The two-day summit in Ethiopia comes after several shake-ups on the international stage: the election of US President Donald Trump and a new head of the UN, Antonio Guterres, who will address the opening of the assembly.
On Sunday in Addis Ababa, Guterres praised Ethiopia’s generosity in welcoming refugees from the region while battling its worst drought in 50 years.
It is “an example that I would say needs to be thought about in a world where unfortunately so many borders are being closed,” he said in a veiled dig at the US ban on travellers from seven Muslim countries, including Libya, Somalia and Sudan in Africa.
Uncertainty over Africa’s relationship with Trump’s America is one of several issues demanding the attention of AU leaders — from turmoil in Libya, radical Islam in Mali, Somalia and Nigeria, to stagnating peace efforts in South Sudan.
However Monday’s talks will be dominated by Morocco’s bid to return to the fold 33 years after it quit in protest against the AU’s decision to accept Western Sahara as a member.
– Facing resistance –
The membership of affluent Morocco could be a boon for the AU, which lost a key financier in late Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi and is working hard to become financially independent.
Currently foreign donors account for some 70 percent of its budget, according to the Institute for Security Studies.
A Moroccan diplomat said Sunday the country had the “unconditional support” of 42 members of the bloc.
However in a sign of the resistance Morocco is facing, 12 countries including heavyweights Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, Kenya and Angola, requested a legal opinion from the AU on whether the bloc could accept a country that some members consider is occupying another member’s territory.
These nations have long supported the campaign for self-determination by Western Sahara’s Polisario movement.
Morocco maintains that the former Spanish colony under its control is an integral part of the kingdom, while the Polisario Front, which campaigns for the territory’s independence, demands a referendum on self-determination.
The AU’s legal counsel, in a document seen by AFP, said the nations raised “fundamental concerns that have to be taken into account”. However the decison to weigh Morocco’s request ultimately rests with heads of state.
– Regional interests –
Also on Monday, leaders will vote for a new chairperson six months after failing to decide on a replacement for South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Fragmented regional interests — whether on Morocco’s bid or divisions over membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) — will shape the choice between five candidates from Kenya, Senegal, Chad, Botswana and Equatorial Guinea.
Kenya’s foreign minister Amina Mohamed, Chad’s former prime minister Moussa Faki Mahamat and Senegal’s veteran diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily are the newcomers and frontrunners in the race.
The winner will have to obtain a two-thirds majority.
The choice of a new leader is crucial for the future of a bloc still seen as largely irrelevant in the daily lives of most Africans, and which is undergoing deep introspection on how to reform.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame was tasked with drawing up a report recommending an overhaul of the bloc, which he presented to heads of state on Sunday.
According to the Kenyan government, the “biting” report criticised “chronic failure to see through African Union decisions (which) had resulted in a crisis of implementation and a perception that the AU was not relevant to Africans”.
Kagame also slammed “over-dependence on (donor) funding.”
Efforts to obtain more financial independence are likely to gain even more significance as Africa faces uncertainty over its partnership with the United States after Trump’s vow to put “America first”.
The US is one of the main contributors to the fight against the Shabaab jihadist group in Somalia, and the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has already been hit by funding cuts from the EU.
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