The head of the African Union lamented his continent’s image as a place of “doom and gloom” at a summit of African leaders that opened Thursday in a city that suffers no such image problem: sunny Cannes on the French Riviera.
The crisis in Darfur and violence in Guinea overshadowed the summit, as well as perennial issues of poverty, development and AIDS.
French President Jacques Chirac recited a list of challenges that lie ahead for Africa and the international community, not least how to tap but not squander its natural resources — most recently being sought after by China, India and others.
Not just a place of ‘doom and gloom’
“Africa is rich, but Africans are not. The continent holds one-third of the planet’s mineral reserves. It is a treasure trove. But it must be neither pillaged nor sold off cheaply,” Chirac said.
But the African Union’s chairman, Ghana President John Kufuor, said “the time has come” for foreign media “to desist from painting our continent with one brush as a place of doom and gloom just because there are conflicts in some parts.”
African economic growth, he noted, is averaging around six percent and “compared with some decades ago, the majority of African leaders are democratically elected.” He issued a reminder that Africa wants at least two permanent seats on an enlarged U.N. Security Council — now the exclusive domain of Western powers, Russia and China.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a first-time participant at the France-Africa summits held every two years, talked about her own experience in growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the former East Germany to argue that freedom and democracy can spread across Africa as they did across former Soviet bloc countries.
“This will require your efforts, your will,” she said to the nearly 40 African heads of state and government arrayed behind her.
Before the summit, France also held a conference in Paris this week to advertise African success stories — people such as media entrepreneur Daniel David from Mozambique, who set up a private TV station but said that he struggles to find funding to expand.
Kufuor said “Africa can no longer be described as a lost continent” and that reporters should concentrate on “positive developments” in the fields of human rights and “in the management of our economic affairs.”
“Reports of corruption, crime, civil wars and even weather in Africa should not be presented in the media as if they were inherently African and exclusive to our continent, since they occur everywhere,” he said.
Darfur, Guinea crises discussed on the side
Darfur was to be discussed on the summit sidelines by the leaders of Sudan, Central African Republic and Chad. Chirac said the crisis is a humanitarian disaster that threatens the entire region and he urged Sudan to accept peacekeepers.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has resisted U.N. efforts to deploy 22,000 peacekeepers in Darfur, where his regime is accused of masterminding a brutal counterinsurgency against the region’s ethnic African tribes.
More than 200,000 people have died in the fighting that U.S. officials have described as genocide, and instability has spilled over into Central African Republic and Chad.
Guinea was discussed at a dinner of African leaders that Chirac hosted Wednesday night. Rioting and clashes between protesters and security forces led President Lansana Conte to declare martial law Monday. A Guinea human rights group said at least 64 people have been killed since the weekend.
Kufuor described the situation as “ominous” and offered Guinea the AU’s “ready cooperation and assistance for a quick resolution.”
New era expected post-Chirac
The African summit is expected to be Chirac’s last, and a new era in relations is on the horizon after French presidential elections this spring. The two leading candidates to succeed Chirac have both made clear they want reform of relations with the continent where France’s traditional influence as a former colonial power is under threat from resource-hungry China.
Change seems inevitable, since neither Segolene Royal nor Nicolas Sarkozy have the depth of contacts and personal friendships in Africa that Chirac built up over more than 40 years in politics, the last 12 as a president who worked to put African development on international agendas.
Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore said Chirac would be missed.
“For a long time, he has been our international advocate on debt, development, the environment. He is a character who will stay in our hearts for a long time,” he said.