A key development on Africa’s diplomacy in 2019 will be on hand from mid-January to early February when the Heads of State and government convene for the 32nd summit at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.
Change of the AU leadership is expected when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will take over from Rwanda’s Paul Kagame as the rotational chairman of the continental body.
Will Al-Sisi rise to expectation in steering the continent forward in 2019 as did Paul Kagame in 2018?
In international relations, institutions such as the AU and its organs do not achieve results on their own.
Leaders and countries play a crucial role as agents in the pursuit and attainment of goals.
It is thus valid to look at the African geopolitics through personality lenses.
For instance, one of the major dynamics at the AU was undertaken in the late 1990s to early 2000s when the former South African President Thabo Mbeki – working with fellow leaders Abdoulaye Wade (Senegal), Abdel Aziz Bouteflika (Algeria) and Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria) – led to the establishment of the AU as a successor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
It is true that Kagame has attracted criticism at home with regards to apparent emasculation of political freedoms and charges of ruling Rwanda with an iron fist.
Rwanda has also suffered diplomatic spats with nations such as South Africa, Uganda and the DRC.
Equally, some of the intractable challenges – like turmoil in South Sudanese and Somalia – were not resolved during Kagame’s one-year tenure putting paid to the AU’s plan to silence guns by 2020.
However, at the continental level, Kagame has emerged as a visible agent for the Pan African renewal and evidence abounds to back up this notion.
In so doing, Kagame has built on and intensified the work that was started by South African politician and former African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma, namely, AU’s Agenda 2063, a comprehensive strategic framework for the socio-economic transformation of the continent.
For instance, throughout 2017, Kagame led a reform initiative at the AU culminating in the so-called Kagame report with rubrics incorporating structural, human resource and financial re-organisation of the continental body.
A major milestone was achieved in March 2018 when the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was launched in Kigali under Kagame’s stewardship.
Aimed at enhancing the intra-Africa flow of goods, services, investments and businesspeople, the initiative is a potential continental game-changer.
The optimism for the AfCFTA is predicated on the fact that 49 countries have signed up and 14 ratified it.
It is also in Rwanda that the African passport was launched in 2017 which, along with the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), portends improved intra-Africa mobility.
The question to pose is whether the AU under Al-Sisi will rise to expectation given the apparent, even though modest, achievements.
What are the challenges that Al-Sisi and Egypt will be facing?
Generally, Al-Sisi will have to heavily invest in Egyptian diplomatic resources including consultations with fellow African leaders, hosting meetings and shuttle diplomacy. It will not come cheap for the Egyptian coffers.
Observers will be watching to see if Cairo’s stewardship will move the continental free trade area from mere endorsements towards tangible implementation.
The challenge is that vested interests in a number of countries are wary of ceding sovereignty over their national trade to the continental good.
Early indications show that Cairo will be keen to advance the continental trade deal – with the Egyptian national interests at heart.
In December, the country hosted a highly publicised African Intra-African Trade Fair in the resort city of Sharm El Sheikh in partnership with the African Development Bank and the African Export-Import Bank.
Looking ahead, observers will be keen to see if Egyptian national interest trumps Pan-African interest.
The wider Egyptian strategy for Africa includes a number of public diplomacy and soft power instruments.
These include paid-for-trips for journalists, scholarships and friendly immigration processes for African nationals.
Cairo has also put in place funds for IT infrastructure, risk insurance and investment.
The conundrum for Al-Sisi will be the navigation of perceptions towards Egypt by nationals of Sub-Saharan Africa.
This is borne of the ambiguity of Egypt being both an African and Arabic/Middle East nation.
Analysts have long concluded that the core of the Egyptian foreign policy towards the rest of Africa is founded on the Nile River.
Indeed, the Nile is not just an economic resource for Egypt but a national security matter.
Cairo has in the past bristled at the increased developments on the Nile by riparian states, most emblematically in the case of Ethiopia’s building of the massive Renaissance Dam.
Will the Nile-based diplomacy trump other continental ideals?
Dr Wekesa is a media and geopolitics scholar at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa: [email protected]