The African Union (AU) unanimously agreed Friday to pursue a plan to increase the number of troops along Nigeria's northeastern borders to help fight the spread of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. The deal was negotiated during the organization's annual Heads of State summit, held this year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where leaders also discussed the continent's pressing medical, military, and infrastructure issues.
Robert Mugabe, the controversial 90-year-old president of Zimbabwe, who is banned from the United States due to accusations of rampant human rights abuses and election tampering during his 35-year rule, was appointed the next chairman of the AU during the summit, which gathers leaders from Africa's 54 countries.
While the AU tried to focus on tackling several significant issues — including ongoing conflicts in Libya, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, as well as the recent Ebola crisis in West Africa — Mugabe's appointment became a lightning rod for criticism.
In addition to his alleged role in violence against opposition parties in Zimbabwe and the heavy restrictions placed on freedom of expression and assembly in his country, Mugabe's recent remarks about gender were starkly at odds with the conference's stated theme of empowering women. In 2013, Mugabe described female political opponents as "mere women," and on Thursday he said it's "not possible" for men and women to be equal.
"They get married, they must have babies, they must live at home, that's a problem," he said, elaborating on the remarks during a later interview. "I'm saying it's not possible that women can be at par with men."
When asked about press freedom in his country, which is secured along with freedom of speech by the country's constitution but overshadowed by a 2002 privacy act that requires press outlets and reporters to be approved by the government, he reportedly responded that he would "pray" for journalists.
The current AU chair, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, is set to step down in 2016. Her opening remarks at the conference highlighted Agenda 2063, an AU-backed multinational framework that debuted last September. The plan aims to increase pan-African political solidarity and build support for women and youth. She also acknowledged the need for increased medical infrastructure to better handle threats like Ebola, while praising progress in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, the three countries severely affected by the disease.
"After some initial setbacks, our collective fight against the Ebola virus disease gathered momentum and is showing results," she said, noting a push to increase the number of medical professionals handling the crisis from 800 to 1,000.
On Saturday, Mugabe announced during a closing press conference the creation of an African Center for Disease Control.
Dlamini Zuma described the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed more than 12,000 people and displaced nearly a million others since 2002, as an international issue.
"This is not just a threat to some countries," she said. "It is a threat to the whole continent. It is a global threat that must be met globally, but with Africa in the lead."
The AU's proposal for a military increase to combat the insurgency allows a maximum of 7,500 troops to control national borders near Lake Chad for a year-long trial period.
Troops sourced from Benin and members of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, which includes Nigeria, Chad, and Niger, will operate as a contingency of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF), headquartered in Baga, Nigeria. They will also be equipped to conduct humanitarian assistance for the tens of thousands of displaced Nigerians seeking refuge in these countries.
The plan requires the approval of the United Nations Security Council before it can proceed. Member states are due to meet again in mid-March 2015 to organize fundraising for the operation. Troops may not be deployed until later in the year.
Across the continent from the summit, the 24th in the AU's history, Chadian troops embarked on their first ground mission in Nigeria. A military operation that began Wednesday pushed Boko Haram forces from Malam Fatori, a Nigerian border town in Borno state, one of the areas most crippled by the insurgency's violence.
Earlier Friday, local media and eyewitness reports claimed that Chadian and Cameroonian forces liberated the Nigerian town of Gamboru, located in Borno state near the Cameroonian border. Boko Haram had controlled the city since last August.
Additional reports Saturday claimed that Chadian and Nigerian troops also successfully recaptured other towns in Borno. Some have speculated that the strong coalition military effort was prompted by the recent Boko Haram massacre in Baga.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the assistant secretary for the US Bureau of African Affairs, responded to the AU's troop proposal by offering training and technical assistance to the country's counter-insurgency operations, claiming that Boko Haram's activity in the region is now a focal point for the United States. In November, a Nigerian spokesperson said the country was dissatisfied with US contributions to the fight against the militant group.
Nigeria's presidential spokesman Reuben Abati welcomed the AU's proposal to increase troops in the region, marking a shift away from comments made late last week by Sambo Dasuki, Nigeria's national security adviser. Dasuki brushed off the idea of AU and UN intervention, claiming that, along with its neighbors, Nigeria is capable of successfully fighting the insurgency.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was absent from the AU summit as he prepared for his country's February 14 presidential election. Jonathan is running against Muhammadu Buhari, a retired military general who previously ruled the country from 1983 to 1985, and is expected to prove popular with predominantly Muslim populations in Nigeria's north. The AU announced plans to send more than 50 observers to Nigeria during the election.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon addressed the AU summit Saturday and lauded the focus on Boko Haram.
"The humanitarian consequences [of Boko Haram] are enormous," Ban said, urging the leaders to make the proposed troop deployment "operational."
"We will never forget the girls and boys kidnapped from Chibok last April," he said, referring to the abduction of more than 200 youths from a school in Borno state last April. "And I will never stop calling for their immediate and unconditional release."
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