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Conflict, Political Drama to Take Center Stage at AU Summit

FILE - Delegates are seen attending the opening session of last year's African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 30, 2014.
FILE - Delegates are seen attending the opening session of last year's African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 30, 2014.

African heads of state gathering for this year’s African Union summit in Johannesburg will discuss conflicts raging in Burundi, South Sudan, Mali, and Nigeria, and other countries. Analysts say the continental body has made some strides in dealing with conflict, but needs to do more.

“Women’s empowerment” is what the banners say outside the AU summit venue.

But as usual, conflict - both political and civil - is likely to dominate discussions as African heads of state meet for the twice-yearly summit.

Analysts from the Institute of Security Studies gathered in Johannesburg Tuesday as AU officials met behind closed doors a few blocks away. Analyst Liesl Louw-Vaudran says talk of ongoing conflicts and political standoffs are likely to dominate the event.

“Basically, many of you have attended AU summits before. The theme is often eclipsed by the more urgent peace and security issues,” says Louw-Vaudran.

This year, those include political unrest in Burundi as its longtime president attempts to run for a controversial third term; political and ethnic conflict in the new nation of South Sudan; and the ongoing threat of Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria.

Add to that the older conflicts in Somalia, which hasn’t had a stable government for more than two decades; eastern Congo, which has been mired in miserable conflict since the 1990s; and the continuing fallout from the 2011 downfall of Libya’s longtime leader.

Analysts note that in recent years, the AU’s Peace and Security Council has evolved into a more powerful organization than it was before and has mobilized faster than ever before to react to conflicts.

But analyst David Zounmenou says African leaders are not moving fast enough to counter one of the emerging trends on the African continent - longtime leaders attempting to change their constitutions to hold on to power. That trend, he predicts, will be a key driver of future conflict.

“I am of the opinion that the legal framework that we put in place is not helpful to stop the third-term debate in countries. If African leaders do not speak out early and decisively against those attempts, the next cause of instability, of war, will be particularly the decision of leaders to hang on to power,” says Zounmenou.

But, he notes, things have improved since the AU was first founded in 1963. This year alone has seen unexpectedly peaceful transitions of power in formerly conflict-prone nations like Nigeria and Lesotho.

“Seriously speaking, I think Africa has made some process in the democratization process. I’m looking at Africa from 1960 to 2000 and counting almost 89 successful military coups as a way of changing power on the continent. Then I look at Africa from 2000 up to today, and realize that we only have six military coups. That’s progress. That means you have less presidents killed, and less generals coming to power. It also means that democracy has become the language in town,” says Zounmenou.

The leaders begin meeting on Saturday. They will be led by the AU’s current chairman, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, himself in power for three decades.

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza is not expected to attend - the last time he left his country, in May, a top general tried to overthrow him.