March 4, 2021

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AU summit: What are the key issues?

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African Union (AU) leaders will hold a two-day summit starting on Saturday as the continent grapples with a wide range of issues, including a rise in coronavirus infections, border disputes and displacement due to fighting.

At this year’s virtual summit, Felix Tshisekedi, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, will take over the rotating AU chairmanship from his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa. The pan-African body’s assembly will also elect high-level officials to lead the AU Commission, including a chairperson, for the next four years.

Ahead of the summit, whose official theme is Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want, Al Jazeera takes a look at some of the most pressing priorities facing the continent.

COVID-19 pandemic

Africa, home to about 1.3 billion people, has reported more than 3.6 million confirmed COVID-19 infections and some 89,000 related deaths, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

Southern Africa is its most affected region, with South Africa particularly hit – at almost 1.5 million infections and 45,600 fatalities.

The continent might have escaped the worst of the pandemic – compared to the infections and deaths reported in the Americas, Europe and Asia – but health experts are warning that “vaccine hoarding” by wealthy nations is putting lives at risk in African countries.

While countries in other parts of the world have already rolled out mass vaccination programmes, those in Africa have hardly started issuing the jabs.

“We first, not me first, is the only way to end the pandemic,” Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for Africa, said in January.

“Vaccine hoarding will only prolong the ordeal and delay Africa’s recovery. It is deeply unjust that the most vulnerable Africans are forced to wait for vaccines while lower-risk groups in rich countries are made safe,” Moeti added.

COVAX, a WHO-led global vaccine-sharing scheme, says it aims to vaccinate at least 20 percent of the continent’s population.

“With a second wave of COVID spreading across the continent, the best response is to collectively access vaccine and start rolling out an inoculation campaign,” Alex Vines, director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.

“The key problem is funding. According to the WHO, only 25 percent of African countries have adequate plans for funding inoculation programmes,” Vines said.

On Thursday, Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong said 16 countries had shown interest in securing a total of 114 million doses under the AU’s Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), which began work in mid-January.

“Our hope is that in the next two to three weeks, they should be having their vaccines,” he told a virtual news conference.

CAR conflict

Long struggling with stability, the Central African Republic has been hit by a fresh wave of violence before and after chaotic elections in December that forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes, prevented most registered voters from casting their ballots and caused the collapse of a fragile peace deal.

A rebel alliance of armed groups has been seeking to overturn the December 27 polls, which saw incumbent President Faustin-Archange Touadera re-elected amid accusations of fraud.

The rebels moved on to the capital, Bangui, last month but were repelled by government forces and United Nations peacekeepers, as well as Rwandan and Russian troops. The rebel alliance, however, is still blockading the capital.

Unlike in some other conflicts on the continent, the AU has so far not sent troops to CAR, a mineral-rich country that is one of the world’s poorest nations.

“The AU is divided on this issue. Geopolitical influences have so far stopped deployment of troops,” analyst Tahirou Amadou told Al Jazeera.

“Francophone countries – Chad and Congo-Brazzaville – are on the side of the rebels and are accused of pushing France’s interest; Congo-Kinshasa has close links to Russia; Rwanda and Angola are supporting the government;” he added.

“There needs to be consensus before troops can be deployed.”

Tigray crisis

After protracted tension, Ethiopia’s central government on November 4 launched a military offensive to remove the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the ruling party of the northern state of Tigray bordering Eritrea and Sudan – from power. The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s governing coalition for almost 30 years, before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.

Abiy’s government in Addis Ababa declared the offensive over on November 28, when it seized the regional capital, Mekelle – but fighting continues in other parts of Tigray and most senior TPLF leaders remain at large.

The fighting in Tigray is believed to have killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands, including some 60,000 in Sudan. It has also spawned a humanitarian crisis, leaving millions in need of aid.

As aid groups keep pushing for access to the region amid a looming starvation crisis, Filippo Grandi, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, said on Monday the situation in Tigray is “extremely grave”.

“A humanitarian catastrophe is possible if essential food aid continues to be barred,” the International Crisis Group think-tank warned this week.

The conflict has also prompted warnings of further destabilisation within Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region. Eritrea has been accused of sending forces in Tigray to back Ethiopian soldiers, though both Addis Ababa and Asmara deny that.

“The AU appointed three former African heads of state as envoys to help resolve the conflict in Tigray, although they gained little traction on their visit to Addis Ababa last November, with Abiy rejecting calls for dialogue between the government and TPLF,” Ahmed Soliman, Horn of Africa research fellow at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.

“Given actions to date and the competing priorities of member states, I’m doubtful that the AU will push for a national dialogue in Ethiopia, which is much needed to address the critical fault-lines in the country,” Soliman said.

Somalia-Kenya dispute

In December, Somalia severed diplomatic ties with neighbouring Kenya, accusing Nairobi of violating Somali sovereignty and meddling in its internal affairs before a general election this year.

The move marked the culmination of steadily deteriorating ties between the two neighbours, which include a spat over maritime borders in a dispute that now rests with the International Court of Justice.

“The situation is incredibly serious,” Abdullahi Boru, a Horn of Africa security analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Somalia’s upcoming election and the start of the oral proceeding of the maritime dispute in March makes it even more tense.”

On November 30, Somalia expelled Kenya’s ambassador and recalled its own envoy from Nairobi, accusing Kenya of interfering in the electoral process in the southern state of Jubbaland, one of its five semi-autonomous states.

Relations between Somalia’s central government and Jubbaland, which borders Kenya, are tense as authorities of the semi-autonomous region accuse Mogadishu of seeking to remove President Ahmed Madobe and put a loyalist in power to increase central control.

Madobe is a key ally of Kenya, which sees Jubbaland as a buffer against al-Shabab fighters who have staged several bloody attacks across the border.

“The AU, by merely intervening with the consent of the two countries, could help bring down the temperature,” Boru said.

Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute

Ethiopia and Sudan have been embroiled in a tense dispute along their border, with both sides moving tanks and heavy weapons and accusing each other of pushing further into the contested area.

The two countries share a 1,600km (994-mile) border and have long feuded over the al-Fashaga region, where Ethiopian farmers cultivate fertile land claimed by Sudan.

“The border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia is one of grave concern to the region and has the potential to worsen without de-escalation efforts and bilateral discussions between the two neighbourly countries,” Soliman said.

The border tensions come at a time when Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are also trying to resolve a three-way dispute over the controversial dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile River, known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

“Ideally there would be discussion of this issue at the AU summit, even if that chiefly took the form of diplomatic conversations in the margins. However, given that this year’s summit is virtual, it limits the possibility of such mediation efforts,” Soliman added.

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

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