By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
January 30, 2014 (ADDIS ABABA) - The African Union summit opened on Thursday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, urging the warring parties in South Sudan to prevent the youngest nation from falling into the abyss.
The continental summit was scheduled to focus on food security and agriculture, however the conflicts in South Sudan and Central African Republic dominated the agenda.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, the outgoing Africa Union chairperson, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, said although there was encouraging progress achieved in resolving conflicts in parts of Africa, the emergence of new conflicts is a security concern.
Referring to the situation in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, Desalegn said that Africa and the wider international community needed to find a "urgent solution to rescue these two sisterly countries from falling into the abyss."
Over half a million people have been displaced and thousands killed since the conflict in South Sudan began in mid-December.
Failure prevent the conflicts worsening "will have serious implications for peace and security in the region and indeed the whole continent. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to help these two fragile African states in restoring peace and stability and addressing their internal challenges", Desalegn said.
Despite a fragile ceasefire agreement signed last week in Addis Ababa, South Sudan’s army and rebel forces have continued fighting in breach of peace deal.
The Ethiopian premier said military confrontation will not be a solution to the crises in South Sudan further urging the government of President Salva Kiir and the rebels whoa re led by his former deputy Riek Machar to fully commit themselves to engaging in the second stage of peace talks without preconditions.
He called asked those in positions of influence to demonstrate the necessary political leadership to end the bloodshed.
"Both protagonists should know that the problem cannot be resolved through the barrel of the gun" Desalegn said.
As part of the peace deal, Kiir’s administration freed seven of the 11 political prisoners who are accused of collaborating with Machar to overthrow the government, an allegation strongly denied by all of the accused.
The United States is among those in the international community calling on South Sudan to release the last four detainees. It is hoped that such a move that could remove a major sticking point in negotiations to end the conflict.
However the AU Peace and Security Commissioner, Smail Chergui, said putting the political detainees on trial could hamper peace talks, which are due to resume on February 7.
Chergui said the AU is asking for their release "so they can participate and contribute to the dialogue that will be initiated between all the parties of South Sudan".
AU SPECIAL ENVOY APPOINTED
Addressing the African leaders, Africa Union Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, asked for urgent concerted efforts to silence the guns in South Sudan and CAR, as well as at the continent at large.
"Our hearts go to the people of the Central African Republic and South Sudan who face devastating conflicts in their countries and especially to women and children who’ve become the victims," Dlamini-Zuma said.
"We have to work together to ensure that we build lasting peace," she said further expressing the AU’s concern for women and children who are the prime victims of the conflicts.
To ensure that the voices of women and the vulnerable are heard much more clearly in peace building and in conflict resolution she announced the continental bloc’s appointment of Mrs. Binta Diop, as AU Special Envoy for Women, Peace and Security.
Meanwhile, Mauritania’s president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, has taken over the one-year rotating chairmanship of the AU from Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn.