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Divisions Surface Over Effort by Sudan to Chair the African Union

There’s some disagreement among members of the Africa Union over whether President al-Bashir of Sudan should assume the chairmanship of the body. His support is said to come from much of North Africa and Egypt, as well as some east African countries. A two-day summit of the 53-member AU opened today,Monday in Khartoum. Delegates from western and southern Africa are said to be critical of Mr. al-Bashir.

Some news reports, citing diplomatic sources, say yesterday, representatives from five countries tried to persuade the Sudanese head of state to withdraw his bid for the AU chairmanship. Reports on the South African website listed the countries as Botswana, Ethiopia, Niger, Gabon and Algeria.

Meanwhile, another South African site, the “Independent On-Line,” says the South African opposition Democratic Alliance, has also come out against Mr. Bashir. It quotes the DA’s chief whip, Douglas Gibson, as saying “Sudan as host of the African Union summit is bad enough. Sudan as the president of the AU is really too much.” He went on to say, “If Africa wishes to be side-lined, it will continue winking and looking the other way when one of our own is guilty of human rights violations.”

A human rights official says it would be “highly inappropriate” for the government of Sudan to assume a leadership position in the AU, given allegations of government involvement in war crimes in Darfur. The official, Peter Takirambudde, is the head of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. He says, “The AU’s credibility and its ability to promote and protect human rights would be irreparably damaged.” Human Rights Watch also says the Sudanese government has repeatedly obstructed the AU’s operations in Darfur.

John Gai Yoh is a Sudanese lecturer in international relations and African politics at the university of South Africa in Pretoria. He told Voice of America reporter William Eagle that “You can’t ask a country with seven thousand AU troops to [oversee] those troops [as chair to the organization], because they were brought in to protect the people of Darfur from the Sudanese government. So how can you as a regional body accept that the same president [of Sudan] to [be chairman] ? It doesn’t make sense.”

President al-Bashir addressed the opening of the summit today. According to Reuters, he said the AU is key to finding an end to the conflict in Darfur, which he pledged to help try to end. Reuters also says Sudan’s presidential adviser on foreign affairs, Mustafa Osman Ismail, says his country is considering withdrawing its bid to head the AU, if it would prevent the failure of Darfur peace talks. Rebels groups in Darfur have said they would withdraw from talks if Khartoum assumes the chairmanship of the African body.

Yesterday Sudan agreed to a pan-African review of its political performance and transparency through the AU’s peer review mechanism. Sudan’s information minister is quoted in the press as saying the country wants to be assessed “through African eyes” – and that such an evaluation “might help Sudan go on the right track.”