At the 31st AU Summit

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Much like the continental body’s ambitions to silence Africa’s guns by 2020, having a summit in the At the 31st AU Summit Nouakchott (population one million) was an ambitious, almost impossible feat.

Six weeks before the June 25 start date, the grand conference centre was a mere foundation, and the hotels on offer seemed frighteningly inadequate.

But the summit did happen, even though it felt a bit like driving on a road while it was still being paved.

Plug points in the building were still wrapped in masking tape, the second floor toilets hadn’t been finished yet and some building dust and scraps of rubble still lay about on the floors. Even the headsets provided for the interpretation of speeches in at least four different languages were fresh out of the box.

In fact, outside the complex, a detour to the airport from the conference centre was hastily constructed and tarred in a mere day, hours before the first head of state touched down at the Nouakchott-Omtounsy International Airport, about five kilometres from there. The conference centre itself is about 20km out of town in lieu of planned development of the city that way (which one day could be fuelled by offshore oil and gas currently being explored by BP).

The distance, however, made logistics a bit tough. For one, the accreditation badges for the summit were being distributed by officials who were supposed to have been meeting delegates at the airport before some flights were delayed and before the badge production process experienced hiccups and crashes. So instead, these officials waited around in the conference centre with the badges while security stopped all those unaccredited, 300 metres before the conference centre. Many a badge was therefore handed out by the side of the road, right there in the desert sun and sand.

Also, one of the interpreters said she spent a large chunk of her daily subsistence allowance – about $50 – for a taxi to the conference centre. (Summit inflation is real.) Fortunately the organisers later laid on buses for the lowly officials (and journalists) who did not have one of the shiny accredited cars which drove like emergency vehicles through Nouakchott’s scant traffic, which helped a lot.

Accommodation worked as a great equaliser, however. Heads of states were assigned the villas their rich owners volunteered to the government for the summit (the villas on the beach near the conference centre were not finished on time), but with no Sheraton or Radisson Blu in town, ministers and ambassadors ended up staying in the equivalent of a two- or three-star hotel. There were also stories of journalists pitching up to non-existent hotels they booked online, and another lowly official said she was made to pay her total bill upfront, in cash, before being allowed to check in.

A Guest Editorial