African Union Summit Raises More Questions Than Answers

The AU has wrapped up its yearly summit in Addis Ababa, as the continent reels from a string of coups, the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity and regional crises. But the path ahead is still not completely clear.

As the annual African Union (UN) summit came to a close this weekend, the heads of state in attendance were united in their condemnation of a spate of coups across the region, which has seen four states suspended from the organization since July 2021 — most recently Burkina Faso last month.

But amidst this camaraderie, the 55-member bloc failed to outline a clear plan as to how it would tackle the continent’s most pressing issues in the months ahead.

A long list of topics were on the agenda for the two-day summit — ranging from COVID-19 vaccines to climate change. However, limited time prevented in-depth discussions.

Multiple coups raise alarm

“The Sahel must not be turned into a hotbed of un-constitutionalism,” warned the AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Bankole Adeoye. He also noted an “intrinsic link between governance and weak security apparatus.”

Mali, Guinea, Sudan and Burkina Faso were all suspended from the AU over the past year after their governments were overthrown by the military.

But the AU has been accused of an inconsistent response to coups in the region, notably not suspending Chad after a military council took power last April following the death of President Idriss Deby Into.

In his closing remarks on Sunday, Senegalese President Macky Sall — who is taking over as the chairperson of the AU for 2022 — called for stricter sanctions in various forms. “Embargos on borders, embargos on aerial space, commercial embargos,” he said.

Whether the AU will be able to successfully exert its influence in response to these crises, will depend on following through on concrete actions in the coming months — which are yet to be clearly outlined.

“We [all have high expectations] of these summits, but at the end of the day, the decisions alone will not fix these issues,” Andy Asamoah, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) told DW. “There is need for a very strong follow-up process to make sure the decisions are implemented.”

The AU, he added, could also play a role in the prevention of future coups.

“If the AU is going to be relevant, they’ve got to be much more active in using the Panel of the Wise, in using the early warning systems to inform the panel of good governance at a state level so that the situation does not happen in the first place,” Asamoah explained.”

Low COVID-19 vaccination rates still an issue

The COVID-19 pandemic — particularly the issue of vaccines — was another priority topic at the summit.

Currently, only around 11% of the continent’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. While vaccine access has improved over the past year, vaccine hesitancy and a lack of information have considerably slowed progress.

“70% of the population of 1.3 billion people are young people [under] 30,” John Nkengasong, the Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control (CDC) told DW. “If we don’t target them, they will never get to 70% of the vaccination rate target. The time has come to shift the balance and get more community engagement.”

In an attempt to increase vaccination rates, the newly-established African Medicines Agency (AMA) will be responsible for regulating health systems and establishing Africa’s own vaccine authorization body. Something which is desperately needed, explained Nkengasong.

“The continent of Africa is the only part of the world that still depends on [vaccine] approval from outside,” he said.

Food insecurity and malnutrition laid bare

The theme of this year’s AU summit was “Building Resilience in Nutrition on the African Continent.” However, some observers said it still didn’t receive the attention it deserves.

The continent is currently grappling with multiple food security crises: From the Horn of Africa drought which has affected over 10 million people, to conflict-driven food insecurity in Ethiopia, where over 4 million people are already struggling with drought-induced water shortages.

Malnutrition rates have soared across the conflict-torn country, stressed UNICEF’s Ethiopia Representative, Gianfranco Rotigliano.

“37% of children in Ethiopia under five are prone to acute malnutrition,” he told DW. “Almost 45% of all children deaths are associated with a certain degree of under-nutrition.”

Rotigliano added that climate changed-linked food disasters have also become more common — a fact that the AU should take heed of.

“The [AU] should keep insisting for all countries to comply with actions against climate change,” he said. “[It] can take political decisions to improve South-South cooperation.”

The hunger crisis in Ethiopa’s war-torn Tigray region was not directly addressed during the summit. However, Bankole Adeoye reiterated the bloc’s call for “guaranteed humanitarian access to the areas in need,” amid a severe aid shortage exacerbated by heavy bureaucracy, checkpoints and ongoing fighting.

Tigray crisis remains in the dark

The conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigrayan forces in the country’s north has dominated international discourse since it broke out in November 2020, with the United Nations (UN) warning of thousands living in famine-like conditions and denouncing a “de facto [humanitarian] blockade.”