Jan 23, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — Five African leaders have asked Sudan to withdraw its bid to head the African Union because the appointment could sink Darfur peace talks and dent the group’s credibility, an AU official and delegates said on Monday.
- AU Summit Room Conference at the Friendship Hall - Khartoum
Sudan has nominated itself to chair the 53-member AU, based on a tradition that the host of its summit becomes the organization’s next leader. Sudan, which is under fire for rights abuses, wants to succeed Nigeria at the two-day summit that opened in Khartoum on Monday.
Sudan’s leadership bid sparked criticism from rights groups that say a Sudanese presidency would hurt AU efforts to improve Africa’s record on democracy and human rights. Several African regional blocs also oppose it.
An AU official told Reuters that five heads of state met Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Sunday and told him "there was a consensus that he should withdraw".
The official, who asked not to be identified because the issue was politically sensitive, said the five nations included Nigeria, whose President Olusegun Obasanjo has led the AU for nearly two years. Other delegates also confirmed Sudan had been asked to withdraw by five states.
The signals from Sudan on the request were mixed.
An AU official said after receiving the request, Bashir said he would consult his neighbors and respond. Other Sudanese officials had said Sudan would consider withdrawing if asked.
But on Monday, Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol denied Bashir was asked to drop his bid and said Sudan would not withdraw. In case of a division, he said there would be a vote.
"There was no such request (to withdraw) ... Sudan still wants to be the chairman," Akol told Reuters.
Rights groups praised the decision to ask Sudan to withdraw, saying it showed the AU, set up in 2002, was determined not to be deflected from its mission to improve Africa’s image by promoting democracy, human rights and development.
"It takes courage to tell al-Bashir that Sudan’s atrocities disqualify him from the presidency and that Africans deserve better," said Reed Brody, a lawyer for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
AU IN DARFUR
An AU force of 7,000 troops is monitoring a tentative truce between the government and rebels in Darfur in western Sudan where three years of fighting has triggered a humanitarian crisis. Critics, including the United States, say it would be inappropriate for Sudan to head the group leading that force.
Darfur rebels have said they will walk out of AU-sponsored peace talks in Nigeria if Sudan becomes head.
"There is no way that Sudan will take the chair. It is far too complicated," a senior West African government official said.
Officials said a group of leaders met before the summit opened to seek a deal on the presidency but said no agreement was reached and talks were to resume later on Monday.
"It is looking like the compromise is for Obasanjo to stay because then Bashir will save some face," the AU official said.
But Obasanjo indicated he might not stay. In a speech at the start of the summit he thanked AU members for their support during his term. One alternative discussed by officials would be picking a central African candidate, possibly Congo Republic.
Sudan has said it has the backing of North and East Africa, but diplomats say southern, western and central Africa have been urging Khartoum to withdraw its nomination.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), said West Africa would welcome Nigeria staying. But some fear extending Nigeria’s tenure could undermine the principle of a rotating chairmanship.
The tussle over the presidency has overshadowed preparations for the meeting, which aims to focus on education and culture as well as human rights.
African ministers have picked judges for an African human rights court and leaders are expected to discuss whether former Chadian leader Hissene Habre should be extradited from Senegal to Belgium to face charges of atrocities committed when he ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990.