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Behind the scenes at the African Union summit

Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese President, was standing just a metre away from me. I thought of asking him if I could have a picture taken with him. I wanted to show the photo to my neighbours in Khartoum. But then I thought about my friend Huda who had just quit her job with the Sudanese government.

Huda doesn’t like the way things are unfolding in Sudan; like many of us, she wishes it would all just get better. I decided not to take the picture with al-Bashir because Huda would be disappointed with me for doing so. How would I be able to visit her family and have dinner with them at the very table where Huda and I debated the merits on making sacrifices for career advancement?

“But I can’t work with them,” were her emotive words that ended our debate.

Al-Bashir was standing on the steps of the African Union conference hall in Addis Ababa. He had a security guard with him but a relaxed atmosphere prevailed. Ironically, this moment reminded me of the openness of the Sudanese culture; the warmth and trust between the ordinary citizens I’ve befriended. I was the only photographer who had followed al-Bashir out of the AU conference hall, all the way down two flights of stairs and then to the steps where he was waiting for his shiny wheels. The car arrived and he was driven away.

The week of covering the AU summit — an annual get-together of talks between African heads of state — included countless close-up moments with the people who have affected the lives of millions on this continent. Some leaders are respected, others cursed, and then there are a few who should not have been in leadership positions to begin with.

The AU executive council met first, on January 28 on 29, at the AU conference hall where the media could walk around and photograph these leaders without restraint. A series of meetings went on behind closed doors. Journalists hurried for comment and photos once the doors opened. But the real action started with the assembly of heads of states and governments at the United Nations conference hall from January 31 until the closing ceremony on February 3. Again, it was all access to these leaders as they entered and exited the venue.

There was — again, up close — President Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe. He was sleeping during the opening-ceremony speeches, but widened his eyes when he heard the clicking of my camera. Libya’s President Moammar Gadaffi made such a lengthy speech during the closing ceremony that I began to feel terribly self-conscious while standing alone in the front of the hall to get pictures of this man. It was strange, almost, to spend what seemed like a week in the presence of these human beings who have been elected heads of state in Africa.

After the talks, the leaders would emerge and the cameras would follow them. Journalists would stop them for comment and some presidents would oblige while others would move along swiftly, security guards in place to ensure their firm steps remained undisturbed. I found ministers and all sorts of characters from various countries asking me to take photos of them with presidents.

I also spotted Hafida, the interpreter for Algeria’s President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, whom I met when they visited Robben Island a few years ago. She was still as elegant as back then and suggested we take some photos together. Then she also requested photos with some others from the Algerian delegation.

Oh, and then there were the two American journalists who asked me for copies of the photos of them interviewing Gadaffi when he was swarmed by cameras after one of the sessions at the UN hall. The whole atmosphere was dense with story ideas. So many things to write about!

Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy to Darfur, Jan Elliason, held a press conference to talk about the conflicted region in Sudan. That’s all they did, though: talk. There was nothing new and tangible to report. More interesting was meeting a female delegation from Darfur who said they wanted to be part of the Darfur peace process. Their determined efforts in what seems a male-dominated conflict felt inspiring. Joining them to meet African leaders was the young hip-hop star Emmanual Jal, a former war soldier from the south of Sudan, who told me about a movie documenting his life that will be released at the Berlin Film Festival this year. He’s also dropping his latest album, War Child, this May.

Jal commented that when he was trained as a child soldier by the southern Sudanese rebel group, all he wanted to do “was kill as many Arabs as possible”. That changed. He’s recorded an album, Ceasefire, with legendary northern Sudanese singer Abdel Gadir Salim to advance peace efforts between north and south Sudan.

I also tried relentlessly getting the scoop on the South African delegation. Was there any news on the Zimbabwe report that President Thabo Mbeki presented to the SADC heads of state? What was the news on the post-conflict reconstruction meeting in Sudan that South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, had chaired? The press spokespersons weren’t that much help, though. “Speak to so-and-so,” was their refrain.

But still, I wanted to know, was South Africa planning — as rumours in the conference-hall corridors suggested — to be elected to chair the AU commission? Three candidates for the latter had pulled out of the running in the week of meetings and only Gabon and Zambia remained. Words from fast-talking tongues revealed that the voting would be delayed because South Africa or Egypt was interested in the chairperson’s seat. But that was not the case — Gabon’s Prime Minister Jean Ping, said to be a product of France and half-Chinese, filled the seat. Zambia’s ambassador to the US was not the favourite. Who knows what was really happening behind the scenes?

Another unfortunate incident reminded me of the crazy world in which we’re living. A Zimbabwean journalist received threats from the official delegation from her country after she had interviewed a young male compatriot who dared to claim that their country would one day be free. For three days this woman was worried about the safety of her family back home. This is the Africa that we’re also living in; a continent where countless presidents have claimed power through military force and stay in power by the gun. How do we even begin to think of unity in these lands?

This is the reason why one of the main agendas at the summit — Africa’s proposed union government, resembling the European Union and spearheaded predominantly by Gadaffi — is still a far way off. The conference theme, Africa’s industrialisation, fortunately got a balanced perspective when former AU commission chairperson Alpha Oumar Konare stated that “Africa has less than 10% of oil and gas resources of the world”.

“If we don’t have a strategy, we will exhaust our reserves. We need to realise our continent has energy problems to face. If Africa had the same level of consumption as others we’d be importing [resources] … oil and gas would be exhausted,” said Konare.

By the time all the talks ended, Africa was still burning. The host country, Ethiopia, remains on lukewarm terms with its neighbour Eritrea. And its other neighbours, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan, are still unsettled in various parts due to internal conflict. Chad’s capital city was meanwhile also under siege by anti-government gunmen.

This annual summit that takes place in Addis Ababa, with its people proud to have never been colonised, seems not to have had much effect on real lives. But we’ll see how things look next year this time when our leaders gather for yet more talks.

At the closing ceremony, I spotted South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki and asked if I could have a photo with him. He smiled broadly and agreed. I thought about the many people who have said that he’s not a worthy leader, the people who condemn him for not taking concrete action on HIV/Aids and those who have made him seem — what’s that adjective? — aloof. But then I thought about my mother who admires this guy. She thinks he’s intelligent and smart.

I had talked to him earlier in the week, inside the African Union conference hall. He seemed friendly. So when I shook his hand inside the United Nations conference hall, I told him that it was good to meet him. He urged me to look at the camera. We shook hands, smiled and the camera clicked.

“Travel safely,” I said to the only president with whom I decided to take a picture that week as we parted ways.