Sudan Divides Africans With Bid to Chair Union
Skepticism Over Human Rights, Darfur

Sunday, January 22, 2006

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Jan. 21 -- African countries were split on Saturday over Sudan's bid to head the African Union, a move that could scuttle the organization's peace efforts in Sudan's western Darfur region and damage Africa's drive to improve its image.

Sudan is hosting a two-day African Union summit starting Monday, and by tradition the host takes over the chairmanship. Critics say the move would undermine the union's efforts to end the conflict in Darfur, where African Union troops are monitoring a cease-fire. Sudan has also been criticized for human rights abuses.

Sudan says it has support from countries in East and North Africa. But diplomats said countries in Southern, Central and Western Africa were working behind the scenes to encourage Sudan to withdraw its bid.

"West African countries are going to ask Sudan to withdraw its candidacy," said a West African government official on condition of anonymity. "Southern Africa is also against it."

An official from Central Africa said his region was pushing for a candidate less divisive than Sudan, the only country that has put itself forward for the position. Another official said that Nigeria, the current chair, was the main alternative, but central African states would field a candidate, probably the Congo Republic, if there were deadlock. Both officials also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sudan had kept a low profile on its bid in the run-up to the summit but has embarked on a diplomatic offensive since preparatory meetings began, flooding state-owned media with messages of support for President Omar Hassan Bashir.

"We are the only country that has nominated itself so far," Foreign Minister Lam Akol said. "We have canvassed enough votes. So there is no reason to withdraw."

The 53-member African Union, set up in 2002 to encourage democracy, development and human rights on the continent, has won praise for sending peacekeepers to the Darfur region and promoting better governance through a peer review system of African countries.

Analysts say this could be undone if Sudan is chosen as head when a 7,000-member force is monitoring a shaky cease-fire in Darfur and when the government faces widespread criticism for its handling of the conflict there. The conflict in Darfur, between African rebels and a pro-government Arab militia called the Janjaweed, has left tens of thousands of people dead and uprooted more than 2 million others.

The United States, which has pressured Sudan to end the fighting in Darfur, said there would be "certain contradictions" if Sudan were chosen when the A.U. force was trying to protect Sudanese citizens "in part from the government of Sudan."

Darfur's two main rebel groups have said they would stop participating in the peace talks if Sudan becomes chair, though Sudanese officials have said Nigeria would continue to host the talks even if it were no longer chair.

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