Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, center foreground, arrives for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit, held on the eve of the heads of state meeting of the African Union summit, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 29, 2015.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, center foreground, arrives for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit, held on the eve of the heads of state meeting of the African Union summit, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 29, 2015. Elias Asmare/AP

What To Expect From the African Union Summit

While the African Union's Heads of State Summit concludes this weekend in Ethiopia, here are seven questions observers and participants will have on their minds.

Late January in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia brings waves of impenetrable traffic, pan-African flags adorning the central Bole Road, and scarcely a vacant room in the city’s infamously hotel-filled landscape. The cause: the semi-annual African Union (AU) Heads of State Summit, which this year began on Friday, January 23. As the AU’s most important annual meeting kicks into high gear this week, here are some of the more pressing questions that observers and participants will have on their minds.

1. Why is the 2015 summit theme “The Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development in Africa?”

The 2015 summit will ostensibly emphasize the critical issue of gender parity on the continent, specifically in terms of women’s participation in politics and the private sector. The selection of this theme is due in no small part to the fact that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the first woman chairperson of the AU Commission, is passionate about gender issues. With her term ending in 2016, she is eager to make progress on this agenda. Moreover, the AU’s focus on gender is also an integral part of its Agenda 2063, a roadmap outlining its priorities for the next fifty years. Yet, as is the case with all of the AU’s previous meetings, critical security challenges on the continent will likely overshadow discussions around the more intentionally anodyne theme.

2. What is the AU’s next move in addressing the Ebola crisis?

Many criticized the AU for failing to mount a coordinated response to the Ebola crisis in 2014. On the summit agenda is a report from the commission on the Ebola crisis, and while the success of Nigeria and Senegal in containing Ebola will be touted, the devastation that the disease has wrought in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea continues to be of justified concern. Particularly, discussions on the impact of Ebola will relate to human rights, economic growth, drained public health sectors, and the possibility of lifting current travel bans on affected countries.

3. Will the AU support a continental force to combat Boko Haram?

The recent attack on the town of Baga in northeastern Nigeria, which killed an estimated 2,000, has only served to reemphasize the escalating potential for Boko Haram to destabilize West Africa. As such, some observers are suggesting that a continental response to Boko Haram is necessary, potentially from an AU-based contingent. For its part, Nigeria has been steadfast in its assertions that it can address the insurgency alone. Whether the question of external intervention in Nigeria will arise at the AU summit is unclear. While the Boko Haram insurgency is indeed one of the continent’s most pressing security challenges, Nigeria, which is one of the AU’s most powerful members, has historically been quick to foreclose discussions of its domestic problems within the Africa Union. It might veto discussions again.

(Related: AFRICOM Commander Wants Full Counterinsurgency Plan for Boko Haram)

4. What will the AU’s role be in upcoming elections in 2015?

Nigeria, Ethiopia, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, and several others will hold critical elections in the coming year, with the potential of ensuing violence in many countries. While domestic politics are a perennially sensitive issue for AU member states, there is no doubt that the question of timing and capacity of certain member states to hold fair and legitimate elections – particularly in countries like civil war-besieged South Sudan – will be addressed at the AU summit. To most effectively support these elections, AU organs and institutions will need strong backing from the AU member states to conduct preventative diplomacy and pre-election assessments, a luxury that the AU is, more often than not, denied.

5. What is the state of continental rapid reaction forces to preemptively stem violence?

In 2003, the AU finalized plans for a rapid reaction unit, the African Standby Force (ASF), that could be deployed around the continent in the event of “grave circumstances.” Yet today, only three of five African regions – Western, Southern, and Eastern Africa – have their brigades ready to deploy. Because of the failure of the ASF to act in the face of state collapse in Mali in 2012 and the Central African Republic in 2013, South Africa proposed a new, slimmer rapid-reaction force, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), in July 2013. The ACIRC has been critiqued by some as being remarkably similar to the ASF and thus needlessly duplicative. As such, the AU summit will inevitably discuss the status of these forces: regarding the ASF, there will likely be pressure on countries in North and Central Africa to accelerate their progress, whereas discussions on ACIRC will center on the question of duplication and the current state of contributions.

6. Can the AU deal with its historical problems of financing itself?

The AU is chronically underfunded. Currently, international partners financially support the vast majority of the AU’s activities. For instance, African states’ contributions made up only approximately 4 percent of the AU’s 2013 annual budget of around $280 million. Among the African funders, contributions are dominated by the so-called “Big Five” African donors: Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, and Libya, which have historically each accounted for approximately 15 percent of the AU’s African-funding. This means that the other 48 countries (Morocco is not an AU member) collectively contribute only around 1 percent of the entire AU annual budget. Thus, the summit will look at a report from the Conference of Ministers of Finance and Economy on the alternative sources of financing the AU. This report is unlikely to have the support necessary to pass the AU Assembly, but the question of where to receive funding for the AU if the report is to be disregarded will be an interesting debate for the institution moving forward.

7. Will Robert Mugabe be the next AU chairman?

It is the southern African region’s turn to appoint the AU chairman for the year, and it is likely that members will nominate controversial Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. His non-democratic reign (he has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980) along with his age (he turns 91 in February) are concerns for many international partners and members of Pan-African civil society. Observers should watch whether these worries are reflected in member states’ voting, or if support for President Mugabe, and his unwavering resistance to international interference, will triumph.

While these urgent issues will take up much of the summit’s agenda, other topics that should be addressed are likely to remain untouched, either on account of their sensitive political nature or their perceived lack of urgency. Yet it would be a mistake for these issues to be ignored. In particular, the AU has taken significant steps this year towards increasing citizen participation. These steps should be discussed and encouraged moving forward.

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