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AU Summit Highlights Africa's Tilt Toward the East

African leaders pose for a group photograph with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the 18th African Union (AU) summit in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 29, 2012.

An African Union summit has opened with the selection of Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi as AU chairman for the coming year. The opening speeches reflected Africa's increasing shift toward the East.

China is the honored guest at this summit, and the opening session was filled expressions of gratitude for Beijing's gift of a new $200-million AU headquarters.

Speakers referred to China's rising influence in Africa, and to the continent's growing resentment at what is widely perceived as Western interference in African affairs.

Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping, speaks during a meeting of African economic blocs at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, January 25, 2012.
Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping, speaks during a meeting of African economic blocs at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, January 25, 2012.

AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping described 2011 as a year of trials and hardship, as Western institutions imposed solutions to crises in Libya and Ivory Coast, rejecting or ignoring African proposals.

"The events of 2011 have greatly strained some of our instruments and consequently our capacity to anticipate," he said."Sometimes they tested the strength of our unity and our ability to have our views prevail in some issues of vital interest to the continent."

The outgoing AU Chairman, Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema accused Western institutions such as the International Criminal Court of anti-African bias. Speaking in Spanish, and heard through an interpreter, Obiang said African leaders must not remain indifferent to what he called external interference.

"The African Union should study the creation of its own African criminal court to put an end to all of these unjust and discriminatory actions we have seen in the international justice," said Nguema. "Africa needs actions of great solidarity and coordination in order to avoid that others disempower us on their behalf and do whatever they wish to do regarding our countries."

The keynote speaker, China's top political strategist Jia Qinglin contrasted Beijing's foreign policy with that of the West. Speaking in Chinese through an interpreter, he said China had never attached strings to its offers of assistance.

"China will firmly support African countries in their efforts to uphold sovereignty and independence, and resolve African issues on their own," said Ginglin. "We maintain all countries big or small are equal, and we are opposed to the big, strong and rich bullying the weak, small and poor."

The opening session saw Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi elected to a one-year term as AU chairman. The post rotates according to region, and Boni Yayi was the choice of the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS. He is an economist who has led the small West African nation for six years.

As chairman, Boni Yayi will preside over the fierce contest for the African Union Commission chairmanship. That battle between the incumbent Jean Ping of Gabon and the South African challenger Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is to be settled Monday in a secret ballot of heads of state.

The race is considered tight. One usually well-informed AU observer, when asked who he thought would win, replied, “If I were a betting man, I would not bet more than a penny”.