ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia // Outgoing African Union chairman Thomas Boni Yayi told African leaders yesterday their response to the conflict in Mali had been too slow, and thanked France for taking the lead in its military intervention in the country.
Boni Yayi, Benin's president, told leaders at the opening of the 54-member African Union's (AU) summit that the body's response had taken too long, and that France's action was something "we should have done a long time ago to defend a member country".
Conflict in Mali, including the building up of African troops to support the weak Malian army battling Islamist militants, dominated the opening of the two-day summit, although flashpoints elsewhere on the continent were also a concern.
"Much still needs to be done to resolve continuing, renewed, and new conflict situations in a number of countries," AU commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in her opening speech at the biannual meeting.
Unrest in eastern Democractic Republic of Congo, tensions between former civil war foes Sudan and newly independent South Sudan, and efforts to build peace in chronically unstable Somalia will also be discussed.
"We cannot overemphasise the need for peace and security — without peace and security no country or region can expect to achieve prosperity for all its citizens," Ms Dlamini-Zuma added.
Mali's army, boosted by the recent French military intervention, is battling Islamist insurgents who seized swathes of Mali's desert north following a coup last year.
United Nations leader Ban Ki-moon told the summit he was "determined to do everything to help the people of Mali", but also urged the government to ensure "an inclusive political process" and the "full restoration of the constitutional order".
The 20th summit, which continues today, opened with a minute's silence in memory of the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi and Ghanaian president John Atta Mills, who died last year.
Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who took over yesterday from Boni Yayi in the rotating one-year post of AU chairperson, called for "peaceful solutions" to conflict.
The AU has said it wants to bolster the strength of the African-led force in Mali, or AFISMA. On Friday, its security council gave member states one week to commit troops to the mission.
Also high on the summit agenda is the slow progress between the rival leaders of Sudan and South Sudan to implement stalled oil, security and border deals, signed in September but still not rolled out.
South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, and his northern counterpart Omar Al Bashir met Friday for face-to-face talks ahead of the summit, but little progress was made.
Mr Ban said he was "especially concerned about the dangerous humanitarian situation" in Sudan's war-torn border regions, where rebels Khartoum allege are backed by South Sudan are battling the government.
"I call on the authorities in Sudan and South Sudan to immediately begin direct talks to allow urgently needed humanitarian assistance to reach affected civilians," he said.
Leaders are also expected to discuss recent unrest in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where M23 rebels last year took over the key town of Goma before pulling out.
They have since agreed to negotiations with the Congolese government, but the talks have been dragging.
Ban, who said the UN peacekeeping force would be bolstered in eastern DR Congo, urged regional leaders to sign an agreement aimed to "address the root causes of recurring violence" in the volatile and mineral-rich region.
The AU summit, officially themed "Pan Africanism and African Renaissance", kicks off the 50th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor to the AU.