As Kagame steps down, Egypt takes helm at African Union

In this file photo taken on December 8, 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), Guinea's President and African Union (AU) chairman Alpha Conde (L) and Rwandan President Paul Kagame (R) attend the opening session of the Africa 2017 Forum in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2019
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As Kagame steps down, Egypt takes helm at African Union

  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will officially take over the post of ceremonial head of the AU which rotates between the five regions of the continent at the start of a two-day summit in Addis Ababa
  • The summit will also focus on institutional reforms, and the establishment of a continent-wide free trade zone

ADDIS ABABA: Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led an active, reformist tenure as African Union chair, on Sunday passes the baton to Egypt, seen as more likely to focus on security issues than expanding the powers of the body.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will officially take over the post of ceremonial head of the AU which rotates between the five regions of the continent at the start of a two-day summit in Addis Ababa.
While multiple crises on the continent will be on the agenda of heads of state from the 55 member nations, the summit will also focus on institutional reforms, and the establishment of a continent-wide free trade zone.
The Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) was agreed by 44 nations in March 2018, but only 19 countries have ratified the agreement, with 22 needed for it to come into effect.
The single market is a flagship of the AU’s “Agenda 2063” program, conceived as a strategic framework for socioeconomic transformation.
Cairo is backing the initiative, but analysts say it will be less likely to focus on the financial and administrative reforms pushed by Kagame.
El-Sisi is however expected to focus more on security, peacekeeping and post-war reconstruction, issues closely tied to the AU’s 2019 theme of “Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons.”
“Egypt has an interest in Africa, they want to strengthen their position on the African continent and they don’t want to be seen as a country only focused on the Arab world,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Saturday that peaceful elections in DR Congo, Mali and Madagascar, as well as peace deals in South Sudan and Central African Republic and the truce between Ethiopia and Eritrea, were signs of a “wind of hope” on the continent.

A powerful African Union?

Kagame, who has been leading institutional reforms since 2016, pushed for a continent-wide import tax to fund the AU and reduce its dependence on external donors, who still pay for more than half the institution’s annual budget.
But member states have resisted this along with reform of the AU Commission, its executive organ. In November 2018, most states rejected a proposal to give the head of the AU Commission the power to name deputies and commissioners.
Like other regional heavyweights Nigeria and South Africa, Egypt is not keen on a powerful AU, an African diplomat told AFP.
Especially because Cairo has “never forgotten” its suspension in 2013 after Egypt’s army deposed president Muhammad Mursi, who in 2012 became the country’s first democratically elected president, the diplomat said.
“Traditionally, leaders of big powers have not really helped the position of AU chairperson, as they don’t want an AU which is too strong or too intrusive,” said Elissa Jobson of the International Crisis Group.
“The AU and the AU commission are only as strong as its members want them to be. Unlike the EU, African countries have not transferred some of their sovereignty to the AU.”
Kagame suffered a crushing blow from the AU after expressing “serious doubts” about the results of Democratic Republic of Congo’s recent presidential election, which was officially won by Felix Tshisekedi.
While also disputed by the Catholic church, the results were validated by DRC’s constitutional court and saluted by continental heavyweights South Africa, Kenya and Egypt.
“This whole thing was an embarrassment for the AU, it showed the limitations of what the AU chairperson can do,” said Jobson.
Amnesty International expressed fears that Egypt’s chairmanship could undermine human rights mechanisms in the AU.
“During his time in power President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has demonstrated a shocking contempt for human rights. Under his leadership the country has undergone a catastrophic decline in rights and freedoms,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty’s North Africa Campaigns Director.


Malaysia to push Southeast Asian nations for long-term solution to smog

Updated 57 min 51 sec ago

Malaysia to push Southeast Asian nations for long-term solution to smog

  • Malaysia and neighboring Singapore have been choked by smoky air blown in from forest fires started to clear land for plantations
  • The situation forced schools to shut and many people to wear masks so as to avoid inhaling smog particles

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia will push its Southeast Asian neighbors to strengthen cooperation in finding a long-term solution for smog wafted across the region from forest fires in Indonesia, its environment minister said on Thursday.
In the past few weeks, Malaysia and neighboring Singapore have been choked by smoky air blown in from forest fires started to clear land for plantations, forcing schools to shut and many people to wear masks so as to avoid inhaling smog particles.
“I will have a conference call with the ASEAN secretary-general to raise our views and also express our hope for a more effective mechanism at the ASEAN level for a long-term solution,” Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin told a news conference, but did not elaborate on other participants.
All three countries belong to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which set up a regional haze action plan in 1997, but Malaysia thinks the grouping has not done enough to evolve a long-term solution.
Among its efforts to tackle the hazard, Malaysia could pass a new law to punish any of its companies responsible for starting fires, but only international cooperation could yield a lasting solution, Yeo added.
“Cloud seeding is only temporary. A law here would only deal with Malaysian companies. What we need is international cooperation for a long-term solution.”
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had said Malaysia was considering a new law to compel its companies to tackle fires on land they control abroad.
Yeo said Malaysia will keep up cloud seeding efforts to bring temporary relief in badly-hit areas. This involves spraying chemicals, such as sodium chloride and magnesium oxide, from aircraft in order to spur rainfall.
Malaysia will also consider deploying drones to help in cloud seeding, Mahathir told a separate news conference.
Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department issued the text of a special plea for divine intervention to disperse the smog, to be recited after weekly prayers on Friday by mosque congregations nationwide.