Banda boycotts AU summit on point of principle

Richard Synge

Rather than spend her time courting Africa’s political leaders, new president Joyce Banda has clearly prioritised her most immediate task: rescuing Malawi’s struggling economy from ruin.

Banda gave up Malawi’s right to host an African Union (AU) summit in Lilongwe, planned for July, when she flatly refused to accept the AU’s demands that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir be allowed to at­tend the meeting. Instead, her government confirmed that Bashir would be arrested if he turned up for the summit, fulfilling Malawi’s obligations as a signatory to the founding statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which indicted the Sudanese leader for war crimes in 2009.

Declaring in mid-June that her “main agenda right now is economic recovery”, Banda said that Vice-President Khumbo Kachali would represent her at the relo­cated summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Banda’s controversial declaration of principle – which was immediately criti­cised in many African capitals for dam­aging African solidarity – is at least in part based on Malawi’s previous expe­rience of a breakdown of relations with donor countries and agencies. These relations noticeably worsened after her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, host­ed Bashir at a regional summit in Lilong­we last October.

The AU did not support Malawi when aid was cancelled on that occasion, Banda noted. African leaders resolved in 2009 not to respect the ICC warrant, but the AU as an organisation has limited financial resources with which to back its leaders’ resolutions.

The Malawian row with the AU seems unlikely in itself to change the dynamics of the continental grouping, but Banda has nevertheless joined a small number of African governments and political lead­ers who are prepared to criticise what they see as the distorted priorities of the organisation and its failure to rally around democratic principles. One major fault line developed over the blatant failure of the AU to act over the major post-elector­al crisis in Ivory Coast in 2010-11.

The summit in July seemed to be most likely focused on another kind of split, which superficially was about the chair­manship of the AU Commission. The in­cumbent, Jean Ping of Gabon, hoped to be re-elected into the post earlier this year but was challenged by South Africa’s can­didate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Run­ning below the waterline of this contest has been a major battle for influence in the African continent.

An informal convention to prevent the domination of the AU by its richer mem­bers has hitherto been respected. This prevents the five richest states – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa – from presenting candidates for key AU positions. Dlamini-Zuma’s candidature not only torpedoed the convention but stiffened the resolve of Nigeria to main­tain the convention and to support Jean Ping. A split between Southern Africa and West Africa over the issue seemed a pos­sible outcome. Extra drama was added to the row by the revelation that Angola, one of Africa’s least democratic states, has been bankrolling Dlamini-Zuma’s expen­sive campaign to win support in numer­ous countries around the continent.

Banda’s bold decision to declare Bashir unwelcome was commended by Botswana and may also have been viewed with ap­proval by other Southern African countries like Zambia and even South Africa.

At home, the cancellation of the sum­mit is bad news for hoteliers and car hire firms that had looked forward to a brief boom in business. There will also be fi­nancial consequences for the government which had underwritten the cost of new building work at the Bingu International Conference Centre.


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