African Union Praised for Rebuffing Sudan, But Concerns Remain

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:17pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Africa has been praised for denying Sudan's leader the opportunity to head the African Union, but human rights activists here say the Islamist President Omar el Bashir should not head the AU next year, either, because of the crisis in Darfur.

There is also some unhappiness about the man the A.U. did choose as chairman, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo.

The A.U. heads of state meeting in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, this week bowed to pressure and agreed that Bashir should not hold the rotating chairmanship for this year as planned, but could do so in 2007.

Washington also welcomed the move, saying the A.U. "has sent a clear signal to the world that it will uphold high standards for its organization."

Peter Takirambudde of Human Rights Watch said the A.U. had made the "right
decision" in Sudan's case, but added that the situation in the country's war-ravaged western region of Darfur needed more attention from the continental grouping.

"If the atrocities in Darfur make Bashir unsuitable to lead Africa this year, it's hard to see how he'll be suitable next year unless he takes credible steps to end the crisis in Darfur," said Takirambudde, who heads the organization's Africa division.

It said Sudan should not be given the A.U. leadership unless it disarms the government-backed Janjaweed militias, allows millions of displaced Darfur inhabitants to return home in safety, and brings those involved in war crimes to justice.

Because of the controversy generated by Sudan's candidacy for the A.U. chairmanship, the heads of state meeting ended up being dominated by discussions over the conflict in Darfur.

The A.U. said in a statement that Khartoum and two Darfurian rebel groups fighting the government resumed peace mediation efforts Tuesday in Nigeria.

A cease-fire is in place, but has been sporadically broken, most recently by one of the rebel groups on Monday.

A 7,000-strong A.U. peacekeeping force has had limited success in protecting an estimated 1.8 million internally displaced people in Darfur. Another 200,000 refugees are in neighboring Chad.

Meanwhile the A.U.'s choice for chairman for this year has been called into question.

The 63-year-old Sassou-Nguesso, a former Marxist, twice seized power in a coup and continues to face a relatively small armed rebellion.

(The Central African country, somewhat smaller than Montana, should not be confused for its much-larger neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire.)

Odindo Ochieng, a human rights scholar based in Kenya, said the A.U. should have "consolidated the gains" it made in rejecting Sudan's chairmanship by electing a leader with an untainted human rights record.

"Sassou-Nguesso does not fit as a better replacement. His human rights and governance record is not what Africa needs as a model leader," Odindo commented.

Herve Ambroise Malonga, president of the Congolese opposition Republican Convention, said it was a "shame" that the A.U. had picked a man "who is not a brilliant example, even in his own country, in matters of human rights and good governance."

But Sassou-Nguesso defended his record, telling reporters in Khartoum that his country was at peace and had no political prisoners, that a human rights commission operates there and that he had held democratic elections.

The fairness of those elections, in 2002, was questioned by observers, as his main opponent withdrew, saying the poll suffered from a lack of transparency.

Sassou-Nguesso first came to power in a 1979 coup. After losing elections in 1992 he led a militia in a 1997 civil war and seized power again.

The conflict continued until 1999 when a ceasefire agreement was signed.

The State Department in a statement praised Sassou-Nguesso's declared agenda of making conflict prevention and the promotion of peace the primary focus during his tenure.

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