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A New Chairman Of An Unset Table: Al-Sisi Elected As Chairman Of The African Union

The 32nd African Union (AU) summit took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia this February. Like the EU, the AU also has a rotating chairman based on region and nation, this time Al-Sisi representing North Africa was elected as new chairman of the AU 2019. In 2018, Paul Kagame from Rwanda was elected as the chairman of the Union. Africa has some of the world’s fastest economies but also several of the world’s conflicts. Traditionally, the AU has four focus areas: peace and security, political business, the establishment of a continental free trade area, and voice and representation in global affairs.

During 2018, the AU has grown its autonomy and force. It has succeeded in sending a number of peacekeeping troops to Somalia and Mali and has also negotiated a cease fire between LRA (Lord´s Resistance Army) several rebel groups and the government of Central African Republic. The AU has also prevented political crises in Madagascar and the Comoros and etc. There are conflicts and issues that Kagame has not prioritized sufficiently, in particular the conflicts in Congo, South Sudan, and issues such as developing the institutional and economic frameworks of the AU.

The African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: David Mark/Pixabay.

The AU is becoming a more efficient and self-sufficient institution. In 2012, the AU’s Member States funded just 3% of its budget. In 2017, it increased to 14%, which is far from the goal set in 2015 by Member States to finance 75% of the AU’s budget. Today, the remaining parts are financed by China and the West.

However, the AU also has a history of having difficulty establishing binding agreements between its member nations, which is to some extent understandable: 55 nations would have to accept the terms of any agreement, in comparison to the 28 Member States in the EU.

During the 32nd AU summit, Paul Kagame will have to hand over the chairman position to Egypt’s President Abd al-Fattah Al-Sisi. The outside world looks at this with concern, especially because of how Al-Sisi himself took power in 2014 and how he has treated the political opposition and is currently trying to extending his Presidential term to year 2034. After Al-Sisi’s coup d’état in 2013, Egypt was excluded from the AU but later got re-admitted.

Demonstrations against Al-Sisi in 2015. Photo: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr.

In relation to this, several African countries have had problems with electoral fraud, presidents sitting over their term of office, as for example, Felix Thsekeki in Congo or Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya, and, in the worst cases, not even respecting the country’s constitutions, like Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea.

In 2019, 25 nations will hold from local up to presidential elections. The resignation of President Yahya Jammeh in Gambia is a good example of the fact that ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), the AU and the neighboring countries of Gambia could collaborate in order to peacefully transition from president Yahya Jammeh when he lost the election to Adama Barrow.

Such situations can be problematic to handle for Al-Sisi as chairman of the AU, given that he was not democratically elected in his home country. Election observers will need to be called on for support a lot earlier. Their role will be to observe and protect the independence of the media, social media, the occurrence of fake news and ensuring the autonomy of the electoral body. Counting votes is not enough today. What incentives does Al-Sisi have to condemn non-democratically elected leaders during his chairmanship without it affecting himself domestically?

Similar questions can be asked about the respect for human rights. Al-Sisi has become known for kidnapping his political opponents as well as journalists. What incentives does Al-Sisi have to condemn Member States who do not respect human rights and the freedom of expression?

2019 will be a demanding year for the AU. Along with the many elections the AU will have to observe and Al-Sisi will have to address the refugee issues within the Union. Today, there are more than 6.6 million displaced refugees in Africa meaning people who have crossed their birth countries borders. Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan are the top hosting countries. Yet the majority of the refugees in Africa 14.5 million are internally displaced, meaning people who are refugees but who have not crossed their birth countries borders. Sub-Sahara Africa have experienced most of the refugee crisis.

Besides, Libya, Congo and Burundi all are within the Fragile States Index 2018 made by the American think thank Fund for Peace. They host a large number of refugees even though they do not have any established government. These three states will probably have a high importance in Al-Sisi agenda as chairman of AU.

The rise of terrorism is another catalyst for the high refugee numbers in the continent. It is an issue that is becoming increasingly prevalent. Although it has been in decline recently, it affects all regions of the continent, but in particular Nigeria, which received 37% of all terrorist attacks in 2014. Al-Shabaab in Somalia has also made a return and was placed third as the deadliest terrorist group in the world in fourth place is Boko Haram.

Terrorism is an issue Al-Sisi has been grappling with domestically. He will probably not be able to apply the same methods to combat it on an international level as he has done on a domestic level. Greater cooperation between Member States and support from the international community will be required as terrorism moves across borders.

Al-Sisi and Karin Kneissl, an Austrian diplomat, in 2018. Photo: BMEIA/Mahmoud.

For setting up his table Al-Sisi have to address some of the human and political crises within the continent. I would like to highlight two major obstacles.

First, Al-Sisi will have to deal with human and political crises among the Member States. The crises are often linked to poorly executed reforms, but also heads of states who do not respect human rights. It will be interesting to see how Al-Sisi addresses these problems without it affecting his own domestic political situation.

The second issue concerns the AU’s institutional and economic framework. Al-Sisi should urge its Member States to increase funding for the organizations. This would reduce the dependence on partner financing and achieve the goal of Members States being able to fund 75% of their program. This should increase the long-term autonomy and decisiveness of the AU.

Nadab Abraha

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