Egypt Protest Not A Priority For African Union

The ongoing turmoil in Egypt was given little consideration at the summit of African leaders that wrapped up in Ethiopia yesterday. The African Union, the continent's most powerful governing body, discussed other conflicts in Sudan and Somalia as well as Africa's biggest challenges in the upcoming year. Host Michel Martin speaks with Chief Africa correspondent for the Associated Press, Michelle Faul about the why Egypt was overshadowed at the summit and whether the African Union can bring about measurable change on the continent.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

During the week leading up to the most hyped football game of the year, do you ever wonder about the physics of a quarterback passing a football to a receiver? It's the kind of thing they think about on ESPN's "Sport Science." We'll talk to the host of that show in just a few minutes.

And, later, in our weekly parenting conversation, we'll also talk about a new book "On the Ugly Side of Youth Sports." That's all coming up.

But first, more on the events on Egypt. We've been keeping a close tab on the reactions by world leaders to the events there. A number of them, including President Obama, have been offering daily reaction to the huge demonstrations taking place. So we were wondering about the reaction from Africa's chief governing body, the African Union, since Egypt is, after all, in North Africa.

And we discovered that although they were gathered together for the semiannual summit in Ethiopia just as these protests were gathering steam, there was barely a word. We wondered why. So we've called Michelle Faul, chief Africa correspondent for the Associated Press, who's been tracking the meetings, and she's with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

MICHELLE FAUL: Good day and thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: So, Michelle, first of all, tell us, who's in the African Union and what's the purpose of this get together?

FAUL: The African Union is a gathering of nearly every single African state. There are 53 member states. The only one who does not belong is Morocco. And they get together twice a year. The aim of the union is to promote democracy, good governance, to fight corruption, to promote social and economic integration on the continent.

And generally what happens is the leaders get bogged down in discussing one or another of the crises in Africa at these meetings. This year, surprisingly, they were discussing Ivory Coast. And there was very little mention of Tunisia or of Egypt. It was as though those protests, even though they were being shown on wall-mounted televisions throughout Africa Hall, where the summit is held in Addis Ababa. But as if that was the elephant in the room and the African leaders were ostriches with their heads in the sand.

MARTIN: Did the commission chairman, Jean Ping, give any explanation for why the crises weren't discussed - weren't even put on the agenda?

FAUL: He gave an excuse. He said that they were too recent and that there hadn't been time to put them on the agenda. Though, he has said himself that he is following, you know, events in Tunisia and Egypt very closely and is very concerned. But he is not an African leader. He's the bureaucrat who heads the machine that runs the African Union.

MARTIN: Now, you wrote about this fact that there are some other anomalies about this meeting for the fact that the new leader of the African Union was also named Sunday, and he is - well, tell us who he is and why this is so strange, given the context.

FAUL: Well, given that the biggest issue confronting the leaders at this meeting is the electoral crisis in Ivory Coast, where you have an incumbent president refusing to accept that he lost elections to the opposition leader and refusing to leave power. That is Laurent Gbagbo. And this issue gripped the summit.

And in the midst of that, they elected, you know, as chairman of the African Union for the next year - it's a rotating chairmanship - President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, this is, you know, a dictator of 31 years, a coup leader who had his uncle killed so that he could take power. It did seem a strange choice.

MARTIN: Overall, though, does the African Union, you've covered many of these, does the African Union have any track record of effective involvement in these kinds of regional crises?

FAUL: Well, it's improved in recent years. I mean, they've certainly come out very strongly in stopping any attempts at military coups becoming military dictatorships. And they've succeeded in stopping that in Madagascar, in the Comoros(ph), in Togo, and indeed in Ivory Coast itself.

What seems to be more difficult for them, as one analyst said to me, is dealing with civilian leaders and dealing with what he called civilian coup d'etat.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, I don't know if you feel comfortable, given your reportorial responsibilities, would you feel comfortable sort of analyzing first why you think these leaders were so silent on these particular crises? Did you think they were - because they are afraid of the kind of spillover effect? Or do you have any sense of why?

FAUL: I certainly don't have a sense of why. But I would be surprised if there weren't many scared men at that meeting, wondering, am I going to be next?

MARTIN: you know, a lack of political freedoms; food prices rising while people's buying power only gets lower; people losing their jobs; the high unemployment. I mean, nearly every African country has this - well, I should say everyone is confronting this issue.

And if you look at the number of leaders who've been there for years and years and years, one of the leaders who, you know, whose absence was noticeable at the summit was Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's strongman. He's been there since 1969. Among the leaders who were at the summit, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who's been ruling since 1980 and who refuses to leave, even though he lost in a violent- plagued elections in his country.

I mean, they have to be wondering, is their turn going to be next? And for that reason, it was interesting to see how some of the leaders at the summit were trying to destroy the unity that the African Union had come out with and very strongly sending a message to Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast saying, you lost the election, you have got to go, and recognizing the opposition leader there, Alasan Quattara, as the new president, the president-elect of Ivory Coast.

That unity was threatened at the meeting by countries like South Africa, which are suggesting perhaps they need a new strategy in Ivory Coast, perhaps they need a recount of the votes. Now, this is the line that Gbagbo himself is taking. And it's surprised many people. South Africa is supported by countries like Angola, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea.

Now, you know, all of those countries except South Africa, you know, led by rulers who have lost elections in the past or stolen elections outright and who one would think have a stake in seeing what happens in the future in Ivory Coast. Well, Africa has a huge stake. There are more than a dozen countries going to have elections this year. And the way that the African Union deals with the crisis in Ivory Coast is going to be most important for the future of the continent.

MARTIN: And finally, Michelle, you were - obviously many of these countries have many, you know, pressing domestic concerns to deal with, but the whole question of these kinds of summits and regional gatherings are often much discussed in the West about whether these are really a useful use of time, energy and money. In the wake of this lack of resolve and lack of unity on some of these key regional questions, is anybody questioning whether the African Union is really a viable organization?

FAUL: I don't think so. And I think just the fact, you know, that as I had said, they - the way they have dealt with military coups on the continent over the last five, six years shows that they have a very real, very strong role to play on the continent. Their indecision in dealing with Ivory Coast - they've now set up a panel of five presidents. Well, three are coup leaders, two are from democratic countries, so we'll have to see how that goes.

But that kind of indecision is led by the fact that they have fundamental differences between them. And these were shown up at the conference even though its theme was unity and shared values.

MARTIN: Michelle Faul is the chief African correspondent for the Associated Press. And she was with us from Johannesburg. Thank you so much for joining us.

FAUL: You're welcome.

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