Kagame highlights reform 'urgency' at special AU summit

Chris STEIN
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Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been trying to reform the AU for two years

Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Saturday urged African heads of state to come to an agreement on long-debated reforms to their continental body at a special summit in the Ethiopian capital.

Heads of state and ministers from the 55 African Union member states were gathered at the body's headquarters for what is seen as a last-ditch attempt to push through reforms that have been mulled for nearly two years.

Declaring "the end is in sight" the AU chairman Kagame highlighted the urgency of reforming an organisation often seen as toothless and donor-dependent.

"Events on our continent and across the world continue to confirm the necessity and urgency of this project," he said at the summit's opening in the Ethiopian capital.

"The goal is simple: to make Africa stronger and give our people the future they deserve," said Kagame, whose one-year term as chairman expires in January.

AU leaders already achieved one reform goal on Saturday with the inauguration of a Peace Fund which it is hoped will be worth an eventual $400 million (350.2 million euros) aimed at responding to crises on the continent before they evolve into full-blown conflicts.

"We're very, very bullish about this fund," Donald Kaberuka, the former Rwandan finance minister who's championing the fund, told AFP.

He added that the fund has only raised $60 million (52.5 million euros) from African countries thus far but is open to collaborations with the private sector and other countries.

"Together, I think we'll create a conflict-free continent by 2020," he said.

- A more focused AU -

The AU in 2016 charged Kagame with getting reforms passed, but observers say time is running out because Egypt -- which is set to assume the chairmanship -- is believed to have little interest in the agenda.

In proposals unveiled last year, Kagame envisioned a more narrowly focused AU headed by a powerful commission whose bills are covered by member states rather than foreign donors.

However key African countries hold reservations about empowering a continental body they believe could infringe on their sovereignty.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an AU official downplayed Egypt's opposition and told AFP to expect an agreement on reforms to the body's administration and financing when the summit concludes on Sunday.

"I think we have 100 percent consensus on this," the official said.

However the reforms the official described fell short of Kagame's initial proposals.

While the Rwandan leader proposed that member states elect a chairperson who could then appoint his or her own deputy and commissioners, AU leaders rejected that proposal, the official said.

Kagame had also floated reducing the AU's scope to focus on four areas: peace and security, economic integration, political affairs and Africa's global representations.

But the AU will instead reduce its eight commissions to six by merging four commissions that were seen as redundant, specifically political affairs with peace and security, and trade and industry with economic affairs.

Meanwhile 24 countries have made progress on implementing a 0.2 percent import levy to finance the union, the official said, despite opposition from the United States which argues it violates World Trade Organisation rules.

"We've had a lot of challenges with the US on this for frankly no good reason and we've chosen to ignore them, which they don't like," the official said.