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Obama to Make History With AU Headquarters Visit

  • Anita Powell

President Barack Obama will make history this week by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Ethiopian headquarters of the African Union – the continental body playing an increasingly prominent role in shaping Africa’s future.

"The African Union is very fortunate to have a very good dialogue with the U.S.,” AU Commission Deputy Chairman Erastus Mwencha told VOA in Addis Ababa.

"The visit of President Obama would elevate it … and we hope from this visit that the key issues that we deal with together with the United States (are) in the area of peace and security, in the area of energy, in the area of agriculture," Mwencha said.

WATCH: Anita Powell Talks About What to Expect in Ethiopia:

Terrorism, democracy

Pretoria-based analyst David Zounmenou said two other issues are likely to emerge – namely, the fight against terrorism, which he said is becoming very important, and the question of democratic power in Africa.

​Describing the pending visit, Zounmenou said it is "certainly an opportunity to reiterate the position of the U.S. on those two key issues and send a strong message to African leaders who want to hang on to power."

Both subjects have been thrust into the spotlight with growing terror threats and attacks in Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia and Tunisia.

Additionally, central Africa has been thrown into a separate political crisis as Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza has ignored mediators’ advice that he not run for a third term.

Nkurunziza's actions have plunged his tiny nation -- and with it, the region -- into political turmoil.

Some disagreement

The United States and AU don’t always agree on everything, however.

Washington strongly opposed the AU’s refusal to arrest Sudan President Omar al-Bashir on an International Criminal Court warrant for genocide at a recent AU summit in Johannesburg.

Zounmenou and other analysts said the U.S. is unlikely to gain traction on this particular issue as the U.S. itself is not a member of the court.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the U.S. has growing respect for the AU despite disagreements.

"It is an effective organization and it still has a lot of work to do,” Thomas-Greenfield said during an interview with VOA at the summit. "It’s respected on the continent and I think ... we’re going to see the AU become more powerful on the continent."

The U.S. is among the major funders of the African Union, but analyst Liesl Louw-Vaudran said the U.S. needs the AU, too.

Louw-Vaudran said geopolitics is one reason, noting Obama will meet with the AU on its home turf -- a glossy $200 million edifice in Addis Ababa financed entirely by the Chinese government.

"The U.S. definitely needs the AU if it wants to work with Africa, make deals, be in opposition to the Chinese," she said.

No Mugabe meeting

Meanwhile, Africa watchers have long postulated on the fireworks that might result if Obama were to come face-to-face with one of his most vocal critics, Robert Mugabe, the current AU assembly chairman and president of Zimbabwe.

Obama snubbed Mugabe by not inviting him to a U.S.-Africa summit last year, and Mugabe recently lashed out at the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage by publicly proposing marriage -- to Obama.

"If it becomes necessary," said Mugabe, a staunch Catholic who is known for his virulently anti-gay views, "I shall travel to Washington, D.C., get down on my knee and ask his hand."

According to Mwencha, a seasoned African diplomat, Mugabe will not be present at the meeting.

"I don’t think we should start going in that direction,” he said. "Obama is not coming to meet the AU assembly; he is coming to the African Union Commission."

Marthe van der Wolfe contributed to this report from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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