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Africa-France summit opens in Mandela’s shadow


The much-anticipated Africa-France summit on peace and security opened in Paris a day after Nelson Mandela’s death, sparking a commitment from African leaders to try to tackle the continent’s problems in the spirit of the great African statesman.


A meeting of nearly 40 African leaders to discuss peace and security across the continent opened in Paris on Friday in the shadow of former South African president Nelson Mandela’s death.

Standing beside a giant photograph of a grinning Mandela with his arm raised in the trademark clenched-fist salute, French President François Hollande opened the summit at the Elysée presidential palace with a tribute to one of Africa’s greatest sons.

“As fate would have it, Africa is meeting here in Paris at a summit on peace and security the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. This is highly symbolic. It also means that we have to face up to our responsibilities,” said Hollande.

Addressing a gathering of African leaders, senior ministers, as well as international diplomats – including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – Hollande noted that although Mandela is no more, his message would continue to inspire a new generation.

“France expresses its solidarity with all Africans, represented here by heads of state, heads of government and ministers. France, at this moment, is seizing Mandela’s message of hope for all the people of the world,” said Hollande. “Today, it is Nelson Mandela who is presiding over this summit.”

The long-planned Africa-France summit came the morning after South African President Jacob Zuma announced the death of the 95-year-old former African statesman on Thursday night.

Zuma was supposed to attend Friday’s summit, but cancelled weeks earlier due to other domestic commitments.

South Africa was represented at the summit by Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who evoked Mandela’s spirit in a rousing call to African leaders to tackle the challenges confronting the continent.

“We will deal with the root causes of the challenges in the Central African Republic. We will work together to find a peaceful resolution so our people can enjoy peace and security together,” said Mashabane before ending with a tribute to Madiba, as he is fondly known across the continent, “The struggle to free Africa from insecurity has come and we shall fight it in your name.”

Hollande pushes for African rapid reaction force

Mandela’s death came just hours after the UN Security Council on Thursday adopted a resolution authorising French and African troops in the lawless Central African Republic (CAR) to use force to protect civilians.

The UN resolution followed warnings by French officials that the landlocked African nation was at risk of spiralling into genocide after the CAR’s interim President Michel Djotodia – a rebel leader who seized power in March – failed to control his fighters.

France, which already has around 600 troops based in the CAR capital of Bangui, is set to increase its force in the former French colony to around 1,200 soldiers. An African Union force of 2,500 will be boosted to 3,600.

France’s intervention in the CAR comes at the end of a year that began with the French military operation in Mali, underscoring the challenges still confronting African missions.

More than a decade after its conceptualisation, a planned African Standby Force (ASF) has still not got off the ground. Embarrassed by the speed and efficiency of the French intervention in Mali, the African Union (AU) has now proposed a temporary mechanism, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC).

But unless the systemic problems of a lack of financial resources, gaps in military capabilities and a unified political leadership are addressed, the ACIRC is unlikely to manage the much-touted African solutions to African problems.

In his opening address on Friday, Hollande said his administration was willing to assist the AU in building a rapid reaction force, noting that France can train around 20,000 African soldiers every year.

Is Paris playing gendarme in Africa – again?

The French interventions in Mali and the CAR have sparked questions over whether France is slipping back to an interventionist past when Paris played gendarme in its “pré carré” (backyard) – as its sub-Saharan zone of influence was popularly known.

At the Africa-France summit, Hollande was careful to stress that France’s recent participation in African interventions was under the aegis of international organisations and regional blocs, including the European Union.

Underlining Europe’s involvement in a continent that is experiencing rapid economic growth, European Commission head José Manuel Barroso on Friday noted that, “Together, Africa and Europe, we can move things forward to find a solution to our problems because problems know no borders.”

As the heads of state and their delegations broke up for further discussions on a range of issues, they were once again reminded that a great African statesman, now deceased, but who’s spirit lives on, would have expected them to address the continent’s problems.

Standing on the sidelines of the summit, Onana Sylvestre, a Cameroonian diplomat, said he expected no less from the leaders gathered in Paris.

“Nelson Mandela’s death represents an edict to Africa’s leaders to work for the people of Africa,” said Sylvestre. “His death, and the fact that it happened during the Paris summit, is an invitation to all the presidents of Africa to work for peace and democracy on the continent.”

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