Three Key Issues the African Union Has to Deal With at its Summit

African Union HQ
The headquarters of the African Union (AU) building is pictured in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, on January 29. Heads of the 54 member states gathered for the opening of the AU's annual summit on Monday. Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Once a year, the heads of 54 African countries gather in the Ethiopian capital to hammer out solutions (or not) to the continent's big issues.

The 28th African Union Summit opened on Monday in Addis Ababa, and the agenda is looking pretty full.

Here, we look at three key issues confronting the African Union (AU).

1. The Morocco Conundrum

After a 33-year absence, the only mainland country that is not part of the AU wants to rejoin. Morocco left what was then known as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 in a dispute over the status of Western Sahara, a desert state the size of Colorado that has been the center of an independence struggle for several decades.

In Morocco's eyes, Western Sahara is part of its territory. But an organization founded by the indigenous Sahrawi people, the Polisario Front, launched a guerrilla struggle in the early 1970s to demand that the area be recognized as an independent state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Supported by Algeria, the Polisario Front received the backing of a majority of OAU members in a vote in 1984 on its claim of territorial integrity in Western Sahara, prompting Morocco to quit the bloc. A diplomatic stalemate has ensued in the region, despite calls by the AU and the U.N. for a referendum. Tensions were reignited in 2016 when former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to the region as under "occupation," a comment decried by Moroccan leaders and people who took to the streets to protest.

Morocco submitted its application to rejoin the AU in September 2016, and the country's foreign minister said in January that it has the support of the majority of the bloc's members. But the bid could still face resistance from some of Africa's major powers. According to AFP reports on Monday, 12 countries including Nigeria, South Africa and Algeria, have requested a legal opinion from the AU as to whether Morocco could be readmitted while some members believe it is be occupying the territory of another member state—i.e. the SADR.

Morocco Western Sahara protest
Moroccan protesters hold placards during a demonstration against comments by Ban Ki-moon on Western Sahara in Rabat, on March 13, 2016. Morocco asserts that Western Sahara is part of its territory, though Ban referred to it as under "occupation." FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty

2. Preventing Genocide in South Sudan

The situation in South Sudan is perhaps the most urgent issue in sub-Saharan Africa. Writing in Newsweek in December 2016, former U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said that the risk of "mass atrocities" in South Sudan—which has been mired in civil war on and off since December 2013—"escalating into possible genocide is all too real."

Despite the leaders of the opposing factions—President Salva Kiir and ex-vice-president Riek Machar—signing a peace agreement in August 2015, South Sudan continues to be convulsed by violence. A fresh outbreak of fighting in July 2016 has led to tens of thousands of people fleeing the country, and ethnic tensions have reportedly become a significant factor in the conflict: Kiir is a member of the majority Dinka, while Machar comes from the Nuer ethnic minority. Experts have warned of a second Rwanda, referring to that country's ethnic genocide in 1994, in which at least 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority and moderate members of the Hutu majority died at the hands of Hutu extremists.

In a joint emailed statement on Sunday, the AU, U.N. and regional body the Intergovernmental Authority on Development "expressed their deep concerns over the continuing spread of fighting, and risk of inter-communal violence escalating into mass atrocities, and the dire humanitarian situation in South Sudan." But with the international community so far failing to mitigate the crisis—the U.N. Security Council, for example, has consistently failed to impose an arms embargo on the country—the AU will have to come up with more than just words in order to be seen as making real progress in South Sudan.

South Sudan soldiers
South Sudanese government soldiers celebrate while standing in trenches in Lelo, outside Malakal, South Sudan, October 16, 2016. ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images

3. Uniting Around a New Leader

The summit marks the end of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's tenure as head of the AU Commission. Five candidates are competing to replace Dlamini-Zuma, whose term has ended; she is likely to run later this year to succeed her former husband, Jacob Zuma, as leader of South Africa's governing African National Congress.

The vote on the next AU leader could well expose divisions in the organization. Three of the five candidates—Chad's foreign minister Moussa Faki Mahamat, Kenyan foreign minister Amina Mohamed, and Abdoulaye Bathily of Senegal—are the most likely contenders, but voting could be complicated by a tradition that means the post tends to rotate between candidates from Anglophone and Francophone countries. If tradition is followed, Mahamat and Bathily would have an advantage—even though Kenya has been vocal in campaigning for votes for Mohamed.

In order to win, a candidate requires two-thirds of the votes, and a deadlock followed by political wrangling is a real possibility. That happened in 2012: Dlamini-Zuma was only elected in a second ballot after the first produced a stalemate and led to the incumbent having his term extended by six months.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma
African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma speaks at a State Department event in Washington, DC, on April 13, 2015. Dlamini-Zuma is ending her tenure as the chairperson of the AU Commission. Alex Wong/Getty Images