|Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON|
The gathering will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor.
"This has not come from the commission, this has come from the member states themselves.... We are implementing what we have been asked, which is very reasonable in our view," Ms Dlamini-Zuma said during a press conference in Addis Ababa.
Konjit Sinegiorgis, Ethiopian ambassador to the AU and chairman of the AU Council of Permanent Representatives, confirmed that the decision had been taken at the extraordinary session of the council of ministers at the beginning of April, as first reported by Business Day last week.
"Closed sessions are closed sessions. We decide which ones are closed. And if you are not going to be participating in the discussion, why be here?" Ms Dlamini-Zuma asked, adding that she did not understand why it had become an issue.
Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are concerned about being locked out when critical discussions on Vision 2063 — a blueprint for the continent’s development over the next 50 years — are due to take place.
"Civil society should have as much access as possible to the discussions of our political leaders on the future of our continent," Winnie Byanyima, the new executive director of Oxfam International, told Business Day. "Doing otherwise will send a wrong signal, symbolically, that the African Union is closing space to civil society. That is not a signal that I think the member states want to send to African people."
A number of civil society organisations are organising a press conference, scheduled for Wednesday, to express their worries and frustration about their exclusion from this important meeting.
Some foreign diplomats, many of whose governments provide critical financial and other support to the AU, are also unhappy about being shut out of the AU’s premises during the summit, which usually provides an occasion for important bilateral meetings between the continent’s leaders and high-level officials from non-African states.
Ms Dlamini Zuma told Business Day that the decision to exclude civil society and non-AU observers was intended to put an end to fringe meetings which it is felt distract leaders and ministers from the summit agenda. "We have to be allowed to do our work in an efficient way," she said, citing the European Union, which does not allow any observers at its meetings, in defence of the AU’s new policy.
There is some sympathy for this position but the decision for a blanket ban is considered to have been too extreme.
Despite Ms Dlamini Zuma’s assertion that "there is no confusion" there is a lack of clarity as to who will be able to attend the summit and when.
Senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, Solomon Dersso, said he met Ethiopian foreign affairs officials involved in the summit’s accreditation process on Saturday. He had been assured that the while the executive council meetings would be closed, non-AU members would be allowed into the conference centre during the deliberations of the assembly.
In an e-mailed response to Business Day on Friday, AU information and communication director Habiba Mejri-Cheikh said: "The AU didn’t introduce any change from the usual procedure. NGOs and partners, as well as media are welcome and will be allowed access as usually (sic)."
According to Mr Dersso, lack of clarity was due to a lack of communication and organisation. There were a number of different players in the accreditation process, but no "single clear line of communication".