Rwanda’s Kagame Passes Baton to Egypt’s Al-Sisi at African Union Summit

Dignitaries gather at the summit in Ethiopia. ( Reuters )

Dignitaries gather at the summit in Ethiopia. (Reuters)

Heads of state from across Africa convened on February 10 and 11 in Addis Ababa for the African Union’s thirty-second annual summit. The theme, in recognition of the continent’s millions of migrants was titled “The Year of Refugees, Returnees, and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa.” Nearly one-third of the world’s refugee population is in Africa.

The two-day convention of the assembly followed a session of the Union’s Executive Council days prior and Permanent Executives Committee in mid-January. Attended by 55 African heads of state and government, the two-day summit’s opening ceremony championed peace and security in the areas of migration and economic growth.

This year’s summit was particularly consequential for the African Union, as Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who served as Chairman for 2018, passed the baton to his successor, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Kagame’s tenure as head of the AU was highly influential, marked by a flurry of financial and administrative reforms.

Some of his more notable achievements as AU Chair include making the organization financially autonomous from donors by levying a small import tax on member countries, establishing quotas for women and youth in the private sector, and strengthening sanctions against states that do not abide by the AU’s rules.

Perhaps his most ambitious reform, the African Free Trade Agreement, a proposal for a single market among all African countries much like the EU, still has not borne fruit. While the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA)’s language was agreed upon by by 44 countries in March 2018, it still has not garnered the necessary 22 ratifications to come into effect.

In his speech on Sunday before he passed the Chairman role to al-Sisi, Kagame urged the importance of reform for both the Union and the continent. “The reform is not an end in itself,” he said. “What counts is how we use it to secure a prosperous and peaceful future for our continent.”

Now, as al-Sisi takes the stage, the future of these reforms is unclear. Egypt is a major power on the continent, which could mean that al-Sisi will be reluctant to continue Kagame’s work of strengthening the AU’s power over member countries. The fact that Egypt was suspended in 2013 after the overthrow of democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi does nothing to sweeten the deal.

Al-Sisi’s opening speech as Chairperson of the continental assembly suggested that terrorism, security, and post-conflict reconstruction will be his top priorities, swerving away from Kagame’s focus on economic growth.

Aside from al-Sisi’s and Kagame’s speeches, the summit hosted a number of important meetings in front of the cameras and behind closed doors. The presidents of Egypt, Nigeria, and Sudan, for example, held a meeting on a controversial dam on the Nile being built by Ethiopia that has raised tensions between some of the continent’s biggest powers.

Other important topics discussed included methods for regional and pan-African integration, digital identity management, violence prevention, and refugee rights and sustainable solutions.