Islamic fighters stand guard at the entrance of the Gao hospital in Mali
Islamic fighters stand guard at the entrance of the Gao hospital in Mali in July 2012. © Issouf Sanogo - AFP/File
Islamic fighters stand guard at the entrance of the Gao hospital in Mali
Joseph Hammond
Last updated: February 22, 2013

Africa plays big role at Islamic Summit

Presidents, prime ministers, kings and sultans met in Cairo last week to attend the 12th Session of the Islamic Summit. The summit is held every three years between the members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) – the second largest intergovernmental organisation after the United Nations.

Despite being the Arab world’s most populous country, Egypt had never previously hosted the Islamic Summit. And the conference was given further historic resonance thanks to the attendance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Cairo’s first summit covered a range of issues and saw discussions on a number of topics important to OIC members, including those from Africa – from the crisis in Mali to the funding of future development programmes.

Addressing an African agenda

The OIC membership is divided into three loose blocs: Arab, Asian and African. Of these, the African bloc has traditionally been the most unified.

At this year’s summit, one of the main focuses of the African bloc was development issues. Development is particularly pressing given that 20 of the OIC's member-states have a per capita income of less than $500, and a fifth of children in some 16 OIC countries are malnourished.

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, speaking on behalf of the African bloc, gave support for “an increase in the authorized capital of the Islamic Development Bank from its present $30 billion to about $50 billion”. Meanwhile the final version of the summit’s communiqué included a section in which Sudan praised Qatar for proposing the establishment of the Darfur Development Bank “and its offer to support the efforts exerted to establish the Bank and to contribute to its capital”.

In other African-related issues covered, the final communiqué confirmed “full solidarity with the Republic of Djibouti in its territorial dispute with Eritrea”. The delegates from Djibouti were some of the most active at the OIC Summit and circulated a fresh report looking at global Islamophobia.

The OIC’s increased emphasis on Africa is in no small part the legacy of outgoing secretary-general, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu of Turkey. During his tenure, the OIC significantly broadened its efforts vis-a-vis Africa, the most public demonstration of this was perhaps being İhsanoğlu’s historic visit to Somalia in 2012.

“İhsanoğlu has been a true friend of Africa during his time as head of the OIC”, Ali Omar, a Somali diplomat based in Cairo, explained. “He was not only the first sitting secretary-general of the OIC to visit Somalia, but his visit was one of the most important for the country in the last 23 years.”

In his final address of the summit, Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi announced that Iyad Madani, the former Saudi minister of culture and information will become the new OIC chief in 2013.

Unprecedented Persian presence

This summit also served as a convenient pretext for Iran’s President Ahmadinejad’s historic first visit to Cairo. Iranian-Egyptian relations were icy during the 30 years of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, and no Iranian leader has visited Cairo since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Perhaps for this reason Ahmadinejad was by far the most talked about personality at the conference and his comings and goings through the Fairmont Hotel resembled the appearances of a rock star. “After the Mubarak years, seeing Iranians and Ahmadinejad in Cairo is like seeing visitors from Mars”, commented an Egyptian journalist, who couldn’t help but pose for a photo with the Iranian leader during one of his many passages through the hotel’s lobby.

And Iran seemed determined to get the most out its participation. “Ours is a large delegation, but the Iranians might have the largest delegation here – they have 40-50 people”, a Turkish diplomat commented, noting a large group of Iranian diplomats and their assistants pass by.

Similarly, an official with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry observed, “The Iranians have been one of the most active groups at this conference. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement Summit are traditionally where the Iranians try to take centre stage. This summit comes at the perfect moment for Iran, which seeks to build a new relationship with Egypt’s new government.”

This approach bore some fruit, with the size of the Iranian delegation allowing for multiple bilateral meetings during the summit. One of these resulted in a significant bilateral breakthrough with Senegal agreeing to resume diplomatic ties with Iran following their rupture in 2011. However, at the time, Senegal still accused Iran of selling arms to Senegalese rebels. The Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers also conducted a bilateral meeting in preparation for the Summit. Turkey's Ahmet Davutoğlu greeted one Iranian diplomat with "How are you brother?" as he emerged all smiles from a meeting with his Iranian counterpart.

Mali: the African elephant in the room

Though Iranian-Egyptian relations still have a long way to go, one issue the two powers found themselves in close alignment on was Mali. Amongst other things, the OIC agreed to establish a ministerial level contact group to monitor the situation in Mali.

"We support a solution to the Mali crisis based on improvement of general security in Mali”, Hamid Baeidinejad, Director-General at the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs  and part of the OIC delegation, told Think Africa Press“All parties to the conflict should sit together after this intervention, including both the West and (West African regional bloc) ECOWAS, to find a lasting solution to the source of conflict."

On the sidelines, the West African diplomats at the summit grumbled that certain Arab countries had initially opposed the use of the term “terrorists” to describe the Malian rebels, though the term was used in the final communiqué. Indeed, the first operative of the ‘Declaration on The Situation in Mali’ reads:

“We firmly condemn the acts of diverse terrorist groups and movements as well as the transnational organized crime and drug trafficking networks which constitute a real threat to the security and stability of Mali.”

Another aspect of the Mali conflict discussed by the Islamic Summit was the destruction of religious sites by militant groups. The King of Morocco, Muhammad VI, noted how the groups had “destroyed symbols of cultural heritage of (Mali), especially in Timbuktu, the spiritual capital of Mali, in an attempt to impose their obscurantist ideology”.

Consequently, the summit’s resolution on Mali also condemned “the destruction of cultural sites in Timbuktu especially those classified by UNESCO as world cultural heritage”, and called for more OIC involvement in their preservation.

A week after the summit, the region has yet to truly gauge the significance of the political wrangling that took place publicly and behind the scenes in Cairo. Nevertheless, given the range of topics discussed and debated with some progress, the 12th Islamic Summit seems to carry much promise for the future of Islam in Africa, and its wider links to the Islamic world.

The author can be reach here via twitter. A version of this article originally appeared on Think Africa Press.

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