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African Union’s first woman leader braces to tackle continent’s hotspots

By Manish Chand, IANS,

Addis Ababa : African leaders have ended their 19th biannual summit that saw the election of the first female head of the African Union Commission and a renewed pledge to push democracy and fast-track resolution of crises in the continent’s hotspots, including Mali, the Sudans, Guinea Bissau and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Held in the Chinese-built new headquarters here, the July 15-16 summit’s showpiece event that overshadowed other issues was the election of South African Home Affairs Minister Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma as the new chairperson of the African Union Commission, the executive body which manages day-to-day affairs of the 54-nation African Union.

Dlamini-Zuma, a veteran anti-apartheid activist and a former wife of South African President Jacob Zuma, broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman head of the AU Commission. She was sworn in past midnight Monday by Benin’s President Boni Yayi, the chair of the AU, amid loud clapping by African leaders,signaling the end of the leadership stalemate that has plagued the AU since a deadlocked election in January.

Jean Ping, a former Gabon foreign minister who helmed the AU for the last four years, graciously accepted the defeat and congratulated Dlamini-Zuma. “This is a memorable moment,” Ping said and wished her “the very best success in undertaking this noble mission”.

The end of the leadership battle, which was marked by a sharp polarization between Anglophone and Francophone countries, has infused new hope in the continent about the AU’s new leadership to resolve formidable challenges facing the continent amid the global slowdown. The partisan politics is behind, and the dominant sentiment is now one of African unity, solidarity and integration.

“My view is that I’m an African citizen. I am loyal to the African Union, and I will serve the African Union, and I’ll work collectively with every member states,” said Dlamini-Zuma, setting the tone for a resurgent AU leadership in the coming days.

The summit, themed ‘Boosting Intra-African Trade,’ also saw African leaders discussing acceleration of a free trade area and intense debates to map the way forward out of debilitating crises in the continent’s hotspots

Voicing concerns over the post-coup crisis in Mali as one of biggest security threats to Africa, home to the priceless treasures of Timbuktu, the AU pitched for restoration of the civilian government in the West African state by July-end.

The AU is now expected to step up efforts to get the western regional bloc, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to support a plan for a possible military intervention in northern Mali, where Islamist militants have seized control and unleashed destruction of ancient holy shrines and artefacts.

In other key peace initiatives, the presidents of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo signed a pact July 14 to support the formation an international force to confront an armed rebellion in the eastern part of the DRC.

Welcoming the agreement, AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra underlined the new spirit of give and take in resolving the continent’s crises, which hopefully should become more prominent in days to come.

“Both at the level of ministers and heads of state, there is a new spirit. There is an equal eagerness to work together to overcome the misunderstandings that may exist on the ground. And I believe that the only thing that we can request of you is give us a chance to work and develop a new spirit, and translate it into deeds on the ground,” Lamamra said.

It was in this spirit that the presidents of Sudan and South Sudan met here on the sidelines of the AU summit and their negotiators continued the talks to hammer out a deal to resolve issues of contested territory, oil revenues and citizenship. The AU has directed both countries to honour the August 2 deadline to seal an enduring deal to enable the emergence of two viable states living in peace and harmony with each other.

Another bit of good news that emerged from the summit was an increased focus on advancing democratization of the continent, with Jean Ping criticising what he called the “unconstitutional transfers of power”.

The United Nations lauded this trend towards democratization in the continent. Africa is now a home of thriving democracies, where elections are peaceful and the press is free, said UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson.