JOHANNESBURG (AP) — African leaders have chosen Equatorial Guinea’s coup plotter and dictator of 31 years to serve as their ceremonial leader this year, a move critics said Monday could undermine the African Union’s attempt to confront other leaders who cling to power.
Human rights groups accuse President Teodoro Obiang of violating the very rights that the AU is sworn to uphold. They say he has made himself, his family and some cronies fabulously wealthy while the majority of people in the oil-rich Central African nation struggle in deep poverty.
Obiang claimed to have won 95 percent of the vote after Equatorial Guinea’s elections in 2009, making him an unlikely critic of Ivory Coast’s incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power two months after the international community said he lost the vote.
“Neither the African Union nor Africans deserve a leader whose regime is notorious for abuses, corruption and a total disregard for the welfare of its people,” Alioune Tine, president of the Dakar, Senegal-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights, said by phone from the summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Traditionally, the chairmanship is given to the leader of the country hosting the next summit, but an exception was made in 2005 when it was the turn of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and African leaders bowed to outside pressures in the uproar over killings in Darfur. They passed over al-Bashir and instead kept Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo for a second year.
There was also dismay when the Africans appointed Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi as chairman in 2009. Gadhafi has ruled Libya since seizing power in a coup in 1969 and was seen as a poor example at a time when Africa’s democratic gains were being reversed, a trend that continues today.
This week’s summit, which started Sunday and ends Monday, was dominated by the crisis in Ivory Coast. How African leaders deal with it is important in a year when more than a dozen African countries are to hold elections. Many polls, such as one planned for later this year in Zimbabwe, are likely to be violently contested.
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980, despite 2008 elections that were violent and widely condemned as fraudulent, took part in a meeting to decide “a democratic solution” to the Ivory Coast stalemate.
Some question whether leaders at the two-day summit are seeing the writing blazed on the wall by Tunisian protesters whose popular revolt ousted 23-year dictator Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali. His was a notable absence from the summit, as was that of embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Gadhafi.
Sudan’s president was in attendance even though students in his nation on Sunday began protests inspired by the success of Tunisia’s uprising.
Such protests are unlikely in Equatorial Guinea, where human rights groups say any sign of dissent is met with arrests and incarceration in a prison notorious for torture and starvation. Last year, four alleged coup plotters were executed just an hour after they were condemned.
Since oil was discovered in Equatorial Guinea some 20 years ago, the country’s per capita income has grown larger than that of some European countries, making it the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet life for the average citizen has become harsher: according to U.N. figures the number of infants dying has increased while only 30 percent of children complete primary school. Only a third of the population has running water and electricity and 60 percent live on less than a dollar a day.
New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned Obiang’s appointment and added, “Even if the AU elects Obiang as its chair, members should not allow him to stall the AU’s efforts and progress in tackling African human rights crises,” notably in Ivory Coast.
At a summit with the theme of unity, the Ivory Coast crisis only served to mark fundamental differences between African leaders. West Africans led by economic giant Nigeria stuck to their guns in supporting opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, whom the United Nations and European Union also have recognized as the winner of November elections.
But South Africa has been suggesting a re-count of votes, supporting the position of the intransigent incumbent, Gbagbo. South Africa’s stand is supported by Uganda, Angola and Equatorial Guinea — those last three all led by men accused of hanging onto power through questionable elections.
Gbagbo also has suggested a power-sharing deal to resolve the Ivorian stalemate — much like the unity governments that emerged in Zimbabwe and Kenya after violence-plagued elections, with mixed success.
South Africa’s weekly Mail and Guardian newspaper warned that a power-sharing deal for Ivory Coast “would solidify the trend begun in Kenya and Zimbabwe of rewarding those who refuse to accept electoral outcomes and who use violence to maintain their grip on power.”
The AU, meanwhile, appointed a panel including six presidents to resolve the deadlock in a month.
The Ivorian crisis is the first to see the African Union uphold elections that unseat an incumbent.
Political scientist Adekeye Adebajo, head of the Center for Conflict Resolution at South Africa’s University of Cape Town, says the African Union has done well in recent years in dealing with unconstitutional regime changes, foiling attempts to set up military regimes in Ivory Coast, Togo and the Comoros.
“But when it comes to dealing with civilians, civilian coups d’etat, they tend to be at a loss,” he said. “I think it’s very hard for them African Union to be a promoter of democracy as long as a lot of its members themselves have flawed democratic processes.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.