A general view shows the headquarters of the African Union (AU) building in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Jan. 29, 2017.
A general view shows the headquarters of the African Union (AU) building in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Jan. 29, 2017.

ADDIS ABABA - As is often the case at African Union summits, the ambitious official theme, this year it’s “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth”, is not the main draw.

As is often the case, Africa’s messy, exciting politics is.
This year, there is a lot to watch. This summit is an African debut of sorts for Gambia’s new president Adama Barrow, triumphant from a bruising election that nearly ended in bloodshed after the longtime president initially refused to vacate the seat he had held for 22 years.

Gambia's President Adama Barrow is seen in Dakar,
FILE - Gambia's President Adama Barrow is seen in Dakar, Senegal, Jan. 20, 2017.

On the other end of the spectrum, this is the umpteenth summit for Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980 and recently announced he would stand again in the next elections, at age 94.

Many issues

The continent has other, longer-simmering political issues that leaders may hash out behind closed doors, breaking through a political impasse and scheduling overdue elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Rwandan president’s decision to change the constitution to run for a third presidential term this year.
On Sunday, the leaders met for a retreat, safely ensconced from the public and journalists by a cordon of security at AU headquarters. The agenda said the leaders were discussing reform of the African Union.

Liberian Minister of Youth and Sports Saah Charles N’Tow was in many of the off-limits meetings and spoke to VOA on the sidelines of the summit. He acknowledged the leaders’ private meetings do not send a message of openness and transparent governance to the African people they serve.

“I wish I could come out and say it, you know, out here," he said. "But I think there are things, that, that they have closed meetings because they want to rule out whatever the outcomes are at the time that they decide, so I can’t really tell you."

Leaders will make a secret vote to choose their pick for the new head of the African Union commission, after they failed to choose a successor for Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the last summit six months ago.

FILE - Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, then head of the A
FILE - Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, head of the African Union Commission, attends a news conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 24, 2016.

Off agenda

Old summit hands say the agenda doesn’t always tell the full story.

Former AU peace and security commissioner Said Djinnit spoke to VOA on the sidelines of the summit. He no longer works for the African Union and his issue, as U.N. special envoy for the Great Lakes region, is not officially on the agenda. But he came for the summit, because he said many of the important issues happen on the sidelines.

“But this is usual," he said. "I mean, the AU is very important this year, you know, because there a number of very important decisions to be taken by the summit. ... But as the special envoy, I came here because I took advantage of the summit to have a meeting of the guarantors of the peace, security and cooperation framework which is an agreement which was signed by the countries of the Great Lakes plus South Africa and a few others in 2013, essentially to provide peace, security and development in the Great Lakes because of the history of the Great Lakes as you know, the Genocide in Rwanda, the wars in the DRC, and the crisis, the successive crises in Burundi.”

The heads of state begin to meet officially on Monday in a pomp-filled opening ceremony that will pay homage to their official theme. But how much of their business has been hashed out in private meetings beforehand? Only they know.