violation and for the apartheid regime it does impose on the Palestinian people,” he said.

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether and how leaders will address the war in Ethiopia, which pits Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government against fighters from the northern Tigray region.

The fact that Ethiopia hosts the AU makes any intervention by the bloc especially delicate, and Faki waited until last August – nine months after fighting began – to appoint Olusegun Obasanjo as a special envoy tasked with trying to broker a ceasefire.

Ethiopia has also held a seat on the Peace and Security Council, though it failed in a bid to stay on the 15-member body this week, diplomats said.

“AU member states should not ignore the serious crimes committed by all warring parties, including federal government forces, in Ethiopia’s conflict,” Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Friday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies