When the 22nd African Union Summit kicked off here at the organization's headquarters on Thursday morning, AU Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma opened the ceremonies with a note of whimsy. Standing at the podium in the crowded conference room, she read an email from the year 2063: a glimpse into the future as imagined by AU diplomats today.
“At the beginning of the 21st century, we used to get irritated with foreigners when they treated Africa as one country, as if it were not a continent of over a billion people and 55 foreign states,” the imagined missive read. “But the advancing global trend towards regional blocs reminded us that integration and unity is the only way for Africa to leverage its competitive advantage.” The message went on to detail the advances Africa had made since 2014, including an expansive railway network, a pan-African university, several bustling manufacturing hubs, profitable clean-energy projects and an African Space Agency.
Africa could very well make great strides over the next 50 years, as the AU and its partners pursue various initiatives on education, integration and sustainable development. But despite the rosy view outlined in official statements this week, it came as no surprise that the agenda-topping issue was conflict – particularly the crises unfolding in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
African leaders are adamant about shifting common perceptions about their continent, said AU Deputy Chair Erastus Mwencha in an interview before the summit. “One of the challenges that Africa always experienced is that the narrative seems to miss the point of where Africa has come from, where Africa is and where Africa is going,” he said, pointing to incredible economic growth and the peace that prevails across most of the continent. “The narrative seems to dwell on the challenges ... but that's not bringing out the positive developments that are taking place within Africa.”
The themes for this year's summit were agriculture and food security, issues that touch on everything from poverty to development to economic growth. The continent certainly has a long way to go; the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization noted last year that sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s worst record of undernourishment -- nearly one in four people are hungry, despite the region's abundance of under-utilized arable land. The AU’s response so far has centered on investment; Mwencha pointed to the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, which has seen 70 percent of member states increase their investments in the sector over the past decade.
But after the summit had ended on Friday evening, Dlamini Zuma admitted that agriculture hadn't been a major focus for attending dignitaries, explaining that food insecurity is an ongoing issue. “The full discussion on agriculture will take place in the next summit,” she told journalists. “The June summit is going to be devoted in large measure to agriculture.”
This gathering devoted plenty of time to South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In South Sudan, a political clash erupted into widespread violence – largely along ethnic lines – this December, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and threatening the long-term stability of the world's youngest country. In the Central African Republic, a transitional government has only just taken the reins after months of devastating tit-for-tat attacks – largely along religious lines – killed thousands and obstructed humanitarian efforts to provide relief for hundreds of thousands of displaced, hungry and injured civilians.
Keynote speakers at the summit made sure to mention recent success stories in the peace and security sphere, including successful elections held last year in Mali and Madagascar and upcoming elections in Guinea-Bissau – all countries that are working to improve political stability following conflicts that upended democracy. But South Sudan and the Central African republic are still suffering bloody struggles, and the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui said during a press conference that these two countries were areas of special focus.
In the case of South Sudan, a Horn of Africa bloc called the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, is mediating negotiations between warring factions. A cessation of hostilities agreement was signed last week, and IGAD special envoy Seyoum Mesfin, a former foreign minister of Ethiopia, expressed optimism about the situation on Thursday. “Yes, there are skirmishes here and there before [we establish] the mechanism for formal monitoring and verification,” he said. “But by and large, we see there is much restraint and encouragement.” Delegates from South Sudan and other involved countries, including Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, met on the sidelines of the summit to commend Juba's recent release of seven detainees widely seen as integral to the ongoing talks, and to urge the establishment of a ceasefire monitoring mechanism by Feb. 2.
Just across South Sudan's western border, the continent's other major conflict continues to unfold. The African Union is in charge of the International Support Mission to the Central African Republic, or MISCA in French, a force of up to 6,000 troops meant to fill the country's security vacuum. “The most important thing is to be able to meet the expectations of the people of Central Africa,” said Chergui on Friday, “and especially to enable the people to implement the road map adopted so that they can have, at least by the end of 2015, elections and return to constitutional order.” The AU is working to secure funding, troops and logistical support from African and overseas partners; a donors' conference will be held in Addis Ababa on Saturday.
This summit also took a broader approach to security by addressing the African Standby Force, or ASF, an entity that, once formed, will have the capacity to respond immediately to crises as they emerge. The issue is a contentious one, with some countries' delegates worried that such a force would threaten state sovereignty. But at the end of the summit, newly instated AU Chair and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz noted that at least nine countries had already agreed to volunteer troops for a force that would be a precursor to the ASF.
“A few countries have already taken the decision to provide forces that will step in whenever need be,” he said. “At the moment it's not the African Standby Force; this is a commitment that will be taken by volunteer countries in order to resolve crises that will crop up.”
Despite all the focus on security-related issues, African dignitaries addressed a range of topics including education, health care, climate change and trade. Where concrete progress was lacking, delegates made plans for further discussions down the road – even though the AU is regularly criticized for letting talk get in the way of action.
That problem has much to do with diversity; it's not easy to get leaders from dozens of vastly different states to come together on sensitive topics. That's why Aziz – like plenty of AU leaders before him – urged solidarity as the key of Africa's progress in the years ahead.
“It is high time for us to speak with one voice – a strong voice, a single voice – in particular on the intentional scene, on all international issues,” he said. “It is important to assess as soon as possible all the partnerships within Africa to promote and enhance sound relationships with our equal partners.”