Addis Ababa puts on its political suit for AU summit

2014-01-28 16:07

Just last week Ethiopia was still celebrating one of its largest religious festivals of the year – the three-day Orthodox celebration of Timkat (baptism).

This week, strings of red, yellow and green flags were still up across the streets are the only reminder of the festival in Addis Ababa, which has put on its political suit for one of its largest gatherings – the 22nd annual African Union (AU) summit.

President Jacob Zuma is expected to fly into town later today, and he will be followed by the heads of most of the 50 or so states attending the summit. Heads of state are expected to meet in the AU assembly on Thursday and Friday with issues of peace and security, justice and funding expected to dominate the talks.

Police kept pedestrians off the pavements around the AU’s large grounds yesterday as foreign ministers gathered in the AU executive council.

Taxis and cars dropped delegates and observers off at the main gate in front of the new, Chinese-built building with its large dome. To get inside, those attending have to pass through two X-ray scanners.

Those cars allowed to enter the grounds are also thoroughly scanned.

Up-market hotels like the Radisson Blu, Intercontinental and Sheraton are said to have doubled, even tripled their rates as they do every year when government representatives book out all their rooms.

An observer from an NGO last night said the rates for ordinary rooms could go up to as much as $600 (R6 600) a night.

Taxi drivers are also coining it as delegates need to be ferried to and from their hotels, which are on average 3km to 5km from AU headquarters.

These taxis, in turn, have to give way for the blue-light brigades invading the fast-growing city for the summit.

Rooms in the mid-range hotels this week went for anything between $120 and $200 a night.

“I find it hard [to think] that we are here to discuss issues of poverty and starvation and then people are paying thousands of dollars to stay in fancy hotels,” the observer said.

Foreign ministers attending the summit went on a two-day retreat to Bahir Dar at the weekend to discuss agriculture and food security – the theme of this year’s summit. Bahir Dar is a city about 600km northwest of Addis Ababa (a flight of just less than an hour) on the shores of Lake Tana and one of the leading tourist destinations in the country.

They returned on Sunday night and began their meetings yesterday.

Despite AU commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma being a stickler for things starting on time, the lunch she hosted yesterday to launch the AU Handbook started more than an hour late. The first day of the meeting also ended less than an hour before ministers were invited to the swanky Sheraton Hotel for dinner.

Journalists were not allowed inside on either occasion.

Earlier in the day, Dlamini-Zuma set the tone for the summit by telling ministers at the opening meeting that funding was one of the more difficult things that would be discussed at this year’s summit.

She was shocked to discover shortly after taking office in October 2012 that almost the entire budget for the AU’s programmes – currently $170 million – comes from donors outside Africa.

Dlamini-Zuma has been preaching Pan-Africanism and self-reliance.

Most of the AU member countries have not been paying their full dues since 2012, and the AU is set to consider the expulsion of seven of these, including the war-torn Central African Republic and Uganda.

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo’s report into alternative ways of finding funds is likely to die a quiet death because of a disagreement among countries about the suggestions, which include taxes on SMSes and air tickets into Africa.

Some countries feel they would carry a disproportionate burden because of their booming tourism industries.

The lack of money is also one of the reasons why Africa still has to call in Western countries like France to help intervene in conflicts. The African Standby Force, which has been mooted for more than a decade, hasn’t been getting off the ground, partly because of a lack of resources of member countries.

The African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises, set up as an interim measure at a meeting called by Zuma in Pretoria last year, could just take over the role of this standby force.

During a discussion hosted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) this morning, an AU official admitted that the organisation had failed on the peace front, but said it was working on the matter.

Analysts, however, say that African armies simply cannot afford the type of technology required in weapons to fight the new type of conflicts in Africa, which often take the form of civilian insurgency.

ISS analyst Jakkie Cilliers said during this morning’s briefing that the AU often set itself up for failure by setting high norms and standards that it couldn’t achieve.

Dlamini-Zuma, whose term at the AU helm is nearing the halfway mark, will likely want to prove him wrong.

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