Jan 23, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — Africa’s leaders began their annual summit Monday in disarray, failing to resolve dissent over Sudan’s bid to chair the 53-state body while it stands accused of complicity in the conflict in Western Darfur.
- The Chairman of the African Union, Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo, left, with President of Sudan Field Marshall Omar Al-Bashir, after the opening of the African Union 6th Summit in Khartoum, Sudan, Monday, Jan. 23, 2006. (AP)
More than 30 leaders heard current African Union chairman Olusegun Obasanjo, president of Nigeria, praise "the unprecedented capacity to champion the cause of peace unity and development" demonstrated by Africans over the past year.
But Obasanjo’s list of ongoing conflicts far outweighed the "modest achievements" in a handful of countries including Liberia, where the continent’s first woman president was installed after elections ended a decade of civil war.
The traditional handover to the incoming chairman — usually the leader of the host country - was delayed until after a scheduled Monday afternoon private meeting of leaders.
"The resolution of the Darfur crisis is critical to the peace and stability of the Sudan and the entire region," Obasanjo said in his opening address.
Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is suffering numerous internal conflicts despite a power-sharing peace agreement that a year ago ended the civil war in oil-rich southern Sudan. That conflict centered on demands for autonomy from black southerners who are mainly Christian and charge they have been marginalized by increasingly repressive Islamist governments in the north.
President Omar al-Bashir is a military coup leader who installed Islamic law in northern Sudan.
Rebels in Darfur said Sunday they would boycott ongoing peace talks to protest the prospect, which would make Sudan both a mediator and a participant in the process.
Humanitarian workers say killings and rapes continue in Darfur, where an undermanned, ill-equipped force of 7,000 African Union peacekeepers trying to keep an April 2003 ceasefire has been attacked by all sides, including the Janjaweed militia that critics say is armed by el-Bashir’s government - a charge he denies. The conflict has left 180,000 people dead and spilled over into neighboring Chad.
The Africans have said peacekeeping funds for Darfur will run out by March and have urgently asked the U.N. for help. Some Africans want the U.N. to take over. Al-Bashir, in a speech at the summit opening, called for the continuation of the ineffective African force.
Human rights groups have warned giving the African leadership to Sudan — which the U.S. accuses of genocide in Darfur — would damage the image of the continental body formed four years ago to promote human rights, development and democracy.
Some West and Central African nations agree, according to several delegates, and one said they tried Sunday to persuade al-Bashir to withdraw to allow the candidacy of Congo’s Denis Sassou-Nguesso, another coup leader.
Another possibility would be to compromise by extending the tenure of Obasanjo, whose elections ended decades of military dictatorship in Nigeria.
Al-Bashir has cast the controversy as a fight for influence between Western countries and Africans seeking self-determination. Sunday, he told the official Sudan News Agency that Washington was attempting to foil Sudan’s bid.
Sudan has the support of eight East African nations and of Egypt, which wields influence in North Africa. In southern Africa Zimbabwe, facing allegations of its own on human rights abuse, is expected to support Sudan.
Regional powerhouse South Africa could support Sudan simply because of intense rivalry between its President Thabo Mbeki and Obasanjo. South Africa’s biggest opposition party Sunday called for Mbeki to oppose Sudan because of its human rights record.
The row has overshadowed the two-day meeting’s focus on education and culture, and sidelined numerous other issues on the agenda including conflict resolution, migration to Europe and the corruption and mismanagement that help make the continent the world’s largest reservoir of refugees and hungry people.
Only Chad has openly opposed Sudan’s bid, with President Idriss Deby accusing el-Bashir of backing rebels seeking to overthrow him. Sudan denies that and has called for talks.
Sunday, Sudanese police raided a meeting of dozens of African and international civil and human rights groups, detaining participants, documents and laptops for three hours, saying their meeting was unauthorized, participants said. Some equipment, including a French reporter’s recording equipment, still was not returned by Monday.
"This kind of heavy-handed behavior shows...the president of Sudan isn’t the correct person to lead the African Union," Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch, said.