BACKGROUNDER

African Union COMMISSION IN A STALEMATE

Babjee Pothuraju is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 06, 2012

    The African Union (AU) is meeting for its 19th Summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa between 9 and 16 July 2012. One of the issues on the agenda is the election of the Chairperson and other office bearers of the African Union Commission (AUC). The AUC is the Secretariat of the AU, entrusted with executive functions. It is headed by a Chairperson, who is assisted by a deputy chairperson and eight commissioners selected region-wise for different portfolios.1 Till now, the Chairperson had been elected on the basis of consensus among the member states. However, the election of the Chairperson became an issue during the 18th Summit in January 2012, when the current incumbent, Dr. Jean Ping of Gabon, could not secure enough votes (two-thirds of the total votes polled as required by the AU Rules of Procedure) to ensure his re-election for another four-year term. He secured an absolute majority in the first three rounds against his opponent—Ms. Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma, the Interior Minister of South Africa. 2 Even in the fourth round, in which he contested alone after Dlamini-Zuma withdrew following her loss in the previous round, Ping could not secure the required majority as those who supported South Africa did not vote in his favour. 3

    Following the deadlock, an eight-member Ad Hoc Committee of Heads of State and Government (Committee of Eight) was formed under the chairmanship of the President of Benin, Thomas Yayi Boni, to work out possible solutions. 4 The committee met in Cotonou, Benin first on March 17, 2012 and again on May 14, 2012 but could not find a solution. The committee is planning for a final meeting in July 2012 during the summit itself to discuss viable options and suggest the outcome to the summit.

    This ambiguity is the result of acute divisions among the AU member states on the issue of who should head the commission, an institution entrusted with the task of advancing the collective and continental interest in an organised way. The African continent is divided into two blocs of Anglophone and Francophone countries, with each country in the bloc supporting the candidate from its respective bloc. However, some Anglophone countries have been observed to support the candidate of the Francophone bloc on individual grounds. Doubts have also been raised about the influence of the European powers on one hand and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) on the other on the AUC elections; these countries are seen as determined to ensure that their candidate is elected to the commission, which will help in promoting their interests in the AU. In this regard, it is pointed out that BRICS is trying to advance its interest in Africa through South Africa and Dlamini-Zuma, while the European powers are trying to advance the French-EU interests through Jean Ping. This division is seen as a kind of Cold War between the European interests and the interests of the BRICS in terms of having lasting influence over Africa.

    Given these considerations, South Africa strongly pursues the candidature of Dlamini-Zuma, a former Foreign Affairs Minister and also a former wife of President Jacob Zuma on the following grounds. Since the chairmanship of the AUC has never been granted to any Southern African Development Community (SADC) country, it is time to respect the rotational principle, according to which all regions of Africa should be given an opportunity to lead the AU Commission. However, this view has been contested by pointing out that the SADC had the longest term at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Commission, the predecessor of the AUC, when Mr. Salim Ahmed Salim from Tanzania, a founding member of SADC, served as the Secretary General for three consecutive terms.

    South Africa also argues that a majority of the Secretaries General of the OAU Commission and all the three chairpersons of the AUC are mainly from Francophone countries. It adds that since its transformation, the AUC has been headed by a Francophone country only as in the cases of Amara Essy of Cote d'Ivoire, Alpha Omar Konaré of Mali and Jean Ping of Gabon. Hence, it demands that a chance must be given to an Anglophone country to lead the AU commission.

    As the continent is gaining prominence on the global stage in the 21st century, given its natural resources, raw materials, economic growth and huge market, Africa needs strong leadership at the AUC whose primary concern should be protection and promotion of African interests, not succumbing to pressures exerted by external powers. The AUC chairperson should be able to connect Africa with the rest of the world and thus help in giving an international voice to the continent. Every effort should be made to elect a leader who will show such strength and the SADC claims that Dr. Zuma provides this strong link for Africa. It adds that South Africa has these capabilities, given its economic strength and growth consciousness, which can be used in promoting African interests. South Africa also brings forth the issue of gender equality, claiming that Dr. Zuma should be given priority since the commission has never been headed by a woman.

    However, some countries in Africa doubt South Africa’s intentions behind fielding its candidate. They fear that South Africa intends to dominate the commission and in turn use it as a means to control other countries as well as the continent. Allaying these fears, South Africa reiterates that its nomination is driven by the principle of strengthening the AU and improving its functioning and operations by bringing much required reforms to suit current times. It clarifies that Dlamini Zuma cannot pursue the interests of any particular country or region as her work would be guided by the statutes of the AU as well as decisions of AU policy organs. Further, the South African President Jacob Zuma has assured that given a chance his country would serve as a “humble, loyal and disciplined member of the African Union”. 5

    It is obvious that South Africa needs considerable support from the Francophone African countries to win the election as they constitute 25 of the 54 member states. But the Francophone countries, especially the ECOWAS countries, strongly support the candidature of Dr. Jean Ping from the Central African Region. Among them, Nigeria is the strongest supporter of Dr. Ping and has been channelling West African support for his second term. Nigeria is apprehensive about South Africa wanting to consolidate its power and influence over the continent through its position in the AUC.

    There are also claims by Dr. Ping’s supporters (including Kenya and Nigeria) that by fielding its candidate, South Africa violated the “unwritten rule”, which stipulates that none of the Big Five member states (in terms of contribution to the AU budget—Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa) should contest for the chair of the AU commission. South Africa’s explanation that it was not a member of the OAU when these “unwritten rules” were crafted does not satisfy its opponents. Nigeria feels offended not only at the violation of this rule, but also at the way in which it was violated. Nigeria complains that no attempt was made by South Africa to build a consensus before fielding Dr. Dlamini-Zuma for the race. Further, objections have been raised on the aggressive campaign strategy adopted by South Africa and there is a perception that by adopting this aggressive approach, South Africa is trying to project its economic and cultural domination in Africa. 6

    Some countries have strong objections regarding the South African way of pursuing foreign policy goals. It is observed that the foreign policy of South Africa under President Jacob Zuma has been “unclear, inconsistent and is sometimes opposed to the views of other African states”. 7 It is believed that this has undermined the chances for Dr. Dlamini-Zuma as other states doubt her credentials because she herself was a former Foreign Minister.

    Some believe that South Africa has always behaved as a continental powerhouse, impressing upon the Western countries that they cannot ignore South Africa in their dealings with other African states. Therefore, Pretoria’s intention of changing the AU Commission leadership is seen by them as the South African way of undermining the role of smaller African states like Gabon in continental affairs. They warn that this attitude would jeopardise the continued existence of the continental body that has been administered by leaders elected from smaller countries to inculcate a sense of belonging to the continent among these countries. This arrangement has been adopted since the larger countries already play an impressive role in their respective regional bodies as well as in the affairs of the Union. 8

    In addition, Anglophone countries like Kenya are not in favour of the South African candidate as it clashes with their own interests. The African Union operates on the principle that both the chairperson and the deputy chairperson cannot be elected from Anglophone countries. However, the current deputy chairperson, Erustus Mwencha, is from Kenya and is contesting for re-election. The dilemma is that if Kenya supports South Africa, it will forfeit its position of deputy chairperson as both South Africa and Kenya are Anglophone states. Therefore, Kenyan President Kibaki has asserted that his government would continue to lobby support for its candidate.

    On the other hand, there is a strong support base for the candidature of Dr. Ping, which includes the Francophone bloc, ECOWAS and Eastern African states. Even the government of Gabon has announced its unconditional support for the candidature of Dr. Ping, who is a former foreign affairs minister of the country. However, there is also opposition to his candidature on the following grounds. Dr. Ping is criticised for his role in recent conflicts, especially his slow response to the Libyan revolt, for his role in the post-election crisis in Cote d'Ivoire, and developments in Mali and Guinea Bissau. Questions have also been raised about his credentials as some argue that since Dr. Ping could not secure the required majority in any of the four rounds of elections, including the one in which he contested without opposition, he should not contest anymore, giving due respect to the principles of democracy and morality. However, he continues in the race, which raises doubts about his credibility in serving the commission with integrity.

    Under these circumstances, having a clear winner for the AU Commission is a big challenge especially when the decision is being influenced by the interests of some influential African countries. As mentioned earlier, there used to be consensus among the member states regarding the chairperson to ensure that the commission is united in addressing challenges of the continent. However, the current imbroglio has exposed deep divisions among African states, which will undermine the proper and effective functioning of the commission itself. As long as neither side is willing to compromise, another stalemate is predicted at the upcoming AU summit in July 2012.

    • 1. These eight portfolios are peace and security, political affairs, infrastructure and energy, social affairs, human resources, science and technology, trade and industry, rural economy and agriculture, and economic affairs. See, http://www.au.int/en/commission, accessed June 19, 2012.
    • 2. Dr. Ping led the contest by three votes (28 to 25) in the first round, by one vote (27 to 26) in the second round and by five votes (29 to 24) in the third round. “Dlamini-Zuma to vie for AU top job again”, News 24, January 31, 2012, at http://www.news24.com/Africa/News/Dlamini-Zuma-to-vie-for-AU-top-job-aga..., accessed July 3, 2012.
    • 3. The incumbent AUC Chairperson secured 32 votes, 4 votes less than the required 36 votes to qualify for another four years term.
    • 4. The ad-hoc committee is chaired by Benin and comprises South Africa, Algeria, Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon and Chad.
    • 5. Oluwaseun Oluwarotimi (2012), “Nigeria: Govt Backs South Africa's Candidate for AU Elections”, All Africa, May 24, 2012, at http://allafrica.com/stories/201205250085.html, accessed June 19, 2012.
    • 6. The SADC appointed South African Justice Minister Jeffrey Radebe as the special envoy for the campaign and Radebe's team visited Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya to garner support for Dr. Dlamini-Zuma.
    • 7. “South Africa: Competition for the AU Commission Leadership Intensifies”, ACPP Daily Briefings, Institute for Security Studies, May 15, 2012, at http://www.issafrica.org/uploads/15May2012.pdf, accessed July 3, 2012.
    • 8. Alexander Ojo (2012), “Africa: AU Commission Chair - African G8 Unable to Provide Way Forward”, All Africa, May 22, 2012, at http://allafrica.com/stories/201205220080.html, accessed June 19, 2012.
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