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Compromise Over African Union Chairmanship
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Nairobi, January 24 2006 (Financial Times) – African leaders reached a compromise deal on Tuesday by agreeing that the Republic of Congo would takeover the African Union chairmanship instead of Sudan, whose candidacy had sparked controversy and divisions.

Khartoum is hosting the AU summit and the host has traditionally taken up the rotating chair. But many condemned the idea of having Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in the seat because of Sudan’s poor human rights record and the conflict in Darfur, western Sudan, where Khartoum has been accused of genocide by the US.

After hours of meetings and debate, which split Africa’s leaders, it was agreed that Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Congo’s president, would replace Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as chairman.

Sudan would then takeover in 2007, officials said. It was not immediately clear if there were any conditions to the deal.

The compromise reflected the regional politics of the continent, with Congo, a central African nation taking over from a west African country, and recognition that having Mr. al-Bashir as Africa’s leading diplomat would damage the AU’s credibility.

“It’s a facing-saving compromise, but it’s better than nothing,” said Kent Degerfelt, the EU ambassador to Khartoum. “Not everybody is happy with it but at least in theory there’s the possibility that there could be peace agreement in Darfur by 2007.”

If Mr. al-Bashir had become chair it would also have severely compromised the AU’s efforts to broker a peaceful solution to the Darfur crisis, where tens of thousands have been killed and 2m forced from their homes since rebels launched an insurgency in 2003. The AU is mediating Darfur peace talks and has deployed a 7,000-strong peacekeeping mission in the region.

“It’s not a question of what Congo Brazzaville brings to the table, the important thing is what it doesn’t bring; human rights violations, genocide allegations and obstruction of AU peacemaking, all the things that Sudan represents,” said Peter Kagwanja, analyst at the International Crisis Group. “It’s an indication that the AU system is working, that the system is conscious of if its vision.”

However, Congo also has a turbulent history, blighted by violence, and despite the introduction of multiparty politics in the 1990s, Mr. Sassou-Nguesso seized power himself in a 1997 coup. Still, his record is deemed better than Mr. al-Bashir’s.

The AU was formed in 2002 to replace the largely toothless Organization of African Unity with a remit to become more actively engaged in the continent’s problems.

But simply by holding the summit in Khartoum the AU courted controversy. On Sunday, Sudanese security forces detained for several hours a number of human rights campaigners who were holding a parallel meeting. Those detained included five EU staff with diplomatic identities, Mr. Degerfelt said.

On a separate issue, African leaders decided that a special committee would be appointed to present options to the next AU summit in six months on how Hissene Habre, the former Chadian dictator accused of atrocities, could be tried in Africa rather than extradited to Belgium.

Following a four-year investigation by a Belgian judge, an international arrest warrant was issued against Mr. Habré, who lives in exile in Senegal, in September. But a Senegalese court said that it had no jurisdiction to rule on the Belgian extradition request and Senegal referred the matter to the AU.


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