A two-day summit of African and European leaders kicks off in Brussels on Wednesday amidst a row over visas and allegations of selective invitations.
President Jacob Zuma of South Africa will miss the summit and send a ministerial delegation instead, to protest against the selective invitation extended to African countries by the European Union.
“I think that time must pass wherein we are looked as subjects, we are told who must come, who must not come, we have not attempted to decide when we meet Europe; who must come and who must not come,” the South African public broadcaster SABC quoted President Zuma as saying.
“It is wrong and causes this unnecessary unpleasantness. I thought the AU and EU are equal organisations representing two continents but there is not a single one of them who must decide for others.”
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe led the call for a boycott after his wife Grace was denied a visa, although his own travel ban to the EU had been relaxed to allow him attend the summit.
The controversy, however, is wider that the case of Zimbabwe, drawing in the omission of some African leaders, and points to some of the points of tension between the two blocs.
Sudan, whose President Omar el Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court and was not invited to the summit, has accused the EU of trying to divide the continent by selectively inviting some countries and not others.
Also not invited to the summit is Eritrea because of its human rights and undemocratic record, as well as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. However, although Morocco pulled out of the African Union after Saharawi invaded part of its territory, it was invited to the summit together with Egypt which was suspended from the AU after the military coup that toppled elected President Mohammed Morsi.
“The invitation of this summit to the African leaders was selective and in doing this the European Union is trying to divide the African Union,” the Sudanese foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.
Officials in Brussels said more than 40 African heads of state had confirmed their participation by the weekend, together with 22 from the EU.
The invitation to Egypt is likely to raise questions after the two blocs agreed during their last summit in Tripoli in 2000 to condemn coups and unconstitutional means of regime change in Africa.
In October 2013 the AU passed a resolution calling for immunity for sitting African leaders from prosecution at the ICC, against the opposition of many EU member states which back the court based in The Hague, Netherlands.
Although the matter is not listed on the agenda, it could come up on Wednesday afternoon when the leaders discuss peace and security.
While the European Union remains a key trade, aid and political ally, the bullish attitude of African leaders reflects a growing geopolitical leaning towards eastern countries -- in particular China and to a lesser extent, Russia and India -- that are less inclined to intervene in domestic political matters.