Africa faces a serious threat from al-Qaeda and its allies trying to set up a sanctuary in northern Mali, African leaders said on Saturday. The leaders meeting at the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa are seeking to resolve messy aftermaths of military coups this year in Mali and Guinea-Bissau.
They are also seeking to reconcile feuding neighbours Sudan and South Sudan after the latter's independence last year split what used to be Sub-Saharan Africa's largest country.
But one factor distracting the African heads of state from the continent's serious security and development challenges is a bruising contest over who should head the AU Commission, which steers the regional diplomatic body.
The standoff, which has broadly split Africa's French- and English-speaking blocs into two camps, pits South African Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma against incumbent Jean Ping from Gabon and risks dominating the weekend summit in Addis Ababa.
At a meeting of the AU's Peace and Security Council one Saturday, the presidents worked to flesh out a plan to deal with Mali, where al Qaeda-linked local and foreign jihadists have seized control of the largely desert north after hijacking a rebellion by secular Tuareg separatists earlier this year.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, chairing the security council, condemned what he called "the intention of terrorist groups to create a sanctuary in northern Mali".
Denouncing alleged links between al-Qaeda in the Sahel region and other violent radical Islamist groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia, Ouattara said this posed "a serious threat to regional security".
African leaders are seeking UN Security Council support for military intervention in Mali to end the rebellion in the north and reunite the Sahel state, which was split after a 22 March military coup in the capital of Bamako.
The Security Council has endorsed West African efforts to end the unrest in Mali but has stopped short of backing a military operation until African leaders can clearly spell out its objectives and how it would be carried out.
"For the moment, nothing is ready," one European diplomat, who follows the region closely, said.
Urging the AU to urgently develop a clear strategy for Mali, AU commission chief Ping called it "one of the most serious crises to confront the continent".