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Coups and COVID dominate African Union summit

Maria Gerth-Niculescu
February 7, 2022

The AU has wrapped up its yearly summit in Addis Ababa, as the continent reels from a string of coups, the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity and regional crises. But the path ahead is still not completely clear.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Ishtayeh speaks during the 35th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa
The 55-member African Union met in Addis Ababa over the weekendImage: Shadi Hatem/APA Images/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

As the annual African Union (UN) summit came to a close this weekend, the heads of state in attendance were united in their condemnation of a spate of coups across the region, which has seen four states suspended from the organization since July 2021 — most recently Burkina Faso last month.

But despite this consensus, the 55-member bloc failed to outline a clear plan as to how it would tackle the continent's most pressing issues in the months ahead.

A long list of topics were on the agenda for the two-day summit — ranging from COVID-19 vaccines to climate change. However, limited time prevented in-depth discussions.

Multiple coups raise alarm

"The Sahel must not be turned into a hotbed of un-constitutionalism," warned the AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Bankole Adeoye. He also noted an "intrinsic link between governance and weak security apparatus."

Mali, Guinea, Sudan and Burkina Faso were all suspended from the AU over the past year after their governments were overthrown by the military.

But the AU has been accused of an inconsistent response to coups in the region, notably not suspending Chad after a military council took power last April following the death of President Idriss Deby Into.

Senegal President, Macky Sall, the new chairperson of the African Union (AU) takes questions from the media
Senegalese President Macky Sall is beginning his tenture as the new chairperson of the African Union for 2022Image: Tony Karumba/Getty Images/AFP

In his closing remarks on Sunday, Senegalese President Macky Sall — who is taking over as the chairperson of the AU for 2022 — called for stricter sanctions in various forms. "Embargos on borders, embargos on aerial space, commercial embargos," he said.

Whether the AU will be able to successfully exert its influence in response to these crises will depend on following through on concrete actions in the coming months — which are yet to be clearly outlined.

"We [all have high expectations] of these summits, but at the end of the day, the decisions alone will not fix these issues," Andy Asamoah, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) told DW. "There is need for a very strong follow-up process to make sure the decisions are implemented."

The AU, he added, could also play a role in the prevention of future coups.

"If the AU is going to be relevant, they've got to be much more active in using the Panel of the Wise, in using the early warning systems to inform the panel of good governance at a state level, so that the situation does not happen in the first place," Asamoah explained.

A video grab showing Burkina Faso's military junta announcing on state TV that they had seized power
A military junta announced that they had seized power in Burkina Faso on January 24Image: Radio Télévision du Burkina/AFP

Low COVID-19 vaccination rates still an issue

The COVID-19 pandemic — particularly the issue of vaccines — was another priority topic at the summit.

Currently, only around 11% of the continent's population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. While vaccine access has improved over the past year, vaccine hesitancy and a lack of information have considerably slowed progress.

"Seventy percent of the population of 1.3 billion people are young people [under] 30," John Nkengasong, the Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control (CDC) told DW. "If we don't target them, they will never get to 70% of the vaccination rate target. The time has come to shift the balance and get more community engagement."

In an attempt to increase vaccination rates, the newly-established African Medicines Agency (AMA) will be responsible for regulating health systems and establishing Africa's own vaccine authorization body. This move is desperately needed, explained Nkengasong.

"The continent of Africa is the only part of the world that still depends on [vaccine] approval from outside," he said.

A woman receives Pfizer vaccine jab from a healthcare worker
Increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates remains a major challenge for the continent in the year aheadImage: Themba Hadebe/AP Photo/picture alliance

Food insecurity and malnutrition laid bare

The theme of this year's AU summit was "Building Resilience in Nutrition on the African Continent." However, some observers said it still didn't receive the attention it deserves.

The continent is currently grappling with multiple food security crises: From the Horn of Africa drought which has affected over 10 million people, to conflict-driven food insecurity in Ethiopia, where over 4 million people are already struggling with drought-induced water shortages.

Malnutrition rates have soared across the conflict-torn country, stressed UNICEF's Ethiopia Representative, Gianfranco Rotigliano.

"Thirty-seven percent of children in Ethiopia under five are prone to acute malnutrition," he told DW. "Almost 45% of all children deaths are associated with a certain degree of under-nutrition."

Rotigliano added that climate changed-linked food disasters have also become more common — a fact that the AU should take heed of.

A Tigray woman who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, carries water on her back
Drought-induced food and water scarcity in Ethiopia has been exacerbated by the Tigray conflict, forcing many to flee to refugee campsImage: Nariman El-Mofty/AP/picture alliance

"The [AU] should keep insisting for all countries to comply with actions against climate change," he said. "[It] can take political decisions to improve South-South cooperation."

The hunger crisis in Ethiopa's war-torn Tigray region was not directly addressed during the summit. However, Bankole Adeoye reiterated the bloc's call for "guaranteed humanitarian access to the areas in need," amid a severe aid shortage exacerbated by heavy bureaucracy, checkpoints and ongoing fighting.

Tigray crisis remains in the dark

The conflict between Ethiopia's federal government and Tigrayan forces in the country's north has dominated international discourse since it broke out in November 2020, with the United Nations (UN) warning of thousands living in famine-like conditions and denouncing a "de facto [humanitarian] blockade."

However, it remains unclear to what extent the conflict itself — as well as the prospects of a ceasefire — was discussed by leaders at the summit.

AU special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo is currently in Ethiopia, however his attempts to mediate the crisis have been criticized, with some observers calling for a change in approach.

The Ethiopian government has repeated rejected foreign interference in what it considers an internal matter, which has in turn revived calls for stronger Pan-Africanism. In the lead-up to the summit, Addis Ababa was draped with banners calling for "African solutions to African problems."

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh speaks during the 35th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh urged the African Union to block Israel's observer accreditationImage: AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP

Decision on Israel observer status postponed

One issue which notably split AU members was the ongoing debate over Israel's accreditation as an observer state to the bloc.

The move by AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki to approve Israel's observer status to the AU is strongly opposed by some member states — notably South Africa and Algeria.

In lieu of reaching a consensus at the summit, Chairman Macky Sall said a committee composed of eight heads of state was set up, with the aim of consulting with member states on the matter ahead of a vote at the next summit in 2023.

"This issue can divide us," Sall told reporters on Sunday. "Africa cannot be divided."

Edited by: Ineke Mules