January 24, 2006

Africa picks Congo as next AU head

By Opheera McDoom and Nick Tattersall

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - An African summit on Tuesday picked
Congo Republic to head the African Union after strong
opposition to Sudan taking over the leadership because of fears
its human rights record could hurt African credibility abroad.

Under a compromise deal, Sudan takes over leadership of the
pan-African body after Congo Republic steps down next year.

Critics had said Sudan should not get the chair while it
was under fire for rights abuses in its western region of
Darfur, where 7,000 AU peacekeepers are trying to uphold a
tentative ceasefire between the government and rebels.

Some diplomats said the solution was mainly a face-saving
measure for Sudan, which had initially been reluctant to
withdraw its candidacy. They said Sudan's chairmanship in 2007
could well be challenged later on.

Rebels had threatened to quit AU-sponsored peace talks in
Nigeria if Sudan was picked as the next AU head. One Darfur
rebel group said they would continue talking after Congo was
chosen but would not accept Sudan's presidency in the future if
the Darfur conflict was not resolved.

"They are all congratulating the Congolese president now,"
a delegate told Reuters from inside the hall where heads of
state and foreign ministers met on Tuesday and finally broke a
deadlock that led to heated exchanges on Monday.

Shortly after the decision was announced in the hall, Congo
President Denis Sassou Nguesso took the chair from outgoing
president, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, who has held the post
for nearly two years.

Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jamal Ibrahim said
Sudan would take over the leadership of the AU in 2007. An AU
official said a draft resolution on the issue still had to be
formally approved. Such resolutions are usually rubber-stamped.

One rights group said this move just postponed the
presidency problem and, by promising Sudan the chair, failed to
put conditions on Sudan to address rights abuse accusations.

"If Sudan's records of atrocities disqualifies (President
Omar Hassan) al-Bashir from the presidency this year, how can
we be sure that this doesn't disqualify him next year?" said
Reed Brody from New York-based Human Rights Watch.


Western diplomats said the AU's decision to delay Sudan's
appointment showed the organization, set up in 2002, would not
be deflected from its mission to promote democracy, human
rights and development and was responsive to world opinion

"It definitely shows that they are very sensitive about
what the world thinks," said one Western diplomat.

The United States had said it was concerned about a
Sudanese presidency.

On the first day of the summit in Khartoum, African nations
were deeply split about Sudan, which put itself forward for the
presidency based on a tradition that the summit host takes over
as the AU's head.

Sudan had said it had the backing of North and East Africa,
but diplomats said southern, western and central African
countries had urged Khartoum to withdraw its nomination.

The summit had discussed the possibility of extending
Nigeria's term, but some African nations were wary of breaking
a tradition of a rotating presidency.

Obasanjo had helped drive the AU forward on issues such as
improving governance. Diplomats said the influence of the AU
president largely depends on the person holding the post and
said Congo's Sassou had a good international reputation.

"He is someone who is very well respected by his peers, who
knows how to behave with the International Monetary Fund and
with donors," said one senior Western diplomat.

Sassou, a French-trained former paratrooper, seized power
in Congo Republic with a 1979 coup. He lost the country's first
multi-party elections in 1992, but grabbed back the presidency
five years later after a brief but bloody civil war.

The debate at the summit has overshadowed the summit's
official agenda, which was to focus on culture and education.

Human rights issues, such as setting up the first
pan-African human rights court, are also being discussed.