On the eve of the 23rd Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union, a bomb exploded in an Abuja shopping center, killing 21 and wounding 52. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan returned early from the AU session–held in Equatorial Guinea–in order to address the attack, which comes at a time of great violence for Africa’s most highly populated country. Unfortunately the attack also reinforces the need to confront the security issues of AU nations, which has become the unofficial second theme of the summit.
The attack came only as the first major drama that forced delegates to stray from the official theme, “Year of Agriculture and Food Security.” Experts believe the agricultural sector in Africa could end extreme poverty on the continent within one generation, but not without modernization.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reaffirmed UN support for the AU objectives, stating, “We will assist in ensuring universal education, achieving gender equality and empowering women. We will help advance respect for human rights… We are doing all of this as part of our overall efforts to achieve sustainable development.”
In spite of any such intentions, the AU summit exposed seemingly endless controversy. Beginning with the host country, Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema spoke to the former Spanish colony’s desire to restructure its relationship with the West in order to foster development, calling the current relationship “…a neo-colonial system which perpetuates the old colonial one… Africa should renegotiate relations with [the] developed world.” Yet having seized control over three decades ago, Nguema paid a hefty sum to host what critics have deemed an opportunity to showcase his €580 million Sipopo Conference Center whilst concealing the grave inequality in a country ruled by an oil-rich elite.
Nguema has also severely restricted freedom of speech for Equatorial Guinea’s small population, especially in terms of criticism. Furthermore, the President’s son and potential successor now holds government posts that have been investigated for money laundering abroad; the government official status protects him from prosecution.
Certain summit guests have triggered debate. The International Criminal Court’s indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir limits potential summit locations to non-signatory countries. Equatorial Guinea also invited Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose visit has reignited old tensions.
Even more awkward was the early exit of an invited group of American Jews who left the meeting after certain African delegations refused to proceed with their presence. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki then spoke at the inaugural session with harsh words for the state of Israel.
Amid the turmoil, delegates were able to adopt a budget for the 2015 year of over $520 million–still far less than the cost of the building in which they negotiated their draft. The body tabled the popular version of Agenda 2063, a plan to gear Africa toward sustainable development over the next 50 years. The AU seeks increased grass-root participation in the creation of the Agenda, and has urged national governments to raise awareness among their citizens.
The leaders will meet again for the 24th Session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in January 2015. Perhaps next year the AU will be better prepared to focus on the theme “Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063.”
– Erica Lignell