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New African Union chair brings controversial record to top post

#African #Union #chair #brings #controversial #record #top #post

Azali Assoumani, who took over as African Union chair for the next 12 months, loves power and has not hesitated to throw opponents in jail or change the law to remain in control.

The 64-year-old leader of the small Indian Ocean archipelago of the Comoros, with less than a million people, succeeds Senegal’s Macky Sall for the rotating leadership of the continental body.

Assoumani is listed among  a dozen sub-Saharan African leaders who have sought to extend their time in office through constitutional change in recent decades.

A former army chief-of-staff, colonel Assoumani initially came to power in a coup in 1999, in one of the many military takeovers that have rocked the islands since independence from France in 1975.

In 2002 he won the presidential election for the Union of Comoros, which is made up of three semi-autonomous islands, each with its own separate president.

He had reluctantly handed over to civilians in 2006, under a new constitution that establishes a rotating presidency between the three islands of the Union – Grande-Comore, Anjouan and Moheli. 

He then retired into farming before returning to politics and winning re-election in 2016 in a vote marred by violence and allegations of irregularities.

Leaving power “was a mistake” and not to be repeated, Assoumani once told a diplomat in the capital Moroni. 

In 2019 he staged another round of polls after persuading Comorans to vote in a controversial referendum to support the extension of presidential mandates from one five-year term to two, rotating among the three islands.

The change shocked a fragile balance of power established in 2001 that sought to end separatist crises on Anjouan and Moheli and halt the endless cycle of coups.

He then won the 2019 polls with nearly 60 percent of the votes cast, an outcome rejected by the opposition, as well as many observers.

Since then critics have accused Assoumani of creeping authoritarianism.

Two months ago his arch-rival and predecessor ex-president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, was handed a life sentence for high treason for selling passports to stateless people living in the Gulf.

A lawyer and rival in the last presidential vote Mahamoudou Ahamada sees the ascension to the honorary chairmanship of the AU as “a failure for the continental organisation”. 

“Only African dictators who do not care about their respective populations can be delighted with this appointment,” he said, accusing Assoumani of suppressing dissent and “violation of human rights in general”.

But Assoumani’s diplomatic adviser Hamada Madi said Comoros’s new role was “magnificent”.

“It is clear that a country like ours, which is an island with less than 900,000 souls, can have the confidence of all the other 54 (African) countries, even larger ones,” Madi, told AFP. “This is simply magnificent”.

Born on January 1, 1959, Assoumani trained at the Royal Moroccan Military Academy in Meknes and the Ecole de Guerre in Paris.

He is married and has four children.

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