By Nick Tattersall
Khartoum - African nations were split on Saturday about Khartoum's bid to head the African Union, a move which could scuttle peace talks in Sudan's Darfur region and damage Africa's efforts to improve its image abroad.
Khartoum, which is under fire for human rights abuses, is hosting a two-day AU summit starting on Monday. Sudan is seeking to take over from Nigeria as chairperson, based on a tradition that the summit host becomes the next head.
Sudan says it has East Africa's backing in the AU, where nations tend to work in blocs. But diplomats said southern, central and western African states were still undecided.
Sudan wants to take over from Nigeria as chairperson
"This risks dividing Africa," said one West African government official, asking not to be named. "One of the options that the regional bodies could propose to the heads of state is asking Sudan to withdraw its candidature."
Sudan is the only country to have nominated itself for the position so far and a Sudanese official said his government would not withdraw.
"Sudan is definitely going to win the support of the African heads of state," Ali Tamim Fartak, Sudanese presidential adviser, said.
But diplomats said another candidate could emerge or a decision could be deferred, leaving Nigeria to continue as head.
The 53-nation AU, set up in 2002 to encourage democracy, development and human rights across Africa, has won plaudits for sending peacekeepers to Darfur and promoting better governance through a peer review system of African countries.
'This risks dividing Africa'
Analysts say this good work could be undone by choosing Sudan as head when a 7 000-strong AU force is monitoring a shaky ceasefire in Darfur and when the government faces widespread criticism for its handling of the conflict there.
One southern African diplomat said his country was against Sudan's bid, but would vote with whatever the southern bloc decided. "These consultations will be held at the level of the heads of state," he said.
The United States, which has put pressure on Sudan to end fighting in Darfur, said there would be "certain contradictions" if Sudan was chosen when the AU force was trying to protect Sudanese citizens "in part from the government of Sudan".
Darfur's two main rebel groups have said they would quit AU-sponsored peace talks in Abuja if Sudan becomes head, although Sudan says Nigeria would still host the talks even if it was no longer chairing the AU.
One official said the AU presidency was supposed to be chosen by a vote, but Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States, said heads of state should reach a consensus to avoid a split.
"We don't think that this issue should be allowed to divide Africa," he said.