KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda had been ready to host the African Union summit for months before three bombs sent ball-bearings flying through two bars in its capital, killing 73 people watching the World Cup final.
Now, less than two weeks later, more than 30 African heads of state will gather for their bi-annual meeting and some will sleep just minutes from where Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels launched their first attacks on foreign soil.
The festering Somali conflict has featured on African Union summit agendas for years, but analysts say the difference this time is that the assembled leaders feel pressure to act — now the violence has exploded beyond Somalia’s borders.
“It’s all Somalia,” a senior AU diplomat told Reuters. “Uganda has been attacked, Burundi is threatened, Ethiopia is threatened, the whole region is threatened. And the world’s eyes are on Somalia now.”
Somalia’s near powerless Western-backed government is hemmed into a few streets of its capital Mogadishu by al Shabaab and another Islamist militia. The insurgent groups control much of southern and central Somalia, bordering Kenya and Ethiopia.
The Somali government’s reliance on 6,300 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi to survive was the reason Kampala was targeted by suspected suicide bombers.
East African regional bloc IGAD last month pledged to send another 2,000 troops “immediately” to bolster the AU mission. It is unclear which country will contribute the soldiers.
There have also been calls in the region for the force mandate to be widened so they can go on the offensive against the insurgents, rather than just responding when attacked.
Defence chiefs from the IGAD countries — Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti — met in Addis Ababa on Wednesday to discuss which countries would send the troops.
Some analysts say, however, a deployment of neighbouring countries’ forces could backfire.
“Kenya and Ethiopia are reluctant to send troops because they have been told by the international community that it will be a kiss of death,” the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa director, Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, told Reuters.
“A regional occupation of Somalia will play into the hands of al Shabaab because Somalis will rally around them in response to that type of occupation,” he said.
Ministers of defence at the IGAD meeting seemed stressed, marching in and out of the meeting room for tense-looking cigarette breaks, and shouting at waiting journalists to leave the hotel where the talks were taking place.
“They were quiet because what they’ve decided today needs to be announced at the Kampala summit so the heads of state look busy,” one diplomat told Reuters.
Other entrenched conflicts such as in Sudan’s Darfur region and the east of Democratic Republic of the Congo are also likely to overshadow the summit theme of maternal and child health.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is expected to make his usual showboating entrance and has got his pet “United States of Africa” project on the agenda.
Gaddafi says a politically united Africa is the only way to stop Western countries interfering in the internal affairs of the world’s poorest continent and has used his position as one of the AU’s biggest funders to get it on the discussion table.
But other countries, led by South Africa, argue the plan is impractical and would infringe on the sovereignty of member states.