Jan 24, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — Africa’s leaders on Tuesday named Congo to head the African Union and agreed that Sudan would take over the leadership next year, ending a row sparked by Khartoum’s bid to lead the 53-nation body.
- Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf arrives at the sixth African Union Summit in Sudan’s capital Khartoum January 24, 2006. (AP).
President Denis Sassou-Nguessou, who ruled Congo from 1979 to 1992 and returned to power in 1997 in a coup, took over the chair from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo on the final day of the AU summit in Khartoum.
Sudan’s bid to head the continental body had failed to win unanimous support because of the conflict in Darfur, where the AU is mediating peace talks and has deployed a 7,000-strong peacekeeping force.
A seven-nation committee set up to resolve the dispute drew up the compromise deal that was endorsed by the leaders at the session following days of dissent over Khartoum’s bid.
"Sudan shall assume the presidency of the African Union for the year 2007," said the text adopted by the leaders.
The bid by President Omar el-Beshir, who seized power in a 1989 coup, caused unease as the AU is the main peace broker in its western region of Darfur, where 300,000 people have died over the past three years.
But a solution appeared within sight when Sudan announced on Monday that it was ready to withdraw its candidacy to avoid divisions within the AU, set up only four years ago with a new commitment to peace.
Human rights groups had warned that giving Sudan the AU chair would be tantamount to rewarding a regime accused by the United States of genocide in Darfur and would damage the AU’s credibility.
"It’s a half-step in the right direction," commented Reed Brody, spokesman for US-based Human Rights Watch, noting that it was the first time that Africa had denied the presidency of a continental body to a country.
But he added: "If Sudan’s atrocities make al-Beshir unsuitable to lead Africa this year, it’s hard to see how he’ll be suitable next year."
"Denis Sassou-Nguessou’s human rights record is nothing to celebrate but it is certainly leagues better than al-Beshir," he said.
Sudan, which last year signed an historic agreement ending 21 years of war in the south, had won support from Egypt and Libya for its bid but west African and southern African governments were reluctant to give Khartoum the high-profile position.
US President George W. Bush expressed concern on Monday at the prospect of a Sudan-led AU, citing the situation in Darfur.
"It is a concern to us, and it should be a concern to the AU nations," Bush said at a public meeting in Kansas, noting that if Sudan takes over the bloc’s leadership it would "put them the titular head of the troops on the ground."
The AU deployed a peacekeeping force to the zone in 2004 but it has been unable to put a stop to the bloodshed between rebels and militias backed by government troops.
Darfur rebels taking part in AU-sponsored peace talks in Abuja had warned they would pull out of the negotiations if Sudan was given the presidency of the AU.
The flap over Sudan’s AU bid dominated talks at the summit, which officially was to tackle issues of culture and education and touch on the conflicts in Ivory Coast and Chad’s border clashes with Sudan, among other problems.
Aid officials and Western diplomats complained that vital peace and security issues had been brushed aside as the summit was consumed with the leadership tussle.
"The situation in Darfur is as bad as it was this time last year. Access to assistance is being denied," said one aid official, who asked not to be named. "The AU needs to respond accordingly."
Leaders also decided that Obasanjo would continue leading peace efforts in Darfur, one of the worst humanitarian crises on the continent.