African leaders address Covid and security issues at virtual summit

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Chad's former prime minister Moussa Faki Mahamat on Saturday won a second term as head of the African Union's executive body at the opening of a two-day virtual summit expected to focus on the continent's pandemic response.

Faki, who ran unopposed, received support from 51 of 55 member states in the secret ballot, officials said.

"Deeply humbled by the overwhelming and historic vote of confidence," Faki tweeted. He also congratulated Monique Nsanzabaganwa, deputy governor of the National Bank of Rwanda, on her election as his deputy.

The African Union (AU) summit comes almost exactly one year after Egypt recorded the first case of Covid-19 in Africa, prompting widespread fears that member states' weak health systems would quickly be overwhelmed.

But despite early doomsday predictions, the continent has so far been hit less hard than other regions, recording 3.5 percent of global virus cases and 4 percent of global deaths, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, though, many African countries are battling damaging second waves while straining to procure sufficient vaccine doses.

"This disease has caused great suffering and hardship across our continent," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in opening remarks Saturday. "It is not only a severe health emergency. It is also a grave economic and social crisis."

Access to concessional loans

Ramaphosa, who is also the AU’s outgoing chair, stressed the importance of access to loans on favourable terms for the continent’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

"Access to concessional finance will remain crucial as countries rebuild their economies," Ramaphosa told the virtual summit.

The South African leader noted that even though the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have deployed significant financial resources for the coronavirus outbreak response, more needed to be done.

"An injection of fresh resources by the IMF through reallocating and issuing new special drawing rights, with bias to the developing world, will correct the glaring inequality in fiscal stimulus measures between advanced economies and the rest of the world."

Concessional loans generally offer terms that are more favourable to those available on the open market.

The precarious debt burdens of a number of African nations have worsened due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.

‘Vaccine nationalism on the rise’

African leaders have also been speaking out against vaccine hoarding by rich countries at the expense of poorer ones.

"There is a vaccine nationalism on the rise, with other rich countries jumping the queue, some even pre-ordering more than they require," explained Faki in a recent interview.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against "vaccine nationalism," saying vaccine-hogging richer countries would not be safe coronavirus havens if poor nations remained exposed.

A report from the International Chamber of Commerce released in January said unequal distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine could cost the global economy $9 trillion, with wealthy countries having to shoulder half the cost.

Elections and crises

A number of AU members are due to hold internal elections, the results of which will shape how the AU responds to the pandemic and a host of economic and security challenges.

There are also multiple internal conflicts the AU has done little to resolve.

Its Peace and Security Council has failed to hold meetings on a conflict between government forces and anglophone separatists in Cameroon, for example, as well as rising Islamist militancy in Mozambique.

A three-month-old conflict in the AU's host country Ethiopia, pitting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government against the former ruling party of the northern Tigray region, has proved especially sensitive.

Abiy has rejected appeals from high-level AU envoys for talks with Tigrayan leaders, sticking to his line that the conflict is a limited "law and order" operation.

The weekend's summit comes as new US President Joe Biden vows to re-engage with multilateral institutions like the AU.

In a video message posted Friday, Biden said his administration would engage in "sustained diplomacy, in connection with the African Union, to address conflicts that are costing lives all across the African continent."

DR Congo in charge

The summit also marks the official beginning of the year-long AU chairmanship of Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, who is replacing Ramaphosa.

Addressing fellow heads of state and government on Saturday, Tshisekedi vowed to make the AU more relevant by taking it "away from meeting rooms".

Tshisekedi has outlined an ambitious agenda that includes responding to climate change, fighting sexual violence, promoting the African Continental Free Trade Area and accelerating his own country's Grand Inga Hydropower Project, which the AU sees as an important source of electricity for the continent.

But Tshisekedi is also embroiled in a tussle for power at home with supporters of DR Congo's former president Joseph Kabila.

Mohamed Diatta, a researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, said Tshisekedi is "trying really hard to consolidate power at home, but it's not an easy task".

"He's probably going to still be busy with that because what he's created at home is essentially a very fragile and loose governing coalition," Diatta told AFP.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)