ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — As participants return home from the 32nd African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week, questions linger for some regarding the priorities of the newly installed AU chairman, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
The AU will continue to undergo the structural, organizational, and funding reforms championed by its outgoing chairman, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who passed on the baton to el-Sissi during this week’s summit.
“This year we will continue our endeavors to overhaul our union as part of a deep reform operation that will be conducted and owned by African states themselves to achieve the expectations of African people,” el-Sissi said in front of the AU’s 55 heads of state and more than 2,000 summit participants during his closing remarks.
Many on the sidelines of the meetings speculated that the new chairman will focus his mandate on improving the peace and security climate in Africa, using Egypt’s post-crisis recovery as a model. With the AU’s 2019 theme set as “the year of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons,” el-Sissi urged heads of state to strengthen the basis of sustainable development to provide more jobs and opportunities for youth as a first step toward tackling high levels of emigration.
The chairman also declared his support for the expedited enforcement of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which would create the world’s largest free-trading bloc. Countries including South Africa, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo ratified the agreement during the summit, bringing the number of ratifications to 18 member states. The agreement needs 22 ratifications to become operational.
While el-Sissi did not explicitly express many priorities for his term, diplomats and humanitarian actors wonder if AU reforms during his chairmanship will be underpinned by a renewed focus on peace and security.
It is “imperative to lend more importance to postconflict reconstructions in order for us to push for peace and security in our continent and to protect our achievement and successes from any regression,” the president said during his closing remarks.
He added that in closed-door meetings during the summit, AU heads of state had “reiterated our position on U.N. financing for African activities in terms of peace and security,” pointing to rising terrorist threats in certain regions that require “the cohesion of national institutions and increased financial support to solidify security cooperation.”
The Egyptian ambassador to Addis Ababa tweeted a list of Egypt’s priorities for the chairmanship, including youth employment, developing regional value chains, and supporting the creation of regional infrastructure, though peace and security focal points make up the greatest number.
Following the closing ceremony, a European diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed concerns that the priorities of the past leadership will not be that of the current leadership — citing progress made on the implementation of a 0.2 percent levy on imported items, for example, that took priority under Kagame’s leadership. “We didn’t hear any burning issues on [el-Sissi’s] agenda except fighting terrorism — something his country has dealt with head-on,” they said.
Other key decisions taken at this year’s summit include the launching of the African Medicines Agency to combat disease in Africa, along with the chairman’s announcement of the “Aswan Forum for Peace and Sustainable Development,” a high-level meeting to take place later this year. And in July, heads of state will gather in Niger to officially launch the AU Development Agency — formerly known as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development — following approval of its statute, rules of procedure, and governance structures.
El-Sissi’s chairmanship will last until 2020, when South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been elected by fellow heads of state to take over.