A three-day summit of African heads of state opened in the Ethiopian capital Tuesday. The Summit of the African Union is expected to focus in part on security issues including crises and instability in Ivory Coast, Sudan's Darfur region, and the Great Lakes states of Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Africa knows conflict. The continent has been the scene of over 30 wars in the last 40 years. According to the UN, they have cost Africa $250 billion and millions of lives.
The African Union hopes to put an end to war. By the end of the decade it aims to have a rapid reaction force of 15,000 thousand men.
They will be controlled by the AU's 15 member Peace and Security Council (PSC) which in turn will be advised by five eminent persons from the continent.
Six current conflicts or areas of instability are expected to be discussed at the summit: Burundi, Comoros, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sudan and border tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The most pressing issue is said to be what to do with Darfur, a region in western Sudan the size of France. The fighting between predominantly black rebel groups and Arab militia allied with the government has killed some 30,000 people and displaced more than one million others.
This week, AU Peace and Security Council Director Sam Ibok announced the 53 member body is preparing to send a protection force of around 300 soldiers to Darfur. It will guard the 60 unarmed observers the AU aims to deploy there and will also patrol refugee camps and border areas between Sudan and Chad.
The South African Mail and Guardian newspaper quotes South Africa's Defense Minister as saying Pretoria is expected to send 10 high-ranking soldiers as platoon leaders. Rwanda is expected to send 100 soldiers. News reports say Tanzania and Botswana have also been approached about sending troops.
On July 3, the chair of the executive branch of the AU, Alpha Konare, traveled to the region to try to negotiate peace between the warring parties. His trip followed an earlier one by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. They urged the Sudanese government to disarm the militias or face sanctions.
Chris Landsberg is the Director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa. He says the AU delegates are likely to discuss whether the conflict constitutes genocide.
"I don't think we should be surprised if the AU teaches the UN a lesson or two by debating whether what is happening in Dafur constitutes genocide," he said. "If they come close to calling it genocide, it will be difficult for the UN not to agree with them. Kofi Annan and Colin Powell have taken pains not to call it genocide. The moment you [do so], it invokes serious international and continental obligations to intervene. At the very least, you can expect serious declarations on Darfur and you might even see African leaders going a step further. If they think there is indifference or connivance by external actors, I don't think they'll hesitate to say it. These leaders want to prove the Peace and Security Council is a real legitimate body that will take intervention seriously."
Mr. Landsberg notes that the Constitutive Act of the AU allows it to intervene in an African state to stop genocide and gross violations of human rights. It also allows for intervention to stop instability from spreading from one country to another or when there is an unconstitutional change of government, such as a coup.
In Sudan, however, Mr. Landsberg believes the AU delegates will not go as far.
"You can imagine if the Sudanese government is going to be seriously rebuked, that will be significant. Whether that drives them to stop the carnage in Darfur, I have my doubts," he said. "But at the very least, it signals a willingness of Africans to consider ostracism and isolation of particular regimes that violate the [principles] of the AU's Constitutive Act. I don't think you can expect 53 countries to show similar eagerness to stop carnage like that. But I do think the task is whether the AU can develop a critical mass or what the Americans and British in Iraq call a 'coalition of the willing' to act."
Zimbabwe was not on the official list of African crises to be discussed, but the situation there did come up at an AU council of ministers meeting shortly before the start of the summit.
"Something interesting happened with the ministers over last couple of days," he added. "Some of governments took the initiative to almost rebuke President Mugabe, asking him for free and fair elections to level the playing field and called on him to ease the draconian laws that circumscribe freedom of movement and association, and draconian press laws. As long as long as Africans adopt an attitude that there is not real crisis in Zimbabwe, that's how long Mugabe will feel [safe]. He'll feel he has a strong ally in the African Union. They are aware he behaves like that and uses them as a shield. It must come as a huge surprise to Mugabe but is a welcoming one."
Also on the list for discussionis the Ivory Coast, which has been unstable since a rebellion two years ago. Its leader, President Laurent Gbagbo, is expected to meet with other West African leaders in Addis Ababa this week. Summit delegates are also expected to discuss instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where fears of renewed conflict are plaguing the country. The government has accused neighboring Rwanda of involvement in an army mutiny in the east. News reports say the AU meeting may also host informal talks between officials of the DRC and Rwanda.
Last month, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the chair of AU's Peace and Security Council summoned the presidents of the two countries to Abuja to find ways of easing mutual tensions. Mr. Landsberg said that it's this type of diplomacy that's developing as one of the AU's most effective tools in reshaping the continent in the 21st century.