economy and politics

Major challenges for the president of the African Union

Azali Assoumani has chaired the African Union since February. Among the challenges he must face are speeding up the implementation of the common market, jihadism or climate change.

At the head of the African Union (AU) since the summit held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in February, the president of Comoros, Azali Assoumani, faces major challenges in a continent that has not recovered from the economic effects of the pandemic. Assoumani succeeds Senegalese Macky Sall as the annual rotating presidency of the pan-African organization.

In his first interventions, Assoumani stressed the need to expedite the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Zone (ZLECAF, for its acronym in French), created in 2012, to which all countries with a single exception, Eritrea. An ambitious African common market, in force for three years, which has not yet started due to bureaucratic obstacles, especially in the negotiation of customs rights and the free movement of goods. Currently, inter-African trade only represents 15% of the total, about 100 billion US dollars. By 2045 they should reach 26%, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

The common market should contribute, albeit modestly, to boosting an economy hard hit by a pandemic that has left millions poor and caused the loss of 18 million jobs in 2021, according to the African Economic Outlook. The war in Ukraine, in turn, has pushed 1.8 million people into extreme poverty in 2022 and predictions go for 2.1 million more in 2023.

President of one of the smallest countries in Africa, Assoumani, must manage the security crisis in the Sahel, the situations in northern Mozambique and Somalia and the increase in tension between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to attacks by the M23 guerrillas. Conflicts that consume the scarce resources of fragile States, paralyze economies, cause thousands of deaths and extensive material damage, and encourage coups, as in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Despite military offensives, jihadism is gaining ground in West Africa. In a few years it has gone on to control 30% of Burkina Faso, gaining a foothold in Mali and northeastern Nigeria, making regular incursions into Cameroon, Chad, Benin, Niger and Togo and threatening the Ivory Coast and Guinea. For Seidik Abba, an expert in the Sahel, the mistake has been to face jihadism as a security problem and not a political and social one. Jihadism, which has its land of expansion in Africa, as the leader of Al Qaeda Aiman ​​al Zawahiri himself acknowledged in 2018, launches messages against corruption, bad governance, poverty and Western cultural influences. A discourse, disseminated in madrasas (Koranic schools) and social networks, which attracts above all young people with no future and some traditional authorities who feel that they are joining a political-religious project.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, the military path failed, the coup d’état arrived and the questioning of the traditional alliance with France. This deterioration in relations with the former metropolis is taken advantage of by Russia to offer its mercenaries from the Wagner group, who in Mali have not been more effective than the French in their fight against jihadism. Although it seemed that President Emmanuel Macron had no other alternative (due to the hostility of the military junta, the growing anti-French sentiment and the presence of Wagner) the withdrawal of the Operation Barkhane it is a resounding failure of France. Seidik Abba compares it to the United States leaving Afghanistan. Ten years after the military intervention, first through the Operation Serval and later with its successor, the Operation BarkhaneFrance withdraws and not only leaves Mali equally bad in the face of jihadism, but also loses a strategic ally in favor of Russia.

In the crisis between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, the mediation of the Angolan president, João Lourenço, and the East African Community (EAC) has reduced the tension. However, the underlying problem is complex and it does not appear that it will be resolved, not even with the planned deployment of an EAC mission (a regional integration organization in which Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, South Sudan and the DRC).

In an eastern part of the DRC where dozens of armed groups operate, a struggle is being settled between a state with regional aspirations, Rwanda, and another state, the DRC, a hundred times larger, corroded by corruption, rich in minerals , chaotic and unable to control said area. There is no doubt about the support of Rwandan President Paul Kagame for the M23 rebellion, made up largely of Congolese Tutsis, which occupies important towns in the North Kivu province and is located a few kilometers from its capital, Goma. This support is confirmed by both the United Nations Group of Experts and neutral observers. It is also confirmed that the Congolese Armed Forces maintain close relations with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a guerrilla group founded by Hutus who fled Rwanda after participating in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.

Through an intermediary actor, the M23, Kagame demonstrates two things. The first is that he is capable of intervening in Congolese politics and even threatening the stability of a country that is gigantic in size and population. Although he is ruthless with the opposition and little friend of press freedom, Kagame can boast of good management, promotion of women, reduction of poverty and maintaining a disciplined army that fights Islamists in northern Mozambique. The second, that he reacts when his living space is threatened. And for Kagame, the FDLR, although weakened, is an actor with the capacity to make incursions in the border areas. As for Tshisekedi, president of the DRC, he must respond in an election year to pressure from politicians, both in Kinshasa and Goma, who are demanding a strong hand against Kagame and the Congolese Tutsis.

As he made clear in his first speeches, the climate crisis is high on Assoumani’s agenda. As president of an island country sensitive to the catastrophic effects of climate change, Assoumani defends an active role for the AU in international forums, such as COP27, held in Sharm el Sheikh (Egypt) in November last year, and is committed to the promotion of the so-called blue economy, which will move 405,000 million US dollars this year. Africa, which is home to 17% of the world’s population, emits 3% of CO2 emissions and suffers its terrible consequences: droughts, loss of biodiversity, progression of the desert, rise in sea level, floods…

The challenges are gigantic for Assoumani, president of a country “with limited weight”, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) points out. However, for France, and also for the European Union, Assoumani’s presidency is good news because despite the differences over the sovereignty of the island of Mayotte, he maintains good relations with President Emmanuel Macron, supports the resolutions of the United Nations about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and is open to both the Western world and the Muslim Arab world, of which he is culturally a part. On May 25, Africa Day, at the AU headquarters built by China – the continent’s first trading partner – Assoumani will preside over the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) by 32 states, the majority newly independent at that time. That OAU, which raised hopes with its anti-colonial discourse and its denunciation of apartheid, moved to the African Union at the Durban (South Africa) summit in 2002.

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