The last AU summit here in January failed to agree on a chair for the AU Commission after South Africa’s Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma challenged the sitting chairman, Gabon’s Jean Ping. The leaders agreed Ping should stay on for a further six months, until this summit.
Ping on Saturday told the handful of heads of state already assembled in the Ethiopian capital that the Mali crisis is one of the biggest challenges facing the 54-member body.
The vast desert north of Mali has been taken over by Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in the aftermath of a March military coup in the capital Bamako in the south, raising fears of a new regional haven for extremists.
“The situation in Mali is one of the most serious situations our continent is confronted with,” Ping said at the start of a closed-door meeting on Mali and on tensions between Sudan and the year-old breakaway nation of South Sudan.
He said the crisis “imperils the very existence of Mali as a nation”.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, the AU Peace and Security Council chair, said the conference “condemns the aim of the terrorist groups to turn northern Mali into a sanctuary and a coordination centre for terrorist groups on the continent such as AQIM, MUJAO, Boko Haram and al-Shebab.”
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) is an armed group presented as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram has since 2009 stepped up attacks on government and Christian targets, while Somalia’s Shebab Islamists, fighting to overthrow the weak, Western-backed government, still stage guerrilla attacks despite having lost ground to African Union troops in recent months.
Ouattara said the four militant groups “constitute a serious threat to regional and international peace and security”.
In Mali, Islamist fighters took advantage of the chaos following a military coup in March to seize key towns in the north.
The jihadists fought alongside, but then chased off, separatist Tuareg rebels, and have since enforced strict Islamic law and destroyed ancient World Heritage sites they consider idolatrous in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
At the Addis Ababa summit, the leaders underlined the need to restore security in Mali’s north.
Ouattara reiterated an earlier call by west African leaders to the UN Security Council “for the speedy adoption of a resolution authorising the deployment of troops in Mali under Chapter Seven of the UN charter”.
A west African group of nations has said it is ready to send a 3,300-troop force to help restore order in Mali if it has UN backing.
On the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan — the other issue on the agenda for Saturday’s meeting — Ping said progress at AU-backed peace talks between the two countries “has been slow and maybe even a little uneven”.
He said Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president and AU lead mediator between the two Sudans, would present a report to the summit.
The AU and UN have passed resolutions urging the rivals to reach deals on security, oil and border demarcation by August 2.
Talks have dragged on in recent weeks, and although Khartoum and Juba, which just celebrated the nation’s first birthday, agreed to a cessation of hostilities at the last round of talks, no concrete deals have been forged.
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir attended the opening session. His northern counterpart Omar al-Bashir arrived a little later. Both leaders left in the mid-afternoon, a few minutes apart, without making any comment.
A summit participant told AFP no direct talks between the two leaders took place but each delivered a speech to the meeting.
Among other flashpoints on the continent, Ping cited the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo where a group of army mutineers known as M23 recently seized a string of small towns from the regular army.