Rwandan President Paul Kagame Sunday handed over the African Union chairmanship to his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The ceremony was the climax of the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) heads of State and government summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The Egyptian President will work with South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa as the first vice-chairman and the DR Congo’ Felix Tshisekedi as the second vice-man.
Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou will also be in the executive, representing West Africa, while East Africa will be represented by President Kagame.
For the Congolese leader, the AU post could not have come at a more appropriate time; he was making his debut at the continental summit just weeks after being installed following a highly disputed election.
The theme for this year’s summit was “Refugees, Returnees and the Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa”.
President Kagame expressed confidence that his successor would take the AU to greater heights.
Earlier, AU Commission Chairman, Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahamat, commended President Kagame’s stewardship of the AU, saying the continent learnt a lot during his tenure.
Dr Mahamat said the Rwandan enhanced the AU’s progress towards autonomy and accountability.
The meeting was also addressed by the UN Secretary-General Antonnio Guterress, who noted that though Africa had opened its doors to everyone in need, the same had not been reciprocated by the rest of the world, particularly the more affluent West.
“Africa’s generosity to those in need is unmatched,’’ said the UN chief.
While multiple crises on the continent will be on the agenda of heads of State from the 55 member nations, the summit will also focus on institutional reforms, and the establishment of a continent-wide free trade zone.
The Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) was agreed by 44 nations in March 2018, but only 19 countries have ratified the agreement, with 22 needed for it to come into effect.
The single market is a flagship of the AU’s “Agenda 2063” programme, conceived as a strategic framework for socioeconomic transformation.
Cairo is backing the initiative, but analysts say it will be less likely to focus on the financial and administrative reforms pushed by Kagame.
President Sisi is expected to focus more on security, peacekeeping and post-war reconstruction, issues closely tied to the AU’s 2019 theme.
“Egypt has an interest in Africa, they want to strengthen their position on the African continent and they don’t want to be seen as a country only focused on the Arab world,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies.
Mr Guterres said Saturday that peaceful elections in DR Congo, Mali and Madagascar, as well as peace deals in South Sudan and Central African Republic and the truce between Ethiopia and Eritrea, were signs of a “wind of hope” on the continent.
President Kagame, who has been leading institutional reforms since 2016, pushed for a continent-wide import tax to fund the AU and reduce its dependence on external donors, who still pay for more than half the institution’s annual budget.
But member states have resisted this along with reform of the AU Commission, its executive organ. In November 2018, most states rejected a proposal to give the head of the AU Commission the power to name deputies and commissioners.
Like other regional heavyweights Nigeria and South Africa, Egypt is not keen on a powerful AU, an African diplomat told AFP.
This is especially because Cairo has “never forgotten” its suspension in 2013 after Egypt’s army deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who in 2012 became the country’s first democratically elected president, the diplomat said.
“Traditionally, leaders of big powers have not really helped the position of AU chairperson, as they don’t want an AU which is too strong or too intrusive,” said Elissa Jobson of the International Crisis Group.
“The AU and the AU commission are only as strong as its members want them to be. Unlike the EU, African countries have not transferred some of their sovereignty to the AU.”
President Sisi officially took over the post of ceremonial head of the AU which rotates between the five regions of the continent at the start of the two-day summit in Addis Ababa.
The meeting got underway after a ceremony inaugurating a commemorative statue of the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I at the AU headquarters, in honour of his role in the formation of the continental body.
Special guests at the summit included Fifa President Gianni Infantino and US billionaire, philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
The World Health Organisation Director General Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also addressed the summit, as did Palestinian President Muhammud Abbas.
The President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid was also in attendance, though she did not address the summit, but was given a chance to wave to the congregation.