The African Union: access all areas

On catching sight of Sudan president Omar al-Bashir, I was so intent on my head-down enterprise to keep pace with him and his heavies in an effort to secure an interview that I followed him into the bathroom.

Rather shocked on looking up, I immediately found myself ousted. But within an hour, his foreign minister Ali Karti spoke to me instead.

For this was the African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa – the high-level talking shop for the continent’s heads of state, the Davos, and then some, of Africa. It is both extraordinary and perplexing.

Extraordinary because nowhere else do the continent’s powers mingle so freely not only with each other but also with mere journalists. For all the pomp of a get-together for dozens of heads of states in a grand Chinese-built building amid tight security, access is remarkably democratic and the stuff of doorstepping journalists’ dreams.

Nowhere but at the AU gathering can you get near Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe while scouting for presidential lunch leftovers, feel the swoosh as Liberia president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sweeps by, exchange a brief word with Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta as he squeezes past security, or indeed chase a president into the gents. All you need do is pace around and around the hallowed circular walkway that encases the AU conference

But it is also perplexing because so little happens. The usual commitments are repeated. Africa’s standing army is on the way, as always. Agriculture is a priority for development, as always. July 25 should be named “the African Day of Seas and Oceans”, as always. This time round, the issue of agriculture and food security was even given special status as the theme for the 22nd summit, but there is little sense governments will really devote their energy – and sufficient spending – to developing the continent’s best undertapped resource. Many countries making new oil and gas discoveries risk failing to diversify their economies and suffering the “Dutch disease” – an apparent relationship between rising exploitation of natural resources and a decline in other sectors – that follows, as always.

War in Central African Republic and South Sudan overshadowed most of the summit, along with some awkward diplomacy. The AU is peeved the UN is taking such a prominent role in CAR, with some western countries lobbying for a UN rather than an AU peacekeeping force. Much of the east African sub-region is privately peeved Uganda has waded into South Sudan, fighting alongside government troops rather than heeding the region’s official impartiality. “UPDF [Uganda People's Defence Force] has captured the town of Bor,” announced Uganda’s military spokesman last month after a successful attack on a key South Sudan town, taking the credit for Uganda, which is also a member of the seven-member regional bloc negotiating peace between rival sides in South Sudan.

But it is the bilateral side meetings that really contain the meat. Mr Bashir, who is the subject of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, met UN deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson for an hour or so in private. Mr Bashir then met Mr Kenyatta (who, along with Mr Bashir, is the only other serving president indicted for crimes against humanity at The Hague) in a closed-door meeting. The ICC and an effort by Sudan to lobby Kenya to limit Uganda’s role in South Sudan were the main agenda points, those present at the meeting said afterwards.

Two controversial presidents of the moment – Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, whose country a UN special rapporteur last week said has rendered “peaceful public disagreement with the government…equivalent to criminality” – did not stick around for long, however. So I never had my chance to put into effect the
access-all-areas policy I mistakenly attempted with Mr Bashir.