African leaders tackle Covid, conflict at virtual summit

Addis Ababa (AFP) –


African leaders opened a two-day virtual summit on Saturday to discuss the continent's Covid-19 response as well as security issues that have been overlooked during the pandemic.

The African Union summit comes almost exactly one year after Egypt recorded the first coronavirus case in Africa, prompting widespread fears that member states' weak health systems would quickly be overwhelmed.

But despite early doomsday predictions, the continent has been hit less hard than other regions so far, recording 3.5 percent of virus cases and four percent of deaths worldwide, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, though, many African countries are battling damaging second waves while straining to procure sufficient vaccine doses.

"This disease has caused great suffering and hardship across our continent," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the outgoing AU chairman, said in opening remarks Saturday.

"It is not only a severe health emergency. It is also a grave economic and social crisis."

African leaders have been speaking out against vaccine hoarding by rich countries at the expense of poorer ones.

"There is a vaccine nationalism on the rise, with other rich countries jumping the queue, some even pre-ordering more than they require," Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the AU's executive body the African Union Commission, said in a recent interview.

Ramaphosa was due to deliver a pandemic response update during the closed portion of the summit on Saturday, according to a draft programme seen by AFP.

In his opening speech he called for "a fresh injection of resources" from the International Monetary Fund to "correct the glaring inequality in fiscal stimulus measures between advanced economies and the rest of the world."

- Elections and crises -

Separately, member states are due to hold internal elections to lead the restructured commission -- the results of which will shape how the AU responds to the pandemic and a host of economic and security challenges.

Faki, a former prime minister of Chad, is running unopposed for a second four-year term as commission chief.

He still needs to get two-thirds of the vote, overcoming accusations -- which he denies -- of "a culture of sexual harassment, bribery, corruption and bullying within the commission," the International Crisis Group wrote in a recent briefing.

In another race, Nigerian Bankole Adeoye is favoured to head the AU's newly-merged political affairs and peace and security departments, diplomats say, though AU rules dividing top positions among Africa's sub-regions could lead to a surprise result.

Whoever wins could play a critical role, along with Faki, in addressing crises the AU is accused of overlooking.

There are multiple internal conflicts the AU has done little to resolve.

Its Peace and Security Council has failed to hold meetings on a conflict between government forces and anglophone separatists in Cameroon, for example, as well as rising Islamist militancy in Mozambique.

A three-month-old conflict in the AU's host country Ethiopia, pitting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government against the former ruling party of the northern Tigray region, has proved especially sensitive.

Abiy has rejected appeals from high-level AU envoys for talks with Tigrayan leaders, sticking to his line that the conflict is a limited "law and order" operation.

- Congo in charge -

This weekend's summit comes as new US President Joe Biden vows to re-engage with multilateral institutions like the African Union.

In a video message posted Friday, Biden said his administration would engage in "sustained diplomacy, in connection with the African Union, to address conflicts that are costing lives all across the African continent."

The summit also marks the official beginning of the year-long AU chairmanship of Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, who is replacing Ramaphosa.

Addressing fellow heads of state and government on Saturday, Tshisekedi vowed to make the AU more relevant by taking it "away from meeting rooms".

Tshisekedi has outlined an ambitious agenda that includes responding to climate change, fighting sexual violence, promoting the African Continental Free Trade Area and accelerating his own country's Grand Inga Hydropower Project, which the AU sees as an important source of electricity for the continent.

But Tshisekedi is also embroiled in a tussle for power at home with supporters of DR Congo's former president Joseph Kabila.

Mohamed Diatta, a researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, said Tshisekedi is "trying really hard to consolidate power at home, but it's not an easy task".

"He's probably going to still be busy with that because what he's created at home is essentially a very fragile and loose governing coalition," Diatta told AFP.